The XX Factor

The Horrifying Treatment of Transgender Women in Immigrant Detention 

A scene from a September 2014 demonstration against U.S. immigration policy.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Transgender women held in U.S. immigrant detention centers face routine abuse, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last week. Contrary to a memorandum on the care of transgender detainees U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued in 2015, the agency has not implemented proper protocols at a single facility, leaving trans women to suffer repeated sexual assaults, harassment, unwarranted strip searches, and prolonged stays in solitary confinement.

Of the 28 current and former trans detainees author Adam Frankel interviewed for the report, 16 had been held for some period in men’s facilities, though, Frankel says, they “live, identify, and present” as women. Most immigrated from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras, and many came to the U.S. to escape torture, persecution, and the same kinds of abuse they’ve suffered in ICE facilities. Even women who were held at ICE’s lone segregated housing unit for trans women, at the Santa Ana City Jail in California, were denied appropriate mental and medical health care and insulted about their gender identity.

ICE’s Transgender Care Memorandum of June 2015 set up a series of guidelines for detaining trans immigrants, including refugees seeking asylum, legal permanent residents, and undocumented people waiting for their cases to progress through immigration courts, a process that can take years. The memorandum stressed the need for safe housing assignments for trans people, which for trans women could include housing with other detained women, trans-women-specific units, or limited solitary confinement “under exceptional circumstances.” It also recommended guard sensitivity trainings, preferred pronoun trainings, and gender-affirming medical care.

But there are 250 detention facilities across the country, and ICE must negotiate to integrate its protocols into the operating contracts of each one. So far, none have implemented ICE’s regulations on transgender care. “ICE has built a sprawling detention system, relying on subcontracts with local jails and private prison companies,” Frankel told Slate. “That makes it difficult to maintain meaningful oversight of detention conditions.”

In practice, that means trans women are forced to shower with male detainees, strip-searched by male guards, denied adequate access to hormone replacement therapy and HIV treatment, and kept in facilities with men, where they’re subject to extraordinarily high rates of sexual assault. The few standards that ICE has set forth to promote more humane treatment of trans detainees are vague and nonbinding. In 2011, ICE released guidelines that say housing placements “should not be based solely on the identity documents or physical anatomy of the detainee,” but administrators are still free to house trans women with men if they choose. The 2011 guidelines also stated that trans detainees should be able to choose the gender of the guard performing a body-cavity search “whenever possible.” This leaves a window open for abuse and guard behavior that violates the wishes and safety of the detainees.

For many trans detainees, the experience of an ICE detention center echoes the conditions they fled in their home countries. “One woman I interviewed at Santa Ana broke down crying as she told me about how she had been raped in Tijuana just two weeks earlier, before presenting herself at the border to seek asylum and being admitted to detention. She never imagined she’d end up being locked up and traumatized for seeking help,” Frankel said. “Another woman told me she fled Mexico after being physically tortured and receiving death threats. … She found the strip searches so degrading and traumatic that she said she was considering signing a voluntary deportation form because she didn’t know how long she could last in detention.”

Immigrant detention centers are not prisons, and detainees are not criminals. Still, over the past two decades, U.S. immigration policy has made detention a major pillar of its enforcement plan, even for refugees and undocumented people who do not pose a flight risk or a danger to their communities. Trans women can wait in detention centers for years, even for civil immigration violations, as their cases or asylum claims progress through the courts—and the threats they face are almost identical to those facing incarcerated trans women. The HRW report describes a system of indiscriminate solitary confinement used to punish trans inmates for minor infractions or to keep the male detainees from abusing them. “Indefinite solitary confinement is a form of human rights abuse and is not a legitimate way of protecting individuals in detention from other forms of abuse,” the report states.

Some women Frankel interviewed said that when they reported incidents of sexual assault, they were placed in solitary confinement as punishment for “engaging in sexual relations with other detainees.” One trans woman from Honduras said she was held in solitary confinement because of her gender presentation. “A guard told me that [they placed me in solitary confinement] ‘because I had long hair and breasts,’” she says in the report. “One of [them] told me that he was ‘tired of seeing faggots.’ They treated me like an animal.”

In many ways, the segregated housing unit at Santa Ana, which opened in March 2012, seems to offer one of the best ways forward for a system that has proved unwilling or unable to accommodate trans women in existing detention housing for cisgender women. But even that facility has failed to give trans detainees the protection they need. Up until last summer, gay men were housed with trans women in the Santa Ana unit, a daft setup that mischaracterizes the identities and needs of trans detainees. Just last month, the Santa Ana City Council voted against an ICE proposal for additional housing for LGBT detainees that would have granted the city about $2.2 million in annual revenue.

If ICE can’t house trans detainees in safe, humane, gender-appropriate facilities, it should stop holding them altogether. HRW reports that ICE officers regularly discriminate against LGBT immigrants: They detained LGBT people in 19 percent of cases where a computerized “risk classification assessment” explicitly recommended that the immigrants be released. By comparison, among the general population, ICE officials used their discretion to detain such immigrants just 7.6 percent of the time.

For those trans women who do get released, discharge marks the start of a new set of challenges. “Many [trans detainees] carry profound trauma even before arriving in the U.S., and that trauma is deepened by their experiences in detention. Once they are released, they often struggle to access housing and health care, let alone mental health services,” Frankel said. “The psychological impacts of their detention stays with them long after they are released.”