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Free Nicoll

A Guatemalan transgender woman fights for her life in detention

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Juan Mariano Oreno and Nicoll Hernández-Polanco are the same age, briefly lived in the same city and are part of a tight community violently discriminated against in their native region. Yet, the two did not cross paths until both ended up in a Florence, Arizona immigration detention facility.

In merely 15 days, they knew each other's lives through and through. The isolation in detention helped them connect quicker than other circumstances. They had a lot more in common than their country of origin. Both escaped Guatemala after years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse over their identity. Oreno is gay and Hernández-Polanco is a transgender woman, assigned the male sex at birth but she's identified as a woman since her youth.

Hernández-Polanco was transferred to another block. Shortly after, Oreno made it out of detention. Now, he's part of a local, statewide and national movement that demands the immediate release of Hernández-Polanco, who, in an all-male detention facility, is experiencing the same abuse she has tried to escape from since childhood.

Little Star

Oreno, known to his friends as Estrellita, Spanish for little star, was born in the rural town of Chimaltenango, about an hour west of Guatemala City. By his mid-teens, he had already moved out on his own to work and continue his plans to pursue higher education in the country's capital. Growing up in a place like Chimaltenango, Oreno was forced to mask his sexual orientation and gender nonconforming self.

"In the small towns, the discrimination and the homophobia are worse," he says. "Since a little boy, I knew I was gay. It was hard because I had to hide it."

At age 13, Oreno was raped by his 24-year-old cousin.

"He could tell, and he took advantage of the situation," he says. "He threatened me, said that if I told my parents, he would tell them about me, that I was gay."

Three years later, Oreno packed up his things and got the hell out. In Guatemala City, he finished high school, took some cooking classes and then enrolled himself in one of the universities. Even though he remained closeted to his family and others, Oreno was slowly en route to a much-deserved tranquil life.

Things changed last year.

It was a January day, and it began like so many others for Oreno: waiting for the bus to head to work in the bakery and deli at a Walmart.

"We'll come looking for you. We've been watching you," a 30-something-year-old man threateningly told Oreno. In a country where crime is routine, Oreno's days weren't so calm after that. These words were all he thought of, but he hoped maybe the man was mentally ill and messing around.

Days later, while Oreno ran a store errand, a group of men grabbed him from behind and pushed him

into a car, "and they hurt me real bad," he says.

The men, who were likely members of one of the many gangs that have polluted the Central American country for years, told Oreno they would dress him up as a woman and have him smuggle drugs into El Salvador and Honduras. If he refused, they would kill him.

They had probably seen Oreno from the big window of his apartment. He oftentimes enjoyed wearing women's clothes in the privacy of his home. "I never did on the streets, because you know how Guatemala is," he says.

That night more than one year ago, Oreno agreed to their plans so they would stop the torture.

A close friend suggested he leave the country, as those men would surely return. The money Oreno hoped to invest in more positive things went toward buying him a trip out of Guatemala, through Mexico and to the border with Texas.

Like many families in rural Guatemala, Oreno wasn't a stranger to the idea of one day heading north. After all, many people he knew planted roots here. But that was never an option for him. He was determined to exhaust all options to have a safe and comfortable life in his country.

This past March, after two failed attempts to cross through the Rio Grande, Oreno landed in immigration detention. Returning to Guatemala was no longer an option, and thanks to fellow gay detainees, Oreno found out he could fight his deportation and plea for asylum.

In May, Oreno was transferred to Florence.

"The guards, they treat you badly because they know what you are," he says. "In detention, I was assaulted mentally every day, especially by other men detained there. I don't wish what I went through on anyone. What you suffer in there, you can't erase it. But I felt the immense necessity for this country to give me asylum, so it was horrible to be locked up. I don't wish it on anyone, especially going through it on your own, without your family, just alone."

He took on a job in the cafeteria to try to make the days shorter.

Five months later, in October, Hernández-Polanco arrived.

During one of their many talks, Oreno told Hernández-Polanco about a Tucson group that helped LGBT immigrants (all immigrants, really) in detention. At the time, Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Butterflies Without Frontiers) was in the process of raising funds to pay Oreno's $10,000 bond—by then he had been in detention for nearly seven months.

For more than two years, the mariposas, among them activist Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, visited detainees, connected them to legal representation, and, most importantly, given them the warmth and support that most of them haven't experienced.

"There is so much trauma involved in detention, and we started out this group based on the necessities of people in detention," Alcaraz Ochoa says during a drive up to Florence to visit Hernández-Polanco. "We noticed that LGBT people have very particular needs, they face certain types of abuse in detention, and most people who reached out to us were gay men and transgender women, so we started writing back and visiting."

On Dec. 24, Oreno was free to go.

He, like Hernández-Polanco, is fighting for asylum in the U.S., and wants his friend to join him in that battle on the outside.

Free Nicoll

In October of last year, Hernández-Polanco reached the Sonora-Arizona border, where she turned herself in and told immigration officials she needed asylum.

It was the 24-year-old's third attempt to come to the U.S. There were two at age 17, and on both tries, she was apprehended and deported.

She decided to fight this time. After nearly a decade of sexual and physical abuse in both Guatemala and then Mexico, she's tired of pain. Sadly, while her future in the country is sorted out, she's in a hostile environment where she says her abuse is as terrifying as what she experienced on the outside.

The first month she was in ICE's Florence immigration detention facility, Hernández-Polanco was sexually assaulted by another detainee. In an all-male center, she's been forced to shower with men. Throughout, guards and detainees have called her slurs like "the woman with balls," "fucking gay" and "it," and was placed in solitary confinement after one of the many time she's stood up for herself.

Since January, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, the Transgender Law Center and other LGBT and immigration rights advocates have been fighting for her release to put an end to the torment. But ICE refuses, and denied her humanitarian parole, saying her previous deportations make her a priority for removal.

"The most tragic aspect of this is, asylum law is supposed to be a way to expand protection to vulnerable individuals who would be otherwise persecuted in their home countries because of who they are, and that is the way that it is supposed to function," says Heather Hamel, a Phoenix-based corporate law attorney, who, alongside colleague Vidula Patki, has taken on Hernández-Polanco's case pro-bono. "As we have dug into this case, and became more familiar with the treatment of LGBT individuals in detention...this is a group of people who are fleeing discrimination and violence in their home countries, and they come to the U.S. seeking a safe haven, and instead of extending protection, we cart them off and put them in detention facilities where they are re-exposed to violence and discrimination, and that is tragic."

On paper, ICE is supposed to consider the gender identity of the detained immigrants, as well as the potential threats to their safety in the housing facilities.

In a statement, ICE said it is committed to "providing for the safety and welfare" of all detainees, including LGBT, and that it takes allegations of abuse very seriously.

"Nicoll is an example of how they have failed to uphold those policies," Hamel says. "Obviously, Nicoll's gender identity is female and obviously her safety is placed at risk every single day that she remains in an all-male detention, and those two factors should favor placing her in an all-female facility and they have not done that."

A six-month investigation by Fusion, a TV station ran by ABC and Univision, found that some 75 transgender people are detained by ICE at any given day, with about 90 percent of them being transgender women like Hernández-Polanco. They also pointed to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office that shows one of 500 detainees is transgender, and they make up one of five victims of sexual assault in detention.

"This is something that is typical, Nicoll's case is, unfortunately, not unique at all," says Olga Tomchin, former Soros justice fellow with the Transgender Law Center, who connected Hernández-Polanco with Hamel and Patki. "ICE has shown over and over again that they are totally incapable of detaining trans women with even the least levels of dignity and safety. Our conclusion is that they have no business detaining them."

The Los Angeles-based Família: Trans Queer Liberation Movement is pressuring President Barack Obama to expand deferred action to LGBT people and place them in a group of highly vulnerable individuals, like pregnant women and children, to minimize or stop their detention altogether, especially those seeking asylum in this country.

"We can't forget that there were seven million folks left out, we can't forget that we will have more detention centers open, that people are going to be more persecuted and detained because those bed quotas need to be filled every night...and that includes LGBT immigrants who are criminalized when we are walking down the street," says Jorge Guitiérrez, national coordinator for Familia. "We will continue highlight stories like Nicoll, Marichuy, Karolina...and all women who were once in detention and now are organizing with us. Nicoll is just one of the cases that exists all over the country. (Detention centers) are not able to keep our community safe, so there is no reason they should be detaining our folks."

From Monday, March 2 until press time, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, and Phoenix's Arcoiris Liberation Team and Arizona Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project joined forces with other groups around the country in mass protests advocating for Hernández-Polanco and all other transgender women in detention.

"Here, there is a big community waiting for her," Alcaraz Ochoa says. "She will have a home, a family."

Amidst Trauma There's Still Hope

Hernández-Polanco, who was born and raised in one of the most dangerous slums in Guatemala City, nicknamed El Gallito, has been at risk her whole life.

She was assigned the sex male at birth, but identified as a woman since her youth, and for years she has been transitioning to her preferred gender—something completely demonized by the rather conservative society of Guatemala. The discrimination is typical in many countries, but Guatemala has a tremendous reputation for being a very violent place for LGBT people. The hate crimes come from family members, neighbors and it's common for police officers to raid areas of the city with a big LGBT population and shoot people in broad daylight, according to Trans Reinas de la Noche, Trans Queens of the Night, an activist group from Guatemala City. Since 2004, the transgender and gender nonconforming advocacy group has kept track of the statistics, since the local police force or government don't care.

In Hernández-Polanco's case, the abuse began at home, as it often does. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her step-father, especially after her mother passed away. At school, the bullying from both the students and teachers was unbearable. Similarly to Oreno, she dropped out in second or third grade, but unlike her friend, Hernández-Polanco never picked back up on her education. Most of her time she spent running away.

At 17, she took off for good and headed to Mexico, where she was kidnapped and, once again, was a victim of continuous sexual violence.

She's been in detention for about five months now, where the trauma continues.

"It is particularly frustrating, the unwillingness of ICE to cooperate with us as Nicoll's counsel," Patki says. "We have approached ICE, every way you can imagine, to see if there is anything that can be done, if she can't be released for now, then at least to improve her conditions. We have been stonewalled the entire way. (We) are not immigration attorneys, so I can't speak to how common this practice is, but from the other immigration attorneys I have spoken to, this appears to be a common technique, to stonewall and ignore counsel when they raise legitimate concerns."

On April 15, she has a hearing where the judge will hopefully set bail, although her supporters hope she'll be out before then.

Seven days later, Hernández-Polanco will have to re-live every detail of the abuse at her asylum hearing, where the Department of Homeland Security will decide her fate within hours. If she's denied asylum, Hamel and Patki plan to appeal.

Hernández-Polanco stands out not just for being the only tall, slender woman with shinny brown hair down to her shoulders and wide-open hazel eyes in this white-walled facility, but because of her optimism and enthusiasm despite living in such a dark place for most her life.

"I know I will get out of here," she says. As she speaks, there is not a sign of resentment in her voice. "And when I do I'm going to help a lot of people."

Although she barely knows how to read or write, she wants to have a book written about her life.

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