Federal Immigration Officials Plan to Open a Detention Center with Unit That Will Only House Transgender Migrants

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Transgender activists Marichuy Leal, left, and Viktoria Villalba, center, at a Free Nicoll rally in early 2015 outside ICE’s Phoenix headquarters. - MARIA INÉS TARACENA
  • Maria Inés Taracena
  • Transgender activists Marichuy Leal, left, and Viktoria Villalba, center, at a Free Nicoll rally in early 2015 outside ICE’s Phoenix headquarters.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has plan to open a new detention center in Texas that will include a unit to specifically house transgender immigrants.

An article on Fusion says the Prairieland Detention Center will open in November in Alvarado, Texas—around 30 minutes south of Fort Worth—and "will operate with the agency's most advanced care guidelines for transgender detainees."

According to Fusion, an ICE spokesperson says each detainee will have an individualized detention plan, "covering items such as searchers, clothing options, hygiene practices, medical care, and housing assignments." The detention center will house about 700 people, with a 36-bed unit for transgender individuals, the article says.
The new facility will be operated and managed by Emerald Correctional Management, a private prison corporation that acknowledges on its website it is “ not the biggest” company in the private prison industry. The company, which manages a total of six facilities, distinguishes itself by saying it doesn’t “warehouse detainees” and that it’s changing the culture of privatization.
There are concerns for how the community of Alvarado, a town with about 4,000 residents, will react.
No one knows how the local Alvarado community will respond to news of transgender detainees being detained in their city. But many of the elected officials in the city of Alvarado and in Johnson County pride themselves in their conservative values. More than 25,000 of the county’s votes went to Republican candidates in the latest election, with the majority of votes going to Ted Cruz, the former presidential hopeful who believes allowing young transgender girls to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity is “lunacy.” (Fewer than 4,000 votes in the county for the Democratic candidates, who support more civil rights for transgender individuals.)
A six-month investigation by Fusion, a news outlet run 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. Fusion refers to a 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.

Close to home, there recently was the case of Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a transgender woman from Guatemala who was granted asylum in the U.S. last year after enduring brutal physical, emotional and sexual violence in her native country and later México.

Hernández-Polanco was locked up in an all-male detention center in Florence, Arizona, where guards and other inmates abused her. The first month she was in ICE's Florence immigration detention facility, Hernández-Polanco was sexually assaulted by another detainee. She was forced to shower with men, and she says guards and detainees called her slurs like "the woman with balls," "fucking gay" and "it." She was also placed in solitary confinement.

"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," Heather Hamel told the Weekly last year. She is a Phoenix-based corporate law attorney, who, alongside colleague Vidula Patki, took 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."

In June 2015, 35 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson urging him to stop detaining LGBT undocumented immigrants.

In Tucson, advocacy groups like Mariposas Sin Fronteras continuously fight for the human rights of LGBT migrants in detention. They not only send letters of support and visit detention centers often, but also sell food and host events to raise funds to free immigrants from detention.

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