An undocumented transgender activist was escorted out of the White House Wednesday night after she called on the president to release LGBTQ immigrants in detention centers.
“President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations,” activist Jennicet Gutiérrez shouted, interrupting the beginning of President Obama’s speech during a LGBT Pride Month Reception.
Attendees drowned out her pleas with chants of “Obama! Obama! Obama!” One attendee shouted at Gutiérrez, “Enough! Enough. This is not for you. This is for all of us.” Another attendee shouted, “Shame on you” — words Obama then echoed, as he called for Gutiérrez’s removal from the reception.
“Last night I spoke out to demand respect and acknowledgement of our gender expression and the release of the estimated 75 transgender immigrants in detention right now,” Gutiérrez wrote in a Washington Blade op-ed. Gutiérrez is a founding member of FAMILIA TQLM, an LGBTQ immigrant advocacy group. “There is no pride in how LGBTQ immigrants are treated in this country and there can be no celebration with an administration that has the ability to keep us detained and in danger or release us to freedom.”
Various publications including Mother Jones, US Magazine, CNN, and Market Watch described the president as “shutting down” Gutiérrez. But the message she was trying to convey speaks to larger issues faced by the LGBTQ community.
Indeed, 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 went unreported by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in detention centers, a Government Accountability Office report found. In prison settings, nonhetereosexual prison inmates report sexual assault at higher rates than heterosexual inmates, a finding backed up by the Bureau of Justice Statistics which found that almost 40 percent of transgender inmates in prisons are sexually assaulted. And it took nine years after the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act for guidelines to include LGBT immigrant detainees protections, such as detaining individuals according to their gender identity.
Some facilities place LGBT immigrants in administrative segregation, or solitary confinement, in an attempt to protect them from the general population, a 2013 Center for American Progress report stated. There are also cases where transgender women are housed in men’s detention facilities. In one high-profile case, Marichuy Leal Gamino spoke out about how she was subjected to “bullying, lewd comments, and threats of rape” and, even after she was raped, detention officers reportedly told her to “deal with it.” Meanwhile, Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a transgender woman from Guatemala, was forced to shower with other detainees and was also sexually assaulted, Tucson Weekly reported.
LGBT and HIV-positive detainees also receive inadequate medicare care in immigration detention facilities. In 2007, an HIV-positive female transgender Mexican immigrant “died while shackled to a bed” after officials refused to give her medical attention and her medication, the Washington Post reported at the time. Transgender detainees have also noted that they are sometimes denied hormone treatment, in violation of the Eight Amendment’s requirement that they receive “adequate medicare care” in detention.
And even before they wind up in custody, the ICE agency consistently discriminates against LGBT individuals during detention decisions. 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 because ICE officers have the final say, they choose to detain LGBT people more than two-thirds of the time in cases where the recommended guidelines were for release. The CAP report also found that ICE overrode recommendations for release in “7.6 percent of cases for the general population. The rate for LGBT detainees was more than twice this, at 19 percent.”
One LGBT asylum seeker commented that he had “the most traumatic experience” inside an immigrant detention center. “I came here to beg you for my safety,” an asylum seeker, who didn’t want to use his name, said after he fled a former Soviet Union country that criminalizes being LGBT. “When you put me in jail and keep me when I didn’t do anything, when I didn’t commit any crime, when you put me in jail and keep me in a freezing room like a refrigerator. You don’t expect that from this. I kind of expect that from Azerbaijan police.”
Earlier this week, Reps. Mike Honda (D-CA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and about 28 other members of Congress sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday asking his department to release LGTBQ detainees and to consider alternatives to detention or use parole.
“It is heartbreaking to see how raising these issues were received by the president and by those in attendance,” Gutiérrez said. “In the tradition of how Pride started, I interrupted his speech because it is time for our issues and struggles to be heard. I stood for what is right. Instead of silencing our voices, President Obama can also stand and do the right thing for our immigrant LGBTQ community.”