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Transgender Women Suffer Abuse and Neglect in U.S. Immigration Detention, Human Rights Watch Reports

March 30, 2016

Do You See How Much I'm Suffering Here?

Credit: Human Rights Watch

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that despite a June 2015 change in U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy, transgender women in immigration detention are still subjected to abuse and neglect. This policy change came after a young Mexican transgender woman, Victoria Arellano, died in ICE custody in 2007 after being refused HIV medications.

Many of the transgender women held by ICE requested asylum at the U.S. border after being persecuted in their home countries for their gender identity or were detained for low-level crimes, such as involvement in sex work. According to the report, ICE estimates that at any given point there are about 65 transgender women among the approximately 30,000 immigration detainees in 250 facilities, including those operated by ICE itself, local jails and privately operated jails. As of December 2015, thirty-six of these women were housed in a segregated unit at the Santa Ana City Jail in Santa Ana, Calif.

Even though this unit is supposed to provide a safe environment and necessary services, including HIV treatment, for transgender women, most of the women interviewed there by Human Rights Watch reported invasive strip searches by male guards, frequent lockdowns for minor infractions and "severely inadequate" medical and mental health care. ICE standards require uninterrupted access to HIV medication, but HIV testing is only performed at the detainee's request and there are often lengthy delays in obtaining antiretrovirals.

Among the 28 transgender women whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for its report was Linda F. from El Salvador (the report uses pseudonyms to protect the women's privacy). Her HIV medications were confiscated when she requested asylum at the U.S. border. She disclosed her HIV status at the immigration detention facility to which she was transported but did not receive any medications until two months later, shortly before her release. When she objected to a facility guard's review of her medical records without consent, she was threatened with solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch cites a report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (of which ICE forms a part) criticizing the practice of having medical screenings conducted by detention officers without medical training.

Human Rights Watch also created a video featuring women sharing their experiences:

The report also notes lengthy delays in obtaining other medical care, including access to hormone replacement therapy and emergency services. One transgender woman at the Santa Ana facility complained about severe abdominal pain and vomiting for 24 hours before finally being taken for emergency surgery for a burst appendix at the local hospital.

As a result of its investigation, Human Rights Watch demands that U.S. immigration authorities:

  • Provide alternatives to detention for transgender women and other vulnerable populations.
  • Ensure safe and humane conditions for the detention of transgender women.
  • Stop abusive practices at the Santa Ana segregated unit.
  • Monitor conditions for transgender women held elsewhere in immigration detention.

Barbara Jungwirth is a freelance writer and translator based in New York.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @reliabletran.

Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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