Kevin, a 23-year-old trans man, decided to come to the United States because of gender-based discrimation and trauma that he experienced in his home country, Cuba. He thought that sort of thing didn’t happen in the United States.
But after arriving and immediately being placed in the women’s barracks of ICE detention at the El Paso Service Processing Center, Kevin learned that his assumptions about this country weren’t accurate.
“I realized, ‘Ah, there is discrimination (everywhere).’ That was the most dramatic thing, realizing that there is discrimination in a free country,” he said.
Kevin was recently released from detention after testing positive for COVID-19 — part of an ongoing outbreak at the El Paso ICE detention facility where there are six active cases among current detainees, as of Oct. 14.
He had been detained there since July, and tested negative upon arrival to the facility, so believes that he acquired COVID-19 through spread within the facility itself. But long before the pandemic, transgender detainees have complained of abuse, medical neglect and discrimination by ICE. The death of a transgender woman in El Paso in June 2019 triggered a national conversation around the treatment of trans asylum seekers in ICE detention.
In the months that Kevin lived in the women’s barracks at the El Paso Service Processing Center, he described constant harassment by guards, especially whenever he used the bathroom; frequent misgendering, and a lack of access to any gender-affirming materials, such as men’s underwear, which he repeatedly requested.
“Every time I was going to take a shower, the officers were always on top of me, like I was going to do something wrong to the girls. I felt constantly watched in the bathroom, when I was taking a shower, constantly,” Kevin said.
He reported being closely watched by the guards and given frequent special attention not just in the bathroom, but any time he tried to interact with other detainees.
“I felt uncomfortable because I couldn’t talk with the girls, officers were always on top of me right away. The only moments I felt safe and like I wasn’t being watched was when I was reading a book or alone on my bed,” he said.
Kevin described how some guards called him by his name, and used the correct pronouns for him, but other guards and staff at the detention center’s medical clinic insisted on calling him by his dead name, and made a point to identify him as a woman, sometimes while laughing or mocking him.
Hector Ruiz, an attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, often works with transgender detainees in ICE facilities, and said that Kevin’s experience echoes what they have heard from other clients. (Ruiz uses they/them pronouns.)
“We’ve worked with a number of detention centers and some are just really lacking in that sort of sensitivity training. And even will go out of their way to harass folks in custody, like telling them that they need to walk a certain way or like the gender that they were (assigned at birth),” Ruiz said.
Leticia Zamarripa, spokesperson for ICE in the El Paso area, said that ICE has provided some sensitivity training to detention staff, though did not say to what extent or how frequently this training occurs at El Paso area facilities.
“Over the years, ICE has provided LGBTI training to ICE and facility staff, coordinating with various college professors and facilitators to present a training curriculum that covers LGBTI sensitivity and transgender detainee care, and specific instruction on the provisions of the Transgender Care Memorandum,” Zamarripa said.
I asked Ruiz what steps they think should be taken by ICE to promote increased safety for transgender detainees.
“The easiest solution would be for ICE to just release transgender asylum seekers. Whatever ICE uses as criteria to release folks, I think transgender individuals have some of the strongest claims around,” they said.
This perspective, that all transgender detainees should be released from ICE custody, is not unique to Ruiz or to the Santa Fe Dreamers organization.
In April a class action lawsuit was filed to demand the release of all transgender detainees in ICE facilities throughout the United States. The suit alleged that COVID-19 had worsened already dangerous conditions within ICE facilities, to which transgender detainees are especially vulnerable.
Aside from the possibility of release, Ruiz said another harm reduction strategy that ICE could take would be transfers to more specialized detention situations. This already exists, though to a limited extent, said Ruiz, who has worked with transgender women detainees who were moved to specially designated transgender units, also known as “pods.”
Zamarripa said that this specialized housing strategy has been used by ICE for six years. “In 2014, ICE established a first-of-its kind dedicated unit for transgender women in California. ICE trained facility medical and detention staff in best practices for the care of transgender individuals; hired a dedicated custody resource coordinator to ensure detainee access to care and services; and facilitated partnerships with local transgender organizations for peer support and other services and programming.”
Since this strategy has been implemented, however, there have been reports from detainees of rampant abuse and medical neglect at ICE transgender pods. In June 2019, 29 detainees at a New Mexico transgender pod sent an open letter detailing abuse by staff and inadequate medical care.
Kevin was not given an option to be placed in a specialized facility. Although being placed in the women’s barracks led to psychologically damaging misgendering, he would not have preferred to have been placed in the men’s barracks.
“It would probably be better to stay in the women’s barracks because I haven’t had the surgery yet, so it would be a problem to be with men,” Kevin said.
The issues of safety that transgender people can face in detention are complex, Ruiz said, with detainees often ending up in a lose-lose situation like the one Kevin is describing.
“There’s trans folks detained all over the country. A lot of them end up being housed in barracks with the opposite gender, with the gender that they were assigned at birth and do not identify with. And that’s a huge issue. There is a lot of harassment involved with folks who are housed in situations like this,” they said.
The alternative for many transgender detainees is to isolate themselves completely, or to seek out solitary confinement to avoid harassment.
“It’s complicated,” Kevin said. “Not because I was surrounded by women, but in terms of privacy, and not being able to talk to anyone. As long as you make a lot of space between yourself and everyone else, you don’t have problems.”
A combination of isolation and circumstances that produce gender dysphoria is an intense psychological load to bear for transgender detainees, Ruiz said.
“A lot of times our trans clients will actually choose to be placed in segregation because they’d rather have that sense of safety, even though they’re essentially isolated from everybody else, and obviously that can’t be healthy either,” Ruiz said.