Let’s Talk: Trans Latinx in U.S. Detention Centers

Trigger Warning: Discussion of rape and sexual assault in detention facilities.

With Trump’s increased attention to the United States-Mexico border, and the media frenzy that has followed, attention has been focused on who migrants from South America actually are. According to the New York Times, there has been increased LGBTQ Latinx presence coming from South America. Dr. Clark-Alfaro, a professor for San Diego State University, expressed how LGBTQ Latinx migrants, “...who can’t hide their sexuality and gender, there’s a huge aggression toward them… trans women are the ones who are most heavily targeted.” According to Clark-Alfaro, machismo and religious sensibilities provoke attack against people who break gender norms in the home countries of trans Latinx. Machismo refers to a strong sense of masculine pride— think along the lines of amplified toxic masculinity.

A trans human rights activist from El Salvador named Raiza Daniela Aparicio Hernandez shared with the Times how she was physically assaulted by four police officers in her San Salvador home she shared with her boyfriend. The police officers had been to her home before, threatening to enter her home without a permit. One day they barged in and violently sexually assaulted her. Hernandez recalled how the abuse lasted hours. Hernandez tried to file a formal report with her partner to the government in El Salvador, but was continually cut off and her complaint ultimately got nowhere. Police officers continued harassing her. In 2017, she left El Salvador for the United States, recollecting how many of her friends have died in this fight. Hernandez reflected on how these atrocities are enacted by the police and dismissed by the government. Hernandez’s story is not the only narrative of pain and trauma faced by LGBTQ Latinx asylum seekers. Many LGBTQ Latinx people face verbal assault in the streets, as well as physical, psychological and emotional abuse by their family, neighbors, authorities— and even strangers in their hometowns.

This framework of violent anti-LGBTQ and blatant transphobic action against LGBTQ Latinx victims can help us understand the journey to the United States that for many LGBTQ Latinx is deemed necessary for survival. Perhaps the group with the least media coverage, trans Latinx, endure some of the harshest conditions within U.S. detention centers. Back in May 2018, a trans woman named Roxsana Hernandez died in New Mexico while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody due to cardiac arrest and HIV-related complications. According to the New York Times, detention centers in the United States provide atrocious conditions for trans Latinx. Many trans women are placed in men’s detention centers where high rates of sexual assault against trans Latinx women persist.

According to Resendiz in "Effects of Privatization of Immigration Detention in the Lives of Transgender Latina Immigrants," ICE operates a specific trans housing unit called the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. But, many trans individuals fear the distance it may put between their lawyers and familial connections, so they may be unable — or frankly terrified — to be transferred and lose legal standing and solidarity. According to Just Detention International, LGBTQ immigrants are 15 times more likely than other detainees to be sexually assaulted in confinement. Between January 2010 to July 2016, there were 33,126 complaints of sexual/physical abuse in U.S. immigration detention facilities— only 570 of which were investigated by the government, as reported by the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).

Protection for LGBTQ immigrants has been fleeting. In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA aimed to reduce prison rape in federal, state and local institutions, and provide information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect prisoners from rape. However, the PREA that was revamped and passed in 2012 did not include immigrant detention facilities. President Obama released a memorandum in May 2012 detailing that detention facilities must work with the Attorney General to implement PREA guidelines but, much like Obama’s immigration stances, it was relatively spineless.

In March 2014, the Department of Homeland Security released the PREA standards for detention facilities that outlined many important LGBTQ protections. However, the United States made it unclear if this would even apply for detainees in private-run detention centers or beds rented from local or county facilities that DHS occupied. Resendiz notes that though the requirement for trans people to be housed according to their identified gender exists under the PREA protections, the Department of Homeland Security continues to house trans women within all-male facilities where they face sexual assault regularly, as well as psychological, emotional and physical trauma inflicted by officers and detainees alike.

It is evident that trans Latinx people within U.S. custody are largely underserved and blatantly neglected. Various trans Latinx organizations including El/La Para TransLatinas and Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement (FTQLM)  help trans Latinx in the United States and work with trans Latinx going through U.S. immigration. FTQLM is also hosting a national encuentro called “mi existir es resistir” to build power for the trans, queer & gender non-conforming Latinx community on May 17-19, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA. More information can be found on the FTQLM website.