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The Half-Step Immigration Officials Just Took To Protect Transgender Detainees

A person arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers sits in a detention room. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW
A person arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers sits in a detention room. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW

Last week, an undocumented, transgender protester interrupted the President to demand better treatment of transgender immigration detainees and an end to deportations. On Monday, U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued new guidance for how to care for transgender individuals in the detention system.

The guidance ensures for the first time that transgender detainees be held in facilities that match their gender identities. For example, data systems will be upgraded to track gender identities and officers will be trained to respectfully identify individuals’ gender identities. The Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations will also create a new national LGBTI (LGBT and Intersex) Coordinator along with 24 local LGBTI field liaisons to serve as resources for officers. Perhaps most importantly, detainees’ gender identities will be considered not only for housing, but for body searches, clothing options, and medical care, aligning with other “best practices” for the detainment of transgender people.

A coalition of LGBT and immigration advocates praised the new guidance, but pointed out that transgender detainees would be much safer if they weren’t held in detention facilities at all. Transgender inmates face exorbitantly higher rates of sexual assaults. A Center for American Progress Freedom of Information Act report found that in 70 percent of cases, LGBT individuals were recommended release or provided release as an option, but ICE officers continued to detain LGBT people in two-thirds of those cases.

It took nine years after the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act for guidelines to include protections for LGBT immigrant detainees, and implementation could be an ongoing problem for the new ICE guidance.

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Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, Racial and Economic Justice Initiative Policy Advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality, told ThinkProgress that “Policy can only do so much.” She pointed out that 60 percent of the detention system is run by for-profit contractors, such that “the system is designed to profit a lot of companies.” Because transgender victimization will not abruptly end, “Nothing changes in regards to how dangerous those facilities are for transgender people.”