BY KATE SOSIN
They traded jumpsuits for real outfits and makeup, items that expressed their genders.
Fourteen transgender women were released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico on July 27.
Their parole comes in the wake of a massive national advocacy campaign demanding the release of transgender asylum-seekers at Cibola, home to ICE’s only transgender pod.
“We’re really winning these cases,” said Allegra Love, executive director of the Sante Fe Dreamers Project, which represented the women alongside the American Civil Liberties Union.
It is believed that 35 to 45 transgender women remain incarcerated at Cibola. According to ICE officials, just over 70 transgender people were detained nationwide as of January of this year.
In May, transgender asylum seeker Roxana Hernandez died at Cibola after living with pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV. Her death sparked widespread outrage. LGBTQ organizations demanded the release of queer people in ICE detention from coast to coast.
“All of us just lost our minds with fear and anxiety,” said Love.
In early July, a federal court injunction ordered ICE to stop its blanket denials of asylum claims at a handful of field offices.
According to Love, Sante Fe Dreamers Project leveraged the injunction to lobby for the release of 21 trans women detained at Cibola, requesting humanitarian parole for the women and threatening a federal case.
Two-thirds of the women in those requests were released. They boarded planes to California, Virginia and New York, among other places.
They had been suffering from severe lack of medical care, Love claims. Two of them were going blind because they hadn’t received medical treatment for syphilis.
“We had to rush five people to the emergency room as soon as they got out of the prison on Saturday,” said Love.
Leticia Zamarripa, public affairs officer for the Department Of Homeland Security, did not respond to questions about the release of the Cibola detainees.
Among those not released in the latest wave was El Salvadoran asylum-seeker Alejandra, whose last name has been withheld because she is a target of a transnational criminal gang. She has been the subject of an Amnesty International campaign demanding her release because her health is reportedly deteriorating.
Alejandra worked as a trans activist for 10 years before fleeing attacks and extortion by a criminal gang and the country’s military. Both groups sexually assaulted her because she is trans, according to Amnesty International. But despite her pleas for asylum, her parole has been denied three times on the basis that she is a flight risk.
“She’s not a flight risk,” argues Amnesty Regional Researcher and Advisor Brian Griffey. “She came with her niece who is also a transgender Salvadoran woman who won asylum at the start of April who she wants to live with.”
Griffey says the strength of Alejandra’s asylum claim has been lost on an administration that defaults to blanket denials. He says her last denial was so obviously copied from another detainee’s that it still had the wrong name on it.
“Detention of asylum seekers should be an absolute last resort,” Griffey said. “But the climate has changed with this current administration trying to strike at the heart of international refugee protections, including by trying to suggest that if your government is either unwilling or unable to protect you from abuses by a non-state actor… they don’t want you to qualify for asylum anymore.”