Report: LGBT immigrant detainees face higher risk of sexual assault, abuse

Study shows LGBT detainees mistreated in wait for asylum, immigration status

Immigrant detainees walk through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detention facility on February 28, 2013 in Florence, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

While a majority of Americans support immigration reform, few may know about the issues plaguing a subset of detainees caught in limbo in the nation’s immigration system.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrants held in immigration detention facilities are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their heterosexual counterparts, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP).

LGBT immigrants face a unique set of issues that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are doing little to resolve, according to the report. Because ICE and DHS do not recognize a detainee by their gender-identity, but by their gender at birth, transgender detainees are kept with members of the opposite sex.

“LGBT Immigrants are very unsafe in our current detention system,” said Sharita Gruberg, a policy analyst for LGBT Immigration Project at CAP. “Current immigration detention policies don’t account for the gender identity of an individual. You have transgender women being forced to shower with men. You can see how that is an issue.”

Gruberg, the author of the report, said ICE does not keep any data on the amount of LGBT detainees they bring in, so there is little information available to gauge the full scope of the problem. The information she obtained was done with the use of federal Freedom of Information request.

Her request revealed instances of transgender detainees being referred to as “he-she” by immigration officials, not receiving proper medical treatment and LGBT detainees being kept in solitary confinement as a protective measure by ICE to attempt to keep the detainees from being sexually assaulted.

HIV-positive detainees are at very high risk of not getting the right treatment, the study notes. Victoria Arellano, an HIV positive female transgender detainee, died in 2007 in a men’s mass detention cell because she was refused medical attention and treatment. Transgender detainees are also frequently denied hormone treatment while detained.

The report says several U.S. Circuit Courts have found such a denial to be in violation of the eighth amendment requirement for the incarcerated to receive “adequate medical care.”

“The biggest problem is we’re detaining a very vulnerable population in conditions that are dangerous to this population, with very little oversight – and often times they are people who I argue should not be detained,” Gruberg told Al Jazeera, noting that many LGBT immigration detainees are asylum seekers or survivors of torture who have fled their home country to escape persecution for their sexuality.

Gruberg says putting LGBT detainees in solidarity confinement actually does more harm than good. The report points to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, who finds the effects of “prolonged” use of solitary confinement – at or above 15 days – may produce irreversible psychological effects.

At the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, Fla., transgender immigrants have been held in solitary for up to six months at a time, according to the advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice.

At the same detention center, LGBT immigrants held in solitary spend their only hour of outside their cells in a caged section of the outdoor recreational area, often at the same time as the general population, while the guards encourage other immigrants to harass them.

The results of solitary confinement include “hallucinations, panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, paranoia,” and numerous other psychological effects, according to the report.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, an ICE spokesperson said the agency is  "in the process of reviewing the report by the Center for American Progress regarding LGBT detainees in ICE detention facilities," and that it " takes the health, safety and welfare of those in our care very seriously."

ICE adds that in 2009, it "initiated fundamental detention reforms including the development of new detention standards to protect vulnerable detainees," and that the agency is "continually working to ensure these reforms are consistently implemented at all facilities that house ICE detainees.”    

ICE also issued new guidelines in 2011 for its detention centers in an effort to reduce the amount of LGBT detainees in solitary, but the guidelines are voluntary and haven’t made enough of a difference in the eyes of critics.

“The reason ICE had to come out on this guidance on solitary confinement was because it was being used so frequently,” Gruberg said. “ICE itself has been a problem. When we approach them with these issues they come back with the steps they have taken to solve these problems. As we’re hearing from advocates in the field, it’s not enough.”

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