Transgender women fleeing gang violence and death threats are often subject to sexual abuse and humiliation once they arrive in the United States to claim asylum, according to a new Human Rights Watch report. More than half of transgender women interviewed were held in men’s facilities at some point, while another half spent time in solitary confinement allegedly for their protection.
The 28 transgender women interviewed by HRW include Monserrath López, who was beat unconscious by four masked men in Honduras. The men threatened to torture and kill her, saying, “We’re going to cut you up. […] Even your family won’t be able to find you.” López decided to make the journey to the United States, during which she was raped and beaten. Once she reached the U.S. to request asylum, she was first held in isolation for days, then forced to board a bus to a men’s detention center in Texas where she was held for six months — despite disclosing to officials that she identified as a transgender woman.
Another testimony came from Sara V., a transgender woman from Honduras who said that she was raped by three men at a detention center in Arizona. When she reported the assault, a guard allegedly told her, “You [transgender women] are the ones that cause these problems and always call the men’s attention.”
Gloria L, another transgender woman from Honduras, was placed in solitary confinement for four months in a Louisiana detention center. One of the guards told her she was put in solitary because “he was ‘tired of seeing faggots.’”
“They treated me like an animal,” Gloria L said, according to a HRW press release.
These are just a few of the interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with transgender female immigrant detainees — mostly from the Latin American countries of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — between 2011 and 2015. Current detention policies allow transgender women to be placed in male detention facilities or in solitary confinement, a traumatic practice that officials justify as a form of protection for detainees. But transgender women are also denied adequate access to medical care, like hormone replacement therapy and HIV-related care.
“When trans women are placed by the state into a male facility, you’re setting them up for sexual violence,” Isa Noyola, director of programs at Transgender Law Center, and a leading national advocate for immigrant transgender women, said in a press statement. “Many of our community members have had to lose a lot, face a lot of violence to get here, and to then be further placed in situations where they experience, on a daily basis, more violence, is not okay.”
Though the government announced a set of new policies in June 2015 to improve detention conditions for transgender immigrants, such as placing them in transgender-specific housing, HRW pointed out that “the measures lack an independent oversight mechanism to ensure that they are carried out at individual detention centers.” Even at Santa Ana City Jail, for instance, where most transgender women are currently housed, women are regularly subject to humiliation by male guards.
A national spotlight was cast on the issue of transgender immigrant detainee rights last year when a transgender immigrant shouted down President Obama during a LGBT Pride Month Reception. That activist, Jennicet Gutiérrez, called on the president to release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and to stop deportations among LGBTQ immigrants.
LGBTQ immigrant detainees are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, including sexual assault, while in custody. Between October 2009 and March 2013, 40 percent of sexual assault allegations in detention centers went unreported by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, a Government Accountability Office report found. And the HRW testimonies back up the findings of a 2013 Center for American Progress report, which concluded that some facilities place LGBT immigrants in administrative segregation -- or solitary confinement -- in an attempt to protect them from the general population.
And transgender immigrants are particularly vulnerable to deportation because sending them back to their home countries could be a death sentence. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project, a website that monitors reports of homicides of trans people worldwide, Honduras has a rate of 9.32 reported trans killings per million inhabitants, while the rate for Mexico is 1.59.
But there may be promising signs that the government is taking its policies seriously. The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) announced on Tuesday that it would begin conducting unannounced visits to immigration detention centers across the country. The inspection program was created in response to concerns raised by immigrant rights groups and complaints lodged to its hotline about the treatment of immigrants in federal immigration custody.