Crossing Borders: LGBT People in Immigration Detention Are Often Targets for Abuse

a rainbow flag is held in a protest where there's a sign saying "listen to the voice of the minority."

A protest in support of immigration reform during the Hispanic Congressional Caucus gala this October.  Photo by Ep_jhu

Last month when President Obama finally announced his executive action to provide deportation relief to millions of undocumented people living in the United States, you could practically hear the collective intake of breath taken across the country. With so many broken promises, yet so much at stake, it was hard to believe that anything Obama says to a camera could actually make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives.

That’s because Obama’s executive action is a band-aid for a Congress that has made no progress on what for many is a life-and-death issue. While it staves off the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, the executive action is a quick fix for institutions that were not built to protect human rights. Immigrant detention centers in particular have a troubling role in our immigration system. Amid the stagnant debates over our immigration policy, there’s not enough focus on these facilities. The way queer and trans immigrants specifically experience trauma when pushed through the deportation system shows how our immigrant system needs to be significantly reworked.

Take Marichuy Leal Gamino, a 23 year-old trans woman who was detained in a men’s facility at Eloy Detention Center in 2013. She faced sexual harassment and threats from other detainees, but when she reported the threats to center staff they did nothing. Soon after, she was raped by her cellmate.

In response, the center placed Gamino in solitary confinement for her “protection.” After a few days, she was transferred right back to the men’s facility, where she was originally attacked. As last I heard, she’s still in detention.

a large crowd of people with a sign calling for immigration reform

Roughly 35,000 people gathered at the North Carolina State Capitol during a Moral Monday protest about numerous social justice issues last February. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian. 

As the United States deports more and more people each year—over 360,000 in 2013—thousands of people spend days, weeks, and months in immigration detention centers, waiting for action on their cases. Detention centers are traumatizing for pretty much anyone held in them.

Most people imprisoned in detention centers have dealt with violence in their home countries and along the journey north. Women who migrate face staggering rates of sexual assault, only to be detained in a center where mostly male guards control their every move 24/7. In two of the largest family detention centers in use, mental health services are usually provided by men who work on-site or by tele-medicine through the computer. Detention centers not only re-traumatize victims of violence, they can be sites of violence themselves. In October, multiple women detainees from the Karnes Family Detention Facility in Texas reported being raped and abused by the center guards. In some detention centers, migrants don’t even receive sufficient edible food or potable water.

Many migrants being housed in these facilities are eligible for asylum because of their traumatic histories fleeing violence and persecution. But most aren’t receiving any semblance of due process, and are instead sent through what volunteer lawyers have dubbed the “Rocket Docket.” The only people who benefit from the existence of immigrant detention centers are the owners of private prison corporations—like the GEOGroup, who tirelessly lobbies to continue its detention contracts in spite of a history of human rights abuses within their facilities.

But beyond the poor services and institutional stresses that everyone faces at detention centers, trans and queer detainees face additional layers of violence. Transphobia and homophobia mean that these detainees have to fear not just institutions and guards, but other detainees. Queer and trans detainees are often targets of sexual abuse, which detention centers have yet to address in any responsible or humane way, instead relying almost exclusively on solitary confinement for protecting LGBT detainees, as in Gamino’s case.

Using solitary confinement to protect LGBT people in detention is not a good idea—solitary confinement can have lasting mental health effects, and is recognized by entities like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the UN Committee On Torture (PDF) as a form of psychological torture. In fact, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has rules against using solitary confinement as protection.

In spite of this, ICE has yet to develop any other means of protecting LGBT people and detainees can remain in solitary for days, or weeks. While isolated, women like Gamino are often pressured to choose immediate deportation rather than continue to wait in solitary confinement while their case is considered. Olga Tomchin, a Soros Justice Fellow at the Transgender Law Center, has helped many transgender detainees who would rather take the risk of being deported back to unsafe conditions than to stay in solitary and experience the trauma that comes with it. “They are totally broken by this experience,” says Tomchin. ICE houses 75 transgender people in detention centers every night, a recent investigation found

a chart shows that transgender detainees are at risk for abuse

The reporting team at Fusion found that transgender people in detention are at serious risk of abuse. 

In her work providing legal help to detainees at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Noemi Calonje has learned about the mental toll of being held solitary confinement 23 hours a day. “Most of our clients have told me that the hour they are taken to the bathroom or walked outside is the one time they feel like they are human,” says Caljone. “The rest of the time there is just this deep sense of hopelessness for them. You know, ‘How long is this going to last?’”

At this point, trans and queer people who have experienced so much institutional violence often fear that it will never end, and they don’t know that what they experienced outside of the US could make them eligible for asylum. People who are fleeing persecution in their home countries often arrive in the US with a deep-seated mistrust of the state. “If the government and police have always hurt and abused you, it’s totally counterintuitive to ask them for asylum because you are trans,” Tomchin points out.

Ironically, trans women who are lucky enough to get legal representation often have very strong cases to make for being persecuted on the basis of their gender identity, though the application process is certainly not easy. Those who get the legal representation to which they have a right are then forced to go through invasive and emotionally painful immigration proceedings. This can include reliving the abuse and violence they have experienced or explaining the intimate details of their identity and body. Court proceedings often involve repeated misgendering, and a general lack of recognition of trans women as women.  

In this investigative report from Fusion, Barbra Perez discusses what it was like to be a transgender woman in an immigration detention facility. 

For women like Marichuy, Obama’s executive action will do very little to relieve the institutional violence of detention. In the short term, it will significantly reduce the number of people being deported out of the United States, but it may have no effect on our country’s detention centers. The Executive Action makes no mention of adjusting the Immigrant Detention Bed Quota, an unprecedented law which requires that a minimum of 34,000 detention beds be filled at all times. We are left to assume that those people left out of deportation reprieve will be increasingly targeted in order to fill this quota.

Even if Obama’s action were to substantially reduce the number of detainees, the human rights abuses that are rampant in the facilities will likely be left unaddressed. If Congress ever takes concrete action to implement a comprehensive immigration reform, reforming or ending immigrant detention should be the first item on their list.

For Tomchin, detention has failed LGBT detainees like Marichuy too many times for reform to be a viable option.

“The only solution that we see is that ICE free her,” says Tomchin. “ICE has shown over and over again that they will not follow their own rules and provide trans people with even minimum levels of safety and dignity. The only solution for keeping people safe is not to detain them in the first place.”

It’s time our government to understand that.

Related Reading: Immigration is a Feminist Issue—We Need to Treat it That Way.

Juliana Britto Schwartz is a Latina feminist writer and digital media strategist.

by Juliana Britto Schwartz
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