Photo: Maria Inés Taracena
A protest at the ICE Phoenix headquarters earlier this year demanding the release of Nicoll Hernández-Polanco and all other LGBT detainees.
Some members of Congress are worried about the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement-led detention centers.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, and a group of more than 30 other colleagues, are asking Department of Homeland Security Secretary's Jeh Johnson to consider releasing LGBT detainees, and instead to use parole or other alternatives to detention to ensure these individuals are safe. (Read the letter they sent DHS here
A six-month investigation by Fusion, a collaborative TV station between 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. 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, with one in three transgender detainees facing sexual abuse within 12 months of custody, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Also, recent surveys of jails and prisons by the latter found that non-heterosexual detainees experience sexual assault at up to 10 times the rate of heterosexual men, a press release from Grijalva's office says.
In March, I wrote about the case of Nicoll Hernández-Polanco
, a transgender woman from Guatemala who was detained at an all-male facility in Florence. She alleges being physically and emotionally abused by guards. During the first months in detention, she says she was forced to shower with the other inmates, and was eventually sexually assaulted by another detainee. Throughout, she says guards and detainees called her slurs like "the woman with balls," "fucking gay" and "it," and was placed in solitary confinement for her "protection." She was released from detention in April, after winning her asylum case.
Now, she is one of the many faces used in a national campaign to force the federal government to place LGBT immigrants in a vulnerable group of people who should not be detained. Organizations like the Los Angeles-based Família: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and the Transgender Law Center want the Obama administration to extend relief to LGBT individuals. Obama's 2014 executive actions offer no refuge to LGBT people and neither do recent ICE memos.
ICE is supposed to respect detainees' gender identity when placing them at a detention facility, but the agency hasn't been following through, according to trans advocacy groups.
“LGBT individuals face unique threats in detention facilities, and we must do everything in our power to protect them,” Grijalva says in a statement. “The good news is ICE has policies in place to help address these needs – the bad news is they are not utilizing those policies, and in some cases, ignoring them outright. This disregard facilitates sexual assault against the LGBT community, which is completely unacceptable. Most of these people fled their native countries for fear of persecution – we cannot allow them to be victimized again once in U.S. custody.”
ICE has something called the Risk Classification Assessment, which recommends officers release a person if they fear harm in detention based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In Hernández-Polanco's case, her attorneys repeatedly asked ICE to release her, but they denied humanitarian parole (maybe based on the fact that she had been deported at least twice before). However, ICE also refused to transfer her to an all-female facility.
Sure enough, a report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General found that ICE "overrode explicit RCA recommendations in 19 percent of the cases for LGBT detainees."
The press release also says there is no clear implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act within DHS in regards to LGBT detainees.
The letter has been endorsed by advocacy groups such as the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, the Transgender Law Center, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, the Human Rights Watch, among others. Grijalva co-authored the letter with Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Honda of California.
“The letter Representatives Grijalva and Honda are sending today is an important acknowledgement of the terrible conditions so many are facing in detention centers across the country. Locking up women and men in dangerous detention centers simply to await a civil court hearing is unnecessary, costly, and dangerous," says Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a statement. "And it is simply immoral and unacceptable for vulnerable groups like LGBT immigrants. Many are torture and rape survivors seeking safety, and too many are raped or abused again in US detention. ICE knows they are simply not safe. There are other options, and ICE should use them.”