Released 16 December 2016  By Greg Marzullo - Washington Blade
LGBT detainees describe harrowing life inside Eloy
Greg Marzullo - Washington Blade
December 8, 2016
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In 2015, ICE came out with its Transgender Care Memo, a set of policies that, according to Pitts O’Keefe, “was the result of a six-month agency working group that examined issues and concerns related to LGBTI detainees and incorporates input from transgender individuals who visited various non-federal facilities across the country to observe best practices.”
ICE also has a designated national LGBTI coordinator and field office liaisons for local officers. Pitts O’Keefe reports that detainees have access to a toll-free number where they can report any abuse, even anonymously if they choose, and a flier about the hotline is posted in every ICE facility.
Yet neither Pits O’Keefe nor Burns addressed my question about the seeming discrepancy between what the official policies are and the first-hand accounts of LGBT immigrants’ detention experience.
Flor Bermudez, the detention project director at the Transgender Law Center in California, fills in some of the gaps, especially about ICE’s Transgender Care Memo.
“One of the biggest criticisms is that it’s optional,” she said. “The one facility where they are doing it is Santa Ana [in California]. Because this policy is only optional for facilities…the culture in the entire system has not changed.”
Santa Ana’s city jail has a special transgender unit for immigrants, but Bermudez calls it “terrible” and said when detainees at other centers consider disclosing their transgender status, “they know the consequences will be solitary in Eloy or [a transfer to] Santa Ana. Many of them choose not to disclose and they are exposed to the risk.”
Finally, she said LGBT sensitivity training for staff at the detention centers, at least as it concerns trans people, is inadequate.
“They’ve developed a one-hour video. The video has Caitlyn Jenner as an example of a transgender woman. It also has a transgender immigrant cartoon. The training…has no backup of an enforceable policy. It’s not helpful or efficient.”
CAP released a report in October stating that ICE officials kept greater numbers of LGBT immigrants in detention during fiscal year 2015 than 2014 – 88 percent of the time – instead of releasing them to community advocacy groups for monitoring.
In 2014, ICE, at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, began to implement the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which enabled law enforcement and ICE officials to work together on identifying undocumented immigrants. When local law enforcement arrests and books someone, they send fingerprints not only to the FBI, but, under PEP, to ICE as well, allowing all parties to identify undocumented immigrants considered a threat to public safety – a designation defined by Congress in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
“Certain portions of the law [don’t] just authorize detention of immigrants – it requires it,” Morris said, adding that when the law was passed in 1996, “Congress was focused overmuch on punitive measures. A lot of the laws they passed offered very little wiggle room for immigration officers on the borders.”
Specific petty crimes (e.g. moral turpitude, theft or fraud) on someone’s record automatically result in detention. Morris tells of one of his clients who had AIDS. Being poor, the 19-year-old male tried to self-medicate, stealing Advil and nasal spray to keep his nose from running. Technically, he could be held as a flight risk or as a danger to the community because of the two thefts, something Morris calls “ludicrous.”
It’s no secret that the Obama administration has deported more people than any other, claiming they’re focusing on criminals instead of young people and families. However, something as innocuous as jumping a New York subway turnstile can result in a criminal charge.
“I think the Obama administration was great at…tossing what was a temporary Band-Aid and then allowing us to bleed in another way,” said Bailon.
Despite the Obama administration’s high deportation numbers, the looming Trump presidency is causing even more anxiety.
“We are in a state of aggressive triage,” said Morris. “When you think about what President-elect Trump has really prioritized throughout his campaign and continuing through his president-elect status, he has consistently said he is going to deport people – a great number of those individuals will be LGBT people.”
“We’re figuring out strategy,” Bailon said. “LGBT communities are criminalized at a higher rate. We understand that we might be the first ones to be deported.”
For Bailon, Jaramillo and others, returning to Mexico or other countries where homophobic and transphobic violence are the norm, the increased threat of deportation takes on life-or-death consequences, and the day-to-day pressure of living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant increases exponentially.
“It’s very difficult to live like this every day,” said Jaramillo, who is in the midst of fighting her asylum case. “It’s like when someone tells you, ‘we’re going to send you to this place,’ and you’re waiting for somebody to shoot you…and end your life.”
After almost four hours inside Eloy, it’s time for us to go. As I walk out the door of the visiting room, I cast a backwards glance at the crowd and see a door at the opposite end. It looks just like the one I’m standing in – the same color, presumably the same make – but its destination is much different. In a few moments, I’ll get my passport, driver’s license and debit card back with relatively little hassle. I’ll pass through three more doors and stacks of razor wire, go to the parking lot, get in the car and text my husband that I’m out. I’ll drive home to my apartment, and my life will resume. That other door, though, on the far end of the visitors’ room, leads to a labyrinth where people seeking asylum or hoping to live that capricious American dream are lost in the bowels of institutionalized racism, xenophobia and anti-LGBT bias.
Sitting at lunch with the Trans Queer Pueblo workers after our visit, Jaramillo asks me how my experience was inside. I tell her that I was surprised not to be frightened. More than anything, I was disgusted. I ask her what makes her come back to this place where she, herself, suffered detainment and the possibility of sexual assault.
“To share the pain of the others,” she said. “To feel the impotence of it. We can leave and continue with our lives, and they’re caged like rats. I’m here because I want to continue fighting against this feeling of impotence. To open those gates and let everyone free.”
Eloy Detention Center, gay news, Washington Blade
Dago Bailon (left) and Karyna Jaramillo near the Trans Queer Pueblo headquarters in Phoenix.