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For LGBT Undocumented Immigrants, Detention Means More Fear and Humiliation

Often fleeing persecution or violence in their countries of origin, LGBT undocumented immigrants face heightened trauma if they're taken into custody by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has no mandatory standard of treatment for...
Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

Irvin González was one of the nearly 700 immigrants detained as part of a series of nationwide Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in early February, and one of the few whose story garnered national attention. González, a transgender woman who was detained in a Texas courthouse shortly after obtaining a protective order against her abusive ex, was immediately held up as an example of the inhumanity of President Donald Trump's immigration policies—but the media blitz surrounding her case largely ignored one of the most important parts of her story: her gender.


Trump's targeting of immigrants—undocumented and otherwise—and of trans people are typically considered distinct issues that can be boiled down into separate soundbites: deportations for the former, revocation of bathroom access for the latter. González's case, however, shines a light on the intersections of xenophobia and transphobia, as well as the horrific conditions LGBT immigrants—especially those who are transgender—face in detention.

Read more: The Shocking, Painful Trauma of Being a Trans Prisoner in Solitary Confinement

González was repeatedly misgendered in the criminal complaint detailing her February 9th arrest. At the El Paso County Jail, where she has been held since her arrest, she was denied hormone treatment for more than two weeks, which caused her to feel nauseated, lose sleep, and grow facial hair, González told the New Yorker through her immigration attorney.

These are clear examples of "humiliation and day-to-day microaggressions that trans women face" in detention, Isa Noyola, the director of programs at the Transgender Law Center, told me. "Being denied their identities and their pronouns, all of these things come together," Noyola said.

Transgender immigrants in ICE custody are often denied hormone treatment, according to a 2013 Center for American Progress report on the conditions LGBT immigrants face in detention. Although ICE's Performance-Based National Detention Standards say transgender detainees already receiving hormone therapy before being taken into custody should have continued access to their medication, these standards are not mandatory and are often flouted.


Even in cases when transgender immigrants are granted continued access to hormone therapy, ICE has to request their medical records from their country of origin, which often take upwards of a month to arrive and delay inmates' access to hormone therapy. This was allegedly what happened in González's case: US Marshals said they needed to wait for her medical records to arrive from Mexico before she could receive hormones, the El Paso Times reported.

It's a particularly cruel way to treat someone who's fleeing persecution in their country of origin.

González had been deported six times since 2010, ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said in a statement, adding that González was recently convicted for possession of stolen mail in addition to "at least eight [prior] convictions on charges including false imprisonment, assault, larceny, domestic violence and illegal re-entry." But the context of transphobic violence in Mexico casts González's re-entry into the United States in a different light, and her criminal and immigration history don't tell the whole story, advocates claim. In Mexico, transgender women often lack access to gender-confirming health care, including hormone therapy, according to a 2016 report by the Transgender Law Center and Cornell Law School's LGBT Clinic. Additionally, Mexico City is the only city in the country that allows transgender people to legally change their name and gender to correspond to their gender identity, but lengthy delays and high costs mean legal name changes are unavailable to many transgender women. Outside Mexico City, anti-discrimination laws don't prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Throughout the country, trans women face a disproportionate amount of violence; Mexico has one of the highest documented rates of transphobic murders in the world, and Mexico City has the highest rate of transphobic murders in the country. The report also found that increased visibility of LGBT issues in the country has led to an increase in violence and misconceptions, with transgender women "bearing the brunt of this escalation."


"They're looking at [González's] criminal history in a very linear, basic way," Noyola said of ICE and of the conservative news outlets who latched onto reports of González's criminal record. "They're not acknowledging the circumstances that can drive an individual to feel that they have to make these choices in order to survive. To not acknowledge the violence that trans women face, trans immigrant women in particular, is a failure of how this whole situation arose."

González may be one of the most recent and high-profile examples of ICE's poor track record with LGBT detainees, but she is far from the only one. The Center for American Progress obtained nearly 200 reports of abuse of LGBT detainees in ICE facilities between 2008 and 2013—but the group maintains that since LGBT detainees "often fear retaliation if they submit a complaint," this number "likely illustrate[s] a fraction" of the total abuse LGBT immigrants in detention face across the country.

ICE has proven they can't keep this population safe.

The report found that LGBT immigrants were at an increased risk for sexual assault and verbal and physical abuse by both guards and other detainees and that there were several incidences of LGBT immigrants being humiliated by guards in front of other inmates. Many facilities place LGBT detainees in solitary confinement as an attempt to protect them from the general population, which often has adverse effects on their mental health. According to a 2015 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, suicide rates and incidents of self-harm are much higher for people in solitary confinement than among the general prison population.


For asylum seekers and refugees fleeing violence in their home countries, detention can be a particularly traumatic experience. Andrea Sáenz, supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services' Immigration Practice, recalled the devastating effects that being detained had on one of her clients, a gay asylum seeker from Mali.

"He had been severely persecuted in his own community and came here seeking safety. He was very, very traumatized by being detained," Sáenz said. "He had never been in a carceral setting before, and had a lot of mental health challenges and even became suicidal. In detention, there isn't really access to mental health services. In terms of someone who has been through trauma and persecution and needs counseling, there isn't really much of that."

Tasha Hill, LGBTQ rights staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, said ICE has repeatedly shown they can't humanely detain LGBT immigrants, particularly transgender women. "It's a particularly cruel way to treat someone who's fleeing persecution in their country of origin," Hill told me.

"ICE has proven they can't keep this population safe, especially because to date, they have insisted upon housing trans women in men's facilities and housing trans men in women's facilities," she added. "This leads to increased feelings of gender dysphoria and to an incredibly high rate of abuse, especially for trans women who are fleeing other countries."


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There are only two ICE detention facilities that house transgender detainees in separate, specialized units: the Santa Ana City Jail in California and the Prairieland Detention Center in Texas, which is operated by Emerald Correctional Management, a private contractor that operates seven facilities and detention centers across the country.

Late last year, Santa Ana city officials announced they would end their contract with ICE in 2020. In February, ICE notified the city that it would terminate its detention contract with the facility in 90 days, leaving many transgender detainees in limbo. The Santa Ana facility, Hill said, housed "sometimes up to half of the trans folks" in ICE custody nationwide, some of whom have already been transferred to men's facilities, Hill said. Others will be sent to the new Prairieland facility. Although immigration advocates initially viewed Santa Ana's severed ties with ICE as a net positive, some are now worried that detainees—especially those who are transgender—will be adversely affected.

"There are less resources available to immigrants in Texas, including access to attorneys," Hill said. "If you have an attorney, you're more likely to be granted asylum."

The fact that many transgender detainees will be sent to a for-profit facility is also worrying for advocates. "At least in Santa Ana, there's an activist community that is making an effort to hold the city accountable," she added. "With these private detention facilities, it's just a board of directors trying to make money off locking people up. The safety expectations and the standards are very low."