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The Plight of LGBT Immigrant Detainees

Clement Lee, an expert on LGBT issues within the immigrant community, discusses the plight of LGBT individuals trapped in the detention system.
 
 
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 After civil rights complaints were filed by immigrant and LGBT advocates, Congressmen Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) last month called for a government investigation into alleged abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants in detention centers.

"While we applaud the administration for the steps it has taken to reform our immigration detention system, we are concerned about ongoing reports of sexual abuse at facilities housing immigrant detainees," the lawmakerswrote.

Clement Lee, a legal fellow at Immigration Equality who represents detained LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants, knows the plight of LGBT individuals trapped in the detention system very well. He answered my questions over email.

How are conditions different or unique for LGBT immigrant detainees?

LGBT immigrants in detention today face grim prospects. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual detainees are often harassed and threatened because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The overall lack of health care means that LGBT people who require a regular regimen of HIV medication or hormone therapy simply do not receive proper care. Transgender people are almost invariably detained in sex-segregated facilities contrary to their gender identity. Those who have taken steps to transition may be more readily identifiable as targets for sexual or physical violence. The University of California's Center for Evidence Based Corrections found in 2007 that "sexual assault is 13 times more prevalent among transgender inmates, with 59% reporting being sexually assaulted." Citing safety reasons, ICE often places transgender detainees in "administrative segregation," which can mean total isolation for up to 23 hours a day without access to library resources, recreation, or counsel. Regardless of its motivation, ICE's administrative segregation is alarmingly similar to prison punitive measures like solitary confinement. It is psychologically damaging and an inappropriate response in a civil detention setting. These conditions are particularly troubling in the context of detained LGBT asylum seekers, who fear persecution based on their gender identity or sexual orientation in their home country. As U.S. immigration law does not guarantee immigrants free legal representation in removal proceedings, these individuals are commonly unable to present their claims meaningfully in immigration court. Isolated, terrified, and lacking legal resources, they may languish for months or years in detention only to be ultimately deported to a country where their LGBT identity places them in danger of violence or murder.

What policies are needed to address the issues specific to LGBT immigrant detainees?

In many instances, ICE is simply unable to safely detain LGBT immigrants. Immigration Equality is therefore advocating that they be considered a "vulnerable population" and that only people who are demonstrated security or safety threats should be detained. Instead, ICE can use alternative-to-detention options like ankle monitoring bracelets, curfews, and telephonic check-ins to ensure that they appear at their immigration court dates. Closer adherence by ICE to its Performance Based National Detention Standards with respect to effective grievance measures, confidentiality, and health care could also reduce harm to vulnerable LGBT detainees.

Are there any bills or initiatives in the works?

Currently, immigration detention centers are not bound by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which mandates that jails follow certain protocols to protect inmates against sexual violence. These include limits to cross-gender viewing and searches; adequate inmate supervision with monitoring technology; strict hiring policies against anyone who has engaged in sexual abuse of another; special accommodations to protect particularly vulnerable inmates with special needs; and employee training on how to handle issues of sexual violence. Although Congress clearly intended PREA to apply broadly, the Department of Justice has maintained that ICE detention does not fall within its mandates. Immigration Equality, in coalition with other immigration groups, is advocating for full inclusion of ICE detention within the PREA standards.

Do you have any stories that stand out for you?

Our client Jacki [not her real name] was confined to a 10-foot-by-10-foot room in immigration detention simply because she was transgender. She was placed on suicide watch, with security checks every 15 minutes. She was denied her HIV medications and subsequently became extremely ill. Isolated, depressed, and hopeless, she began to bang her head against the walls of her cell. After extensive advocacy by Immigration Equality, and after Jacki filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Jacki was paroled out of detention with an ankle monitoring bracelet. ICE could have saved Jacki considerable hardship, and taxpayers considerable expense, if they had paroled Jacki immediately.

Chris Fitzegerald, Communications Director of Rep. Polis, said that the government has accepted the lawmakers' request for an investigation, which is expected to commence by June. Rep. Polis will decide whether to pursue legislation protecting LGBT immigrant detainees when he gets the results.

My impression of government investigations is that they can take an inordinate amount of time. Meanwhile, LGBT immigrants languish in detention facilities that are rarely monitored by the government,nearly half of which are run by private prison companies.

This piece was originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds.

Erwin de Leon is a Research Associate at Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy completing a doctorate in Public and Urban Policy from the New School. He writes a weekly column for Feet in 2 Worlds, an immigration news website, and contributes regularly to WNYC’s It’s A Free Country, the Nonprofit Quarterly and the Huffington Post.