Democratic lawmakers urge DHS to improve treatment of LGBT immigration detainees

Congress and Senators issue letter asking ICE to enact better policies for LGBT detainees

Thirty-three members of the House and Senate signed a new letter blasting the immigration agency.

Nearly three dozen lawmakers are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to improve its treatment of LGBT immigrants in its detention centers.

In a letter to Secretary Jeh Johnson, 33 members of Congress cite studies showing that LGBT detainees face extra risks and barriers in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, from sexual assault to unaffordably high release bond rates.

In particular, the letter also alleges that the 2015 Transgender Care Memorandum, which ensures that transgender detainees are housed in accordance with their gender identity, is not being implemented.

“We are glad that the Memorandum attempts to provide an infrastructure for housing transgender people based on their gender identity,” the lawmakers wrote, “but the lack of its implementation in any facility, and the fact that each facility can decide whether or not to adopt the contract modification, undermine its success.”

“Furthermore,” they said, “while the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards require transgender-related healthcare based on medical need, provision of appropriate care is inconsistent.”

A DHS spokesperson told the Daily Dot that ICE intended to increase the number of facilities that could adhere to the appropriate-treatment guidelines laid out in the memo.

ICE only owns 13 percent of immigration detention centers, according to a 2011 fact sheet. The rest are a mixture of private contracts (17 percent), state and local facilities (67 percent), and Bureau of Prisons jails (3 percent).

In recent years, attorneys and human-rights groups have reported high rates of sexual assault and other abuses suffered by transgender inmates in particular. Some of those assaults, like that of Marichuy Leal Gamino, occurred at for-profit contract centers like Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center.

The lawmakers sent their letter to Johnson on March 23, the same day that Human Rights Watch released a report about the abuse of transgender women in immigration detention.

According to the report’s surveys of women detained between 2011 and 2015, over half of trans women in ICE custody are housed with men, where they are exposed to harassment, sexual assault, and violence at the hands of fellow detainees as well as guards.

In an effort to curb the mistreatment of transgender immigrants, ICE created a “Dedicated Housing Unit” at the Santa Ana City Jail in California, where many trans women are now held separately from the rest of the population.

An ICE spokesperson told the Daily Dot that the agency is attempting to identify which of its facilities around the country are best positioned to adopt the Transgender Care Memorandum, at which point trans detainees will have increased options for requesting housing.

The Santa Ana detention center is scheduled to host a special LGBT staff training in April. According to ICE, the annual training focuses on trans needs, medical care, sexual assault, LGBT cultural sensitivity, privacy, and searches.

But critics say that it’s not enough to have sensitivity training and guidelines at one facility when the mistreatment of transgender inmates spans the entire country. Human Rights Watch found that women reported rape and other abuses in detention centers as recently as the last two years, despite the fact that Santa Ana started operations in 2011. Frequently, said the women interviewed for the HRW report, victims were placed in punitive solitary confinement.

“A guard told me that [they placed me in solitary confinement] ‘because I had long hair and breasts,’” Gloria L, a trans woman from Honduras, recalled in the report. “One of [them] told me that he was ‘tired of seeing faggots.’ They treated me like an animal.”

The experience of immigration detention can be especially traumatizing for LGBT detainees, as many fled their home countries to escape extreme violence directed at them because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Many of the trans women interviewed for the HRW report said that they decided to enter the U.S. illegally out of desperation after being kidnapped, raped, or tortured at home.

While transgender women make up less than 1 percent of immigration detainees in the U.S., they represent 20 percent of sexual-assault victims among the detainee population.

“Many trans women arrive in the US seeking protection from violent abuse in their home countries,” Adam Frankel, LGBT program coordinator for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement about the group’s study. “Instead, they face further mistreatment under detention policies that put them needlessly at risk of violence and abuse.”

Illustration via Max Fleishman | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.