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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for individual complaints filed by transgender immigrants held in U.S. federal immigration detention and processing facilities has yielded a total of 186 individuals since 2008.
The complaints of most of these people–169–are described in documents released by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General (OIG) through the FOIA. Seventy of them allege sexual assault or rape and 34 reported being segregated in isolation for indeterminate periods of time. Harassment and assault also played a role in 24 of these cases.
A Women’s eNews investigation found that less than 10 percent of these OIG cases–the most recent of which dates to July 2013–have resulted in any sort of administrative closure or investigation.
The OIG, which conducts independent investigations on the Department of Homeland Security’s operations, does not track transgender complaints from detention facilities. Only 18 of the complainants are specifically identified as transgender or transsexual, while 35 of them are classified as “he/she.” An additional 115 of the complainants’ genders are unstated or redacted, but were still included in the returned FOIA request for transgender complaints from detention.
The 169 OIG complaints reveal a direct correlation between the physical placement of transgender female immigrants in detention and victimization. Transgender women are typically housed with men or in solitary confinement, sometimes following a physical altercation or a report of abuse, other times unprovoked and allegedly because they are transgender.
Complaints by an additional 17 detainees obtained from the watchdog U.S. Office of Civil Rights and Liberties allege similar rights violations against transgender detainees.
Nine of these 17 detainees, who were housed in Department of Homeland Security facilities across the country, say they were held under lock-down or in segregation because of their gender identity for six days to 14 months, in complaints spanning from February 2010 to January 2013. Three complainants allege physical or sexual assault by other detainees or guards.
All of these 17 complaints remain under investigation, according to the Office of Civil Rights and Liberties.
Twelve of these complaints were filed by the National Immigrant Justice Center, a project of the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, in April 2011.
The FOIA documents buttress a scenario of systemic discrimination and abuse in U.S. immigration detention centers amassed in nearly two dozen interviews with a variety of sources: formerly detained transgender immigrants, immigration attorneys, present and former government officials and public policy researchers.
High Risk Levels
More than 10 immigration attorneys and public defenders who conduct free, legal education “Know Your Rights” presentations inside immigration detention facilities told Women’s eNews that nearly all of their transgender clients and the trans detainees who sought legal advice have suffered either physical or sexual assault or have been harassed and threatened.
“I don’t think it is difficult to gauge the level of risk for transgender detainees,” said Keren Zwick, the managing attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center’s LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative and Adult Detention Project. “I have never met a transgender detainee who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment, at the very minimum, or being propositioned for sex or being called names. Never once.”
On March 20, 2009, the OIG received a complaint via telephone from an immigrant detainee who said that “she/he” was being raped and sexually assaulted by other detainees. The caller disconnected before further details could be obtained. The case was referred to another office, with “no reply,” as the document says, a phrase meaning no record of what happened. The complaint was closed on May 5, 2009.
On May 20, 2011, the OIG received a complaint from a detainee who said harassment led to being placed in segregation, or solitary confinement, for an unknown number of days. The person’s gender was redacted from the complaint. The complainant felt discriminated against because of sexual orientation and questioned being held in segregation when they did nothing wrong. The case was referred, with no reply, and closed May 23, 2011.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, houses every day between 20,000 and 30,000 immigrants who are detained for criminal charges or lack of proper visa documentation.
They are held in the 83 detention facilities and jails ICE either directly oversees or, more often, privately contracts. It is unclear how many of these detainees are transgender; ICE has approximated about 50 detainees at any time are transgender, but this investigation would suggest a far more substantial number.
The failure to track transgender people in U.S. immigration detention facilities or provide a systematic method of housing means the detention experience of this particular group is largely derived from anecdotes.
“There is no uniformity in the way transgender immigrants are being treated,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the legal director of the New York-based legal and resource organization Center for HIV Law and Policy, which says it hears from a detained transgender women about every three weeks about being denied medication or segregated.
“We know transgender immigrants are experiencing many different types of abuses and civil rights deprivations, from the use of solitary confinement to flat out denying medical care. It’s more rare to hear about sexual assault, but it could be also we are not hearing about these incidents with the same regularity,” Espinoza-Madrigal added.
Attorneys and former detainees confirmed that housing for transgender women in detention creates inherent risks of abuse or emotional distress. In interviews they said transgender women are routinely housed either with men or in isolation, often on the basis of protection. In rare cases, detainees who had had sex reassignment surgery were said to be housed with general female populations.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture said in August that the use of solitary confinement in American prisons can constitute in torture.
The Department of Homeland Security, which in 2009 held 268,134 immigrants in detention facilities, has stated a policy of zero tolerance for all forms of sexual abuse or assault.
Last year the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced it would investigate sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities, following a 2011 request by 30 members of Congress. The Congress-members cited a PBS investigative film, “Lost in Detention,” which looks at the rate of sexual assault in immigration detention centers. The GAO is expected to produce a report on its findings this November, a spokesperson told Women’s eNews.
Victoria, 24, who now lives in New York City, is a former detainee who asked that only her first name be used to protect her identity.
In an interview in a Manhattan diner, she said ICE officials were not sensitive to her vulnerability as a transgender woman. She was admitted to the all-male Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, in May 2011, following her apprehension while crossing the Mexican border without a visa. It was her second time entering the United States without proper documents.
“They said, ‘What is your name?’ I said, ‘Victoria.’ They said, ‘Is that your legal name?’ I said, ‘No, it is not legal, but it is in the process of being changed. They said, ‘No, then, that is not your name.’ From that conversation they decided that I was not a woman, that I was a man. I was taking hormones and they said if you want to continue that you have to go in the isolated room. So I stopped taking them,” she said.
Victoria said her breast size subsequently decreased significantly during her 11 months of detention.
The Honduran native left her small town when she was 17 accompanied by her sister, also transgendered. She was never assaulted in detention, a stroke of luck she attributes to her vigilance. After one harrowing incident in the bathroom, during which she says both a group of detainees and a guard watched her bathe, laughed and made jokes, she only showered once a month, or fully clothed. Another time, a male detainee approached her in the bathroom and she fought him off. The six other transgender women she knew in the southern Texas detention facility also showered clothed, said Victoria, who is now applying for legal residency in the United States.
Victoria eventually acquired free legal counsel from the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, but she never filed a complaint while in detention.
Complaints Trigger More Harm
Several of the complainants allege that filing complaints or informing officials about harassment or assault in detention caused them further harm or instigated segregation, according to the OIG documents, which do not disclose the names of complainants or facilities.
The same is true of the complainants in the documents provided by the Office of Civil Rights and Liberties.
One detainee at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., alleged in the Civil Rights and Liberties documents that she was placed in solitary confinement for 15 days when she spoke up about a male detainee who told her in the bathroom that he wanted to touch her buttocks and about correctional officers who she said tried to humiliate her by making her state her legal male name in public. In March 2010, she said a correctional officer lifted her shirt and exposed her breasts to about 40 male detainees during a routine search. She stayed quiet about the incident for months because she feared retaliation, according to her July 2010 complaint.
Some complainants saved evidence to support their claims.
One transgendered woman at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz., reported that she saved the Styrofoam cup filled with semen that an officer handed over after she asked him for a glass of water. She said he threatened her with isolation and deportation if she did not drink from it. Once she did, she began to vomit.
The complainant is from Mexico. At the time of her February 2010 complaint she had been detained in segregation since September 2009. She said the same officer had previously made a series of harassing remarks. She alleges he asked her to perform oral sex on him. Another time, he ordered her to show him her breasts. She complied.
Reporting abuse isn’t how things are done in either prisons or immigration detention facilities, said Bamby Salcedo, a transgender woman who, between the ages of 22 and 33–a time period ending in the early 2000s–was held in both prisons and detention centers.
Salcedo, whose prostitution and drug arrests led to four deportations to Mexico, followed by returns to the United States, said she was immediately housed in detention with men, based on her genitalia, not how she identifies. She said her experiences in federal prison and in an immigration detention facility were comparable.
“Obviously there is harassment, that is constant, but there is also sexual abuse,” Salcedo said in a phone interview. “In prison and in detention you don’t really go and talk to the guards because then people think you are snitching and that puts you at a higher risk of danger.”
Salcedo was groped multiple times in the shower by male detainees in the immigration detention facility. One physical fight with a male detainee who, she said, approached her aggressively, left her with a fractured nose and a week in segregation, in a small cell.
Special ‘Pod’ Housing
Between 2008 and 2010 Twana Cooks-Allen oversaw mental health services at the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, the largest in the country, housing up to 3,000 detainees. She said the commander of the facility eventually decided to handpick the people who would live alongside the one immigrant who gradually came out as a transgender woman.
Previously, she was segregated, but had filed a complaint, said Cooks-Allen. She was ultimately rehoused in the special “pod.”
Allen Beck, a senior statistical advisor at the Bureau of Justice, led a 2013 study of sexual victimization in jails and prisons. “There is not much data to substantiate a high rate of sexual assault in ICE facilities. We are just not finding it,” he said in a phone interview. “There are much higher rates at prisons and jails [among U.S. citizens].”
As part of that survey the Bureau of Justice also surveyed five ICE facilities for sexual violence in 2011 and 2012, but only considered if people were female or male, not transgender.
The ICE site with the highest estimate–3.8 percent of immigrant detainees–was the ICE Krome North Service Processing Center in Florida. That rate is slightly lower than the 4 percent figure that Beck’s team found in prisons nationwide and higher than the 3.2 percent average in jails.
Such figures are dwarfed by a 2007 study of 315 transgender inmates in 27 California prisons.
That study found that nearly 24 percent of transgender inmates reported inmate-on-inmate sexual assault in their current housing unit, while 34.6 percent reported sexual misconduct in their unit. Only 0.6 percent reported staff-on-inmate assault in their prison at the time, but that percentage rose to 13.6 percent when considering their experiences in their California incarceration history.
Valerie Jenness, dean of the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, led interviews with the detainees. “One of the things we saw is that 59 percent of transgender inmates reported that they had experienced inmate-on-inmate sex assault at some point, which is an exceptionally high number,” Jenness said in a phone interview. “Very rarely did we have anyone reporting it. It was almost a laughable question.”
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She has reported since January from the U.S. and Mexico as part of a reporting grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism on the issues affecting transgender women in detention and seeking asylum. Follow her on Twitter @amylieberman.
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