Trans and non-binary detainees accuse ICE of discrimination and mistreatment

Trans and non-binary detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility are accusing Immigration and Customs Enforcement of mistreatment.
Trans and non-binary detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility are accusing Immigration and Customs Enforcement of mistreatment.
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Five transgender and non-binary individuals in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody filed a civil rights complaint against the federal agency for discrimination, harassment, and mistreatment due to what they describe as inadequate gender-affirming care, dehumanizing housing placements, a lack of mental health treatment, and other issues.

The individuals suing ICE are being held at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, which has a “trans pod” — a dedicated space for trans and non-binary detainees. They are represented by the National Immigration Project, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, and American Immigration Council, which filed the complaint on their behalf. 

The complaint points to specific issues facing the detainees as well as broader systemic problems that have long impacted transgender and non-binary people in custody — including evidence that longer-term incarceration can compound mental health problems.

Alleged mistreatment of trans detainees in federal custody has been a recurring problem over the years: In February of 2020, dozens of trans women who were detained at the controversial Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico were moved elsewhere while ICE worked to improve the quality of health there, the agency said at the time. Roxsana Hernandez, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras, died after staying at the Cibola prison in 2018 and an autopsy showed she suffered bruising consistent with abuse by a baton, according to Lynly Egyes, director of litigation for Transgender Law Center, an Oakland, California-based advocacy group.

Now, however, the focus is on the alleged mistreatment at the Aurora facility. One of the detainees, Charlotte, was initially detained in Texas and Georiga, but wanted to be transferred to Aurora because she was “told that she would have better access to gender-affirming care,” the complaint notes. Instead, however, she said she has been confined to her dorm for 23-24 hours per day and feels “depressed” and “deceived” because she anticipated a better environment in Aurora, where she said medical care is also subpar. 

Another individual, Myriah, has dealt with weeks-long delays in her pursuit of gender-affirming care and was unable to receive blood work necessary to check her hormone levels, the complaint contends. She was allegedly given a different dose of medication than what was prescribed to her by her physician.

 A detainee named Elsa complained that doctors are slow to provide care and have neglected their responsibility to inform her about results of medical exams that were performed more than six months ago.

Moreover, multiple individuals expressed fear that their identity as a trans person would lead to disproportionately poor living conditions. Omar, who is trans and non-binary, asked for assurance that they would not be placed in solitary confinement if they started hormone replacement therapy. Instead, they said they have been told that they would be moved to “protective custody,” or solitary confinement, because the facility does not have a dorm for trans and non-binary people. 

“Keeping trans people isolated in pods doesn’t make them safer in ICE detention, where they routinely face abuse by staff and denial of essential medical treatment,” Rebekah Wolf, senior advocacy strategist at the American Immigration Council, said in a written statement. “It is telling that this facility in Aurora was purportedly one of the few in the country that met standards for keeping trans people safe, and yet, as this complaint shows, people endured systemic harassment and neglect. ICE needs to permanently end keeping trans and non-binary people in detention, because the agency clearly cannot guarantee basic standards of care.”

The complaint recommends that ICE immediately and permanently stop detaining transgender and non-binary people in civil immigration custody, create mechanisms to ensure laws are being followed, utilize community-based and not-for-profit alternatives to detention for those who are deemed a flight risk, improve transparency and accountability, and more.

When asked for comment, Denver-based ICE spokesperson Steve Kotecki told Gay City News that ICE is “committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments.” He claimed ICE reviews each case involving trans non-citizens and “determines on a case-by-case basis whether detention is needed.”

As of April 11, Kotecki said there are 10 self-identified trans detainees at the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora.

In the meantime, the detainees are asking ICE to investigate the incidents described in the complaint, provide additional training on providing reasonable accommodations to people with qualifying disabilities, and recommend system policy reforms such as an updated version of the 2015 ICE Transgender Care Memorandum, which guides authorities on placement and care of trans non-citizens in custody. Among the requested updates to the memorandum include specifying that trans and non-binary detainees should be provided gender-affirming clothing and to make sure that facilities are equipped with policies to protect non-binary people, such as allowing non-binary people to request housing in the dorm that they feel is more appropriate for them.

“The traumatic experiences detailed in this complaint make clear that ICE is incapable of safely and humanely incarcerating transgender and nonbinary people,” Ann Garcia, staff attorney at the National Immigration Project, said in a written statement. “As a result, we urge DHS to put an immediate and permanent end to ICE’s practice of detaining transgender and non-binary people. Until that happens, at a minimum, ICE must immediately implement new policies to provide safeguards to transgender and nonbinary people in their custody while also implementing regular oversight practices to guarantee adherence to these protective policies. Ultimately, however, we know the abuse and mistreatment documented in this complaint are emblematic of a detention system that is inherently inhumane and flawed beyond repair, and we will continue fighting to end this cruel and harmful system.”