After speaking out against sexual harassment, withheld medications and dehumanizing treatment by guards at a New Mexico immigrant detention center, transgender women and gay men say that they were victims of retaliation from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“They expected that in the United States, they would be in a safe environment,” Kristin Greer Love, a staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico, told The Daily Beast. “Instead, they have been essentially incarcerated in a private prison, and ICE has subjected them to unconstitutional conditions while they’ve been detained.”
According to the detainees, after complaining that their treatment in ICE detention was worse than they had experienced in migrant caravans, transgender women in detention were forced to bathe and sleep with cisgender male detainees, or even held in solitary confinement as punishment for speaking out.
“It’s a punitive situation for people who have never been convicted of a crime,” Love said.
The ACLU of New Mexico detailed the alleged misconduct in a letter addressed to ICE officials, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting inspector general and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and the warden of the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico, a private detention center operated by Management and Training Corporation (MTC). In the letter, based on the experiences of 12 gay men and transgender women seeking asylum in the United States, the Otero facility’s overseers are depicted as brutish, transphobic, and fixated on sex—and willing to punish any detainees who protest such treatment.
“During the three months I was detained in Otero, I was repeatedly groped while I slept, asked to perform sexual favors in exchange for food, and verbally insulted by other detainees,” one 20-year-old gay man, referred to only by the initial “W.” in the letter, said. “When I complained, I was thrown into solitary confinement for five days and threatened with further punishment if I complained again. Now that I am released from custody, I am free to speak up because I do not fear retaliation.”
Transgender women report being told to “walk like a man!” and that they had “better sit like a man!” at Otero, as well as being forced to stay in barracks where they bathe and sleep alongside cisgender men. They also allege that they have been denied access to hormone-replacement drugs by on-site medical staff without explanation beyond “ICE won’t give you hormones.”
“Three of them mentioned that they had been able to take hormones in their countries of origin and while on their journey, and that ICE just flat-out refused,” Love told The Daily Beast. “The U.S. government failed them and failed to provide medical care for them—it is an expectation that ICE provide that kind of medical care when they’re electing to detain transgender people.”
Under a 2015 memorandum issued under President Barack Obama, and which remains in effect, “transgender detainees who were already receiving hormone therapy when taken into ICE custody shall have continued access” to those medications, as well as “the opportunity to shower in a setting that ensures safety and privacy.”
“When ICE officials drafted their own policies, they recognized that transgender and gay immigrants are among the most vulnerable people in their custody,” said Santa Fe Dreamers Project Staff Attorney Hector Ruiz, a signatory on the letter. “But the way staff are treating these people shows a complete disregard for their humanity.”
Those who demanded that the Otero facility abide by the government’s rules allege that they were forced into solitary confinement, a charge supported by a Homeland Security inspector general report in 2017, when Otero, one of four immigrant detention centers operated by MTC, was cited for “potential misuse of solitary confinement” as punishment for unexplained offenses.
“They’ve really tried to tamp down any complaints within the detention center about unlawful conditions by threatening something that is absolutely punitive,” Love said, adding that two weeks ago, all transgender and gay detainees were reassigned to new housing units with cisgender, heterosexual detainees.
“We are very concerned that this action of putting a very vulnerable group of people in with heterosexual, cisgender men has made them even more vulnerable to abuse,” Love said. “When ICE decides to detain people in a way that makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault or abuse, they are violating PREA,” or the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law that requires prison staff to take proactive steps to prevent sexual abuse of at-risk inmates.
An ICE spokesperson declined to provide comment on individual allegations, but said that the agency is “committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
A spokesperson for MTC, the private prison company that operates Otero, said in a statement that the company “is committed to the highest level of safety and care to those we serve regardless of transgender identity,” and stated that the company is unaware “of any incidents at the facility that even come close to these allegations.”
LGBT people are at a much higher risk of violence in immigration detention centers than the general population, with potentially deadly results. In May 2018, Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a transgender woman from Honduras, died after nine days of hospitalization that followed a transfer to a dedicated unit for transgender women at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. According to an independent autopsy report released in November, she had likely been beaten while in ICE custody.
“If ICE is serious about their compliance with the law and their own policies, I hope they will take this opportunity to meet with us to move the discussion towards specific solutions that respect the dignity of LGBT individuals in their custody,” said Nicolas Palazzo, an attorney and fellow at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “The use of solitary confinement, the perpetuation of sexual harassment, and the refusal of necessary medical treatment to LGBT detainees are barbaric and degrading practices. We believe ICE must do better and we are hopeful that by bringing these abuses to light, we can put an end to them.”