When she stepped off the boat on the shores of the Colorado River, Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco thought she'd found safety. A transgender Guatemalan woman, Hernandez-Polanco had suffered years of abuse in her home country, and had taken buses, trains, and finally a packed dinghy to get to this dry bit of desert in southeastern Arizona.
Intending to seek asylum, she went straight to US Customs and Border Protection agents to announce her presence. But though Hernandez-Polonco had identified as a female since childhood, the government sent her to an all-male detention center, where guards gave her boxers and a standard-issue blue uniform, and tossed her into a facility with hundreds of men.
"The guards made me take off all my clothes, my bra and my underwear. They just laughed, and touched my breasts and my butt," Hernandez-Polanco said in an interview, describing her first moments in Arizona's Florence Service Processing Detention Center last October. "I had to shower with the other inmates and they touched me and made me have sexual relations with them," she said. "I felt horrible because I didn't want to do it but the inmates warned they would punish me if I didn't."
Hernandez-Polanco—who has taken hormones, used makeup, and gone by a female name (instead of her birth name Atmer) since adolescence—spent six months in the detention center, before being granted political asylum for persecution based on her gender identity. Hernandez-Polanco had faced sexual abuse and assault for years while living in Guatemala and Mexico. But while she came to the United States seeking refuge, in those initial months in detention she only encountered more abuse, including being patted down six to eight times a day by guards, who groped her and referred to her with slurs; in December, she filed a complaint after being sexually assaulted by another inmate.
"I feel battered. I live with this wound, it weighs on me because the memories just keep coming back," she told me in Spanish. "I came to America because I understood there were rights for transgender women, but they treated me like a man."
In an email to VICE last week, Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokesperson for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the agency had investigated Hernandez-Polanco's sexual abuse complaint, but had found no proof of her claims.
"ICE takes any allegations of abuse and mistreatment very seriously. All formal complaints are thoroughly investigated," Pitts O'Keefe wrote. "Our investigators were unable to corroborate or establish the veracity of the allegations, in other words, her allegations were unsubstantiated."
Hernandez-Polonco's story is strikingly typical for transgender individuals who seek asylum in the US. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, one in five confirmed sexual assault cases that occur in ICE detention centers involve transgender victims, despite the fact that trans individuals make up just 0.2 percent of the detainee population. The report documented graphic instances of staff targeting trans detainees, including an incident in which a guard made a transgender detainee show her breasts while he touched himself, and in which a guard assaulted a transgender detainee who had been placed in protective custody.
Another 2013 investigation, by the Center for American Progress, found that LGBT detainees were 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-LGBT counterparts , anddetailed a "systemic nature of abuse against LGBT detainees," in immigrant detention including sexual assault, withholding of medical treatment, solitary confinement, inappropriate use of restraints, and verbal and physical abuse by guards.
That report found that between 2008 and 2013, at least 200 LGBT detainees made formal complaints to ICE about such abuses. According to a recent investigation by Fusion, at least one transgender woman actually died in ICE custody in 2007 after guards chained her to her bed and denied her access to HIV medication.
In an effort to curb this rampant abuse, the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it was implementing new guidelines for the treatment of transgender detainees. According to the new Transgender Care Memorandum,the agency will create a special team of medical and psychological experts that will determine where each transgender detainee should be placed; while some detainees may still be placed according to their biological sex, others may be housed according to their gender.
"The Transgender Care Memorandum reaffirms ICE's commitment to provide a safe, secure and respectful environment for all those in our custody, including those individuals who identify as transgender," Thomas Honan, executive assistant director for ICE's Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations, said in a press statement. "We want to make sure our employees have the tools and resources available to learn more about how to interact with transgender individuals and ensure effective standards exist to care for them throughout the custody cycle."
The guidelines also create a few units in larger detention facilities that will specifically care for transgender individuals, with medical and psychological specialists on site. And all ICE staff will receive training on how to tend to transgender individuals in custody, according to another agency spokesperson.
"This specifically allows for placement based on gender identity which is a new step for the agency. ICE has historically not placed transgender women with females," the ICE spokesperson told VICE in a phone interview. "Transgender individuals' input will be considered heavily in their placements as well. We're not going to dictate where any individual should be housed."
The new policy follows a surge of activism highlighting the problems transgender immigrants face in US detention centers. Last month, Jennicet Gutierrez, an undocumented transgender activist, made headlines when she heckled President Obama at a White House LGBT Pride event, and was escorted out by security.
"This is no pride in how LGBT immigrants are treated in this country," Gutierrez said in a statement after the incident. "If the president wants to celebrate with us, he should release the LGBTQ immigrants locked up in detention centers immediately."
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been asked to take a stand on the issue. Responding to a question from an activist at a May campaign event in Las Vegas, the Democratic presidential candidate said that the US needs to "do more to provide safe environments for vulnerable populations," including the LGBT community.
"I don't think we should, you know, put children and vulnerable populations into large detention facilities because I think they're at risk," Clinton added. "These issues can only be resolved once and for all if we have changes in law."
But while ICE's new policy is a step forward, advocates for transgender immigrants said the new measures fall short of actually guaranteeing protection for detainees. "What's fundamentally groundbreaking is ICE is declaring in a formal manner that trans individuals have special vulnerabilities in detention," said Aaron Morris, legal director for Immigration Equality.
"We encourage and welcome any new attempts to make it safer and this is certainly an attempt to do so," Morris added. "But we get frustrated with all of these hoops they set up in an attempt to skirt around most logical solution, that you can't house these people safely."
In particular, activists noted that the guidelines still allow transgender women to be housed in male detention centers. But some argue that the only safe option for trans immigrants is not to detain them at all. "These facilities are absolutely dangerous for transgender folks particularly women in male detention centers," said Raffi Freedman-Gurspann, a policy advisor for the National Center for Transgender Equality. "ICE has the discretion of whether they want to be holding these people are not. They need to be looking at alternatives to detention."
Olga Tomchin, an attorney and former fellow with the Transgender Law Center who has defended dozens of transgender detainees, said that "nothing is really that different" with the new policy. She noted that ICE has allowed transgender detainees to be housed according to their gender since 2011, when the agency implemented its Performance-Based National Detention Standards. Like the 2011 standards, Tomchin said, the current memorandum merely suggests what ICE staff should do.
"ICE and DHS have on paper very progressive policies for how trans people are supposed to be treated," Tomchin, who now works as a deportation defense coordinator with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told me. "But all these rules are literally never followed."
Closed off from the outside world, many transgender immigrants don't know where to turn when they suffer abuses in detention. Lisa Barrios, a transgender Honduran woman who was detained at an ICE facility in September 2013, was bewildered and terrified as she struggled to navigate the system. Barrios, who began transitioning at age 8, told me that soon after she was apprehended in Texas, a Border Patrol agent gave her a speech on "acting as male as possible,"before sending her to an all-male detention center.
"I've always tried to act like a man but it hasn't worked," Barrios, who is now 32, told me in Spanish. "I just didn't talk to anyone there. I was terrified."
Barrios was later moved to the South Texas Detention Facility, where she said other inmates tried to have sex with her. She was relocated again, to another Texas facility, but she said that the problems only got worse. "It was very discriminatory," she told me. "Guards put me in a separate room with one other trans woman and didn't let us leave to go to the recreational area or to the library. They let other inmates work but wouldn't let us work."
Barrios also told me guards refused to give her hormones, although the agency's policy is to continue providing them to detainees. "I felt horrible. It was an ugly experience, we lived with discrimination almost every day," Barrios said. "We transgender women are women—even though we don't have the organs, we're women."
ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice confirmed that Barrios had been transferred to several different facilities in Texas, but said that she had never filed a complaint while in the agency's custody .
"After receiving your inquiry we researched our records and determined that this former detainee never lodged any formal complaints about her treatment while in the agency's custody," Kice said in an email. "ICE is working hard to ensure that we provide appropriate care and protections for those in our facilities and have made progress on our standards to that end."
Meanwhile, as Hernandez-Polanco settles into her new life in Arizona, she has become a vocal activist for transgender immigrants' rights. In May, she traveled to Los Angeles for a protest against trans detention, and she told me that on her birthday last month, she went to church and prayed for strength to keep demonstrating.
"I want to help the rest of people like me because I want to make sure they don't suffer like I have," she told me. "I had to stop studying when I was 9 years old…now I want to study law and to learn to read. I want to help my community and I know I'm going to achieve it."
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