I came to the U.S. for the same reason many LGBT immigrants do: I knew I would have a safer, happier life here. As a transgender woman from El Salvador, I couldn’t transition in my home country without facing threats of persecution and violence. When I was 25, I made the decision to legally immigrate to the U.S.
Unfortunately, 10 years later, I was arrested for falling out of legal immigration status. Even though no criminal charges were brought against me, I spent nearly eight grueling months in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is a horrific place normally reserved for dangerous criminals. I was housed there because detention authorities refused to put me with other women and knew I would be unsafe in the male population.
The long period of isolation left me so depressed and emotionally distraught that, eventually, I signed a “voluntary” order to be sent back to El Salvador. Luckily, the immigration judge handling my case refused to deport me because of El Salvador’s longstanding history of violence against transgender people.
Like many transgender immigrants, I qualified for asylum but did not know that immigrants have to apply for it within one year of arriving in the U.S. and, consequently, I missed the deadline. Thankfully, the judge granted me withholding of removal status, meaning that I could not obtain permanent legal residence, but I would not face deportation. While my withholding of removal status allows me to live in the U.S. legally, it does not provide many of the key protections that asylum does.
As I continue to recover from the impact of life in solitary confinement, one of the things that gives me hope is advocating for commonsense, compassionate immigration reform. We need to reform our immigration system so that it addresses the needs of our country’s 11 million aspiring Americans, including an estimated 15,000 to 50,000 undocumented, transgender adults. A new report from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) underscores the unique challenges transgender immigrants face.
As NCTE’s report makes clear, the asylum filing deadline consistently prevents immigrants with legitimate claims of asylum from immigrating to the U.S. A 2010 study found that in 46 percent of immigration cases in which the filing deadline was an issue, it was the only reason cited for denying asylum. For people like me who face the threat of violence and persecution if deported, this arbitrary deadline is unacceptable.
As my experience illustrates, detention facilities can be especially hostile and dangerous places for transgender immigrants. Transgender detainees are frequently placed in solitary confinement despite the fact that it fails to prevent abuse and can seriously harm detainees’ psychological health. Transgender detainees also run the risk of being denied adequate health care because facility policies or the personal beliefs of staff prohibit providing this care.
Our current immigration system leaves transgender people too vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and injustice. That’s why I join NCTE and so many other LGBT organizations in calling on Congress to ensure that immigration reform legislation repeals the one-year asylum filing deadline and reforms detention facilities to prevent abuse and end prolonged solitary confinement.
The reform bill passed by the Senate this summer includes a repeal of the asylum filing deadline as well as provisions that would greatly improve conditions for people held in detention facilities. Congress should make certain that these important steps forward remain strong in final reform legislation.
Without commonsense, compassionate immigration reform, our country’s system will continue to deny us the basic human dignity to which we all have a right. I stand for reform because I believe that all immigrants are a vital part of our country’s fabric and should be treated with dignity and respect under immigration laws.