A group of congressional Democrats are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to take additional steps to ensure the safety of LGBT people in immigrant detention.
In a letter dated March 23 and made public on Monday, the congressional Democrats — led by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) — seek aid from Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to ameliorate the conditions faced by LGBT people in immigrant detention.
“LGBT individuals are among the most vulnerable in ICE custody, and our policies must reflect the unique circumstances this population faces and protect them from mistreatment,” the letter says.
Undocumented LGBT immigrants fleeing persecution in their home countries based on sexual orientation or gender identity are sometimes placed in immigration detention as they seek asylum in the United States.
The letter, signed by 23 U.S. House members and 10 U.S. senators, comes nearly one year after the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement issued a memo to ensure a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for transgender immigrant detainees. But members of Congress who signed the letter say it’s not enough.
“DHS created a policy to protect LGBT detainees, yet not one of their facilities has implemented this policy,” Honda said in a statement. “Our treatment of our fellow human beings in this instance is a disgrace and not appropriate for the government of the United States of America. We are calling on Secretary Johnson to do the right thing.”
The letter points to a 2015 report from the Center of American Progress, which found ICE’s automated Risk Classification Assessments either explicitly recommend release or provide release as an option for LGBT detainees in 70 percent of cases. However, ICE officers, which have final say in any particular case, elect to detain LGBT people 68 percent of the time even when the automated tool allowed for release. This detention doesn’t include the possibility of release on bond 53 percent of the time.
“Additionally, when the bonds are set at thousands of dollars, most asylum seekers cannot afford release from detention,” the letter says. “That financial barrier compounds for LGBT immigrants who are often fleeing persecution in their home country with no wealth at all. With no employment protections or means of income, they are simply unable to meet these unreasonably high bond charges.”
The letter calls on DHS to parole or utilize community-based alternatives for immigration detention of LGBT people whenever possible under existing authority or when the administration deems it necessary for the safety of an individual.
Additionally, the letter seeks answers from DHS in response to six questions for LGBT immigrant detention:
1. Under what criteria do ICE employees override the determination of the RCA for the release of LGBT people?
2. What oversight does DHS have over ICE’s implementation of RCA and cases where ICE overrides the RCA recommendation?
3. Which facilities will adopt the Transgender Care Memorandum? What is the timeline for implementation? When will there be at least one facility complaint with the Memorandum within each area of responsibility?
4. What procedures are in place to protect transgender immigrants in facilities that do not adopt the contract modification?
5. What steps will you take to ensure that detained transgender individuals have access to qualified medical professionals who are familiar with Standards of Care?
6. How will you ensure that a transgender individual is not transferred to another facility against their will?
In a statement accompanying the letter, Grijalva said LGBT people “face significant threats in ICE custody.”
“We are obligated to address the risks they face and ensure their safety in federal facilities,” Grijalva said. “While DHS did create a policy to help protect this uniquely vulnerable population, they have neglected entirely to implement it. Half measures don’t solve problems, and sadly this failure impacts the safety and wellbeing of people seeking refuge here in the U.S. from violence in their home country. If DHS can’t provide a safe environment for the LGBT community – or any other group or individual – then we should end their detention immediately in favor of safer, community-based alternatives.”
An ICE official said the agency is “committed to providing a safe, secure, and respectful environment for all those in our custody,” including for transgender people in immigration detention.
“The agency’s ultimate goal with regard to this population is to find facility partners willing to adopt the best practices detailed in ICE’s Transgender Care Memo,” the official said. “ICE continues to use the Santa Ana City Jail facility to house transgender women; ICE has housed transgender individuals in this unique Dedicated Housing Unit at Santa Ana City Jail since 2011. Santa Ana City Jail, which houses the overwhelming majority of ICE’s detained transgender population, has medical professionals on staff who have experience providing health care to transgender individuals, including hormone therapy.”
In addition to Honda and Hirono, other House members who signed the letter are Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) as well as Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Elizabeth Etsy (D-Conn.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-N.Y.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.).
In addition to Hirono, other U.S. senators were signed the letter are Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
A number of LGBT advocates echoed the congressional Democrats’ call for DHS to take additional action for LGBT people in immigration detention, including Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality.
“For transgender asylum seekers who flee violent persecution in their home countries, what they need the most is access to counsel, community support, and medical care. This can be impossible in detention,” Morris said. “Because immigration detention is fundamentally unsafe for transgender women, the most humane and cost-effective solution is to release them or to use alternative to detention programs.”
Zenen Jaimes Perez, policy and advocacy analyst at United We Dream, said the administration should immediately change policy regarding LGBT people in immigration detention.
“Immigrants are running away from violence, from abuse, from murder, and instead of finding safe haven, ICE is putting them in situations where we know they are facing violence,” he said. “The time to end the detention of transgender immigrants is now. It’s important that members of Congress are speaking out on this crisis and we call on the administration to take action to stop the abuse.”