AZ groups cite ‘extreme danger,’ call for ICE to release all detained transgender migrants

Pictured are migrants detained at a unit dedicated for transgender women inside the Cibola County Correctional Center, which operates in part as an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. The migrants in that unit later penned a letter alleging the pictures show staged activities and are not a reflection of poor conditions they face. Photo credit: ICE

Two Arizona groups are asking the federal government to release all transgender migrants held in immigration detention centers, alleging they face “extreme danger” while in detention.

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that provides lawyers to unaccompanied and separated migrant minors and migrant adults detained in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, and the Kino Border Initiative, a humanitarian group that services migrants and deportees with food, shelter and other resources in Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, made the demand in a press release.

The groups said two transgender women, Alejandra from Mexico and Anahí from Honduras, have faced multiple assaults, insults and inadequate medical attention inside the Eloy Detention Center, located 65 miles south of Phoenix. The two women have lawyers through the Florence Project, which declined to disclose their full names.

Both women are seeking asylum, the groups said. 

According to ICE, there were 145 self-identified transgender detainees in ICE custody being held in 32 different facilities, as of July 1. An ICE spokesperson did not provide a more up-to-date figures, and did not comment on the demand from the Arizona groups to release all the transgender people in its custody. 

Most of ICE’s detention centers don’t have separate detention pods for transgender people, so trans women are often placed in all-male units. One detention center in rural New Mexico, the Cibola County Correctional Center, has a unit for transgender women. In South Texas, there’s an informal, temporary housing unit for transgender women.   

In a press release, Laura St. John, legal director for the Florence Project, said their clients have described experiencing harassment, abuse and assault.  

“Detaining transgender women with males puts the women in danger of harassment, abuse, and assault, as we have seen time and again with the experiences our clients have described,” she said. “Alejandra and Anahí have repeatedly told us that they do not feel safe and their experiences in detention have been detrimental to their physical and mental health.” 

Multiple assaults, and fear for her life

Alejandra has been in ICE detention since June 5, according to the federal immigration enforcement agency. According to the groups, Alejandra was involved in an altercation with a man who had a romantic interest in her. She spent a month in solitary confinement following that incident, the groups said. When she returned to her unit, she experienced two other assaults, and was placed back in solitary confinement.

Anahí entered ICE detention on July 5 and was held for five months, according to ICE. The groups allege Anahí was taunted and misgendered by guards, and “terrorized by insults and threats” from the men she was detained with. She was attacked by a man in her unit and began fearing for her life, the groups said. 

“(Anahí’s) mental health, already impacted by a lifetime of trauma, deteriorated, yet detention center psychiatrists and counselors denied her access to prescribed medication and, ignoring real threats of violence and past incidents, suggested her mental health would improve if she left her cell more,” the groups stated. 

Greer Millard, spokeswoman for the Florence Project, said Anahí won her asylum case and was released from detention. ICE said she was released on Nov. 7.

The allegations of violence and inadequate care that transgender women face inside ICE detention are not uncommon.

Karla Bautista regularly visits with LGTBQ migrants held in Arizona detention centers.

“They tell me the people who work for ICE abuse them, psychologically and verbally. They tell them they have to act a certain way because they are men,” Bautista said. She works with Trans Queer Pueblo, a non-profit that advocated for LGBTQ migrants. 

Bautista added that she’s also heard from transgender women who say that they’ve been sexually assaulted inside detention centers. 

“One girl decided to stay in segregation because she was sexually abused, and when she reported it, nobody paid attention,” Bautista said. 

ICE did not comment on the allegations of abuse, assault and inadequate treatment.

The federal agency often points to a 2015 policy document for the placement and care of transgender detainees. The document asserts ICE “will provide a respectful, safe, and secure environment for all detainees, including those individuals who identify as transgender.”

Groups nationally and locally have said there’s mounting evidence to the contrary, including recent deaths.

Multiple calls mount for ICE to release of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer migrants in detention

Advocacy groups say transgender women in immigration centers are particularly vulnerable because they are often fleeing violence in their home countries and experience abuse on their journey to the U.S. and at the border. 

“Really, out of any demographic, transgender migrants are among the very most vulnerable at the border,” said Katie Sharar, communications director of the Kino Border Initiative. “A lot of migrants are in very uncertain circumstances at the border, but transgender migrants in particular face a lot discrimination and pretty overt violence.”

In November 2017, Amnesty International published a report on asylum-seekers who fled El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras because of violence on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“LGBTI people are frequently the target of different forms of violence due to their real or perceived sexual orientation and/ or gender identity, such as, for example, intimidation, threats, physical aggression, sexual violence and even murder,” the report stated. 

Community groups, national advocacy and international organizations have in recent years sounded the alarm on the dangers transgender people face inside immigration detention centers. 

Among the most notable cases is the one surrounding the death of Roxsana Hernandez. She was a transgender woman from Guatemala who died in Cibola on May 25, 2018. The circumstances around her death caused outrage and controversy

The Transgender Law Center sued to obtain documents related to her death. The group said in October it appears that CoreCivic, the private company that ICE contracts for some of its immigration detention centers, deleted surveillance footage related to Hernandez’s death, even though the investigation for it was active. 

CoreCivic also operates four immigration detention centers in Arizona: the Eloy Detention Center, La Palma Correctional Center, Florence Correctional Center, and Central Arizona Correctional Center.

Another transgender woman recently died in ICE custody. In June, a 25-year-old Johana Medina Leon, died in an El Paso hospital after falling ill while detained at an ICE facility in New Mexico. 

The following month, 29 transgender women and non-binary migrants detained in Cibola penned a letter pleading for an investigation into poor medical services and mistreatment at the government-funded facility.

“Our feelings, our worries, our indignation, the violation of our rights, our vulnerability before ICE and the officials that work here: it is for all these reasons we are expressing ourselves through this letter not just as trans women but also as human beings,” they wrote in Spanish. “We are dismayed by the worrying circumstances that we are living in.” 

In September, 14 human rights groups demanded ICE release all LGBTQ detainees and anyone with HIV in the agency’s custody, claiming the agency and its contractors are incapable of providing adequate medical and mental-health care, The Washington Post reported. 

In Arizona, Trans Queer Pueblo has demanded the release of all LGBTQ migrants from ICE detention since 2014, said Stephanie Figgins, communications director for the nonprofit.

Figgins said it’s significant to have organizations like the Florence Project join their demand.

“This is a massive step by the Florence Project in throwing all of their institutional weight behind our long-standing demand to liberate all trans folks from detention because ICE is unwilling and unable to keep trans people safe,” she said. “It set the precedent that every single institution working on immigration should be echoing the calls for the liberation of all trans people in detention.”