June 19, 2019 at 9:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Transgender group in NM defends work with ICE
The Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., has a unit specifically for transgender women who are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico makes monthly trips to the facility in rural New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The co-director of a transgender advocacy group in New Mexico last week said it remains important to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Adrien Lawyer of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico on June 12 told the Washington Blade and a reporter from Univision that his group “liaisons with ICE” and with the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., where ICE has a unit specifically for trans women who are in their custody.

CoreCivic, a private company that was once known as the Corrections Corporation of America, operates the Cibola County Correctional Center, which is roughly 80 miles west of Albuquerque in rural Cibola County. The minimum-security men’s facility also houses cisgender men who are in the custody of ICE, the U.S. Marshals and Cibola County.

Lawyer said he and his colleagues are able to visit the Cibola County Correctional Center every four weeks.

He said the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico works with therapists who volunteer their time to meet with trans women who are detained in the facility. Lawyer added “a good friend of ours who owns a hair salon” now goes to the Cibola County Correctional Center twice a month and teaches classes at a hair salon that has been created inside the unit.

Lawyer said the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico adds $20 to each detainee’s account after each visit in order to make phone calls and buy food and other items in the facility’s commissary. Lawyer also noted the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico gives them cellphones, backpacks, makeup, personal hygiene products, snacks and clothing from the group’s thrift store to trans upon their release from ICE custody.

“One of the things that they always tell us is that they appreciate sort of being reassured that they are not being forgotten in there, that they’re not really alone, they have a tie to the transgender community on the outside and feel like they’re still cared about and remembered,” said Lawyer.

Lawyer spoke with the Blade and Univision a few hours after ICE for the first time granted reporters access to the unit.

ICE Assistant Field Office Director William Jepsen, who is based in Albuquerque, led the tour. Cibola County Correctional Center Assistant Warden Betty Judd and Corey A. Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, Texas, were among those who accompanied the reporters alongside ICE spokespeople Danielle Bennett and Leticia Zamarripa.

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, the former deputy assistant director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Custody Programs who recently became director of children and family services at the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, spoke with the Blade and Univision alongside Lawyer at his office in Albuquerque. Bennett and Zamarripa also attended the reporters meeting.

From left: Andrew Lorenzen-Strait of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico Co-director Adrien Lawyer speak with reporters at the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico’s offices in Albuquerque, N.M., on June 12, 2019. Lorenzen-Strait, who is openly gay, was previously the deputy assistant director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Custody Programs. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The unit for trans ICE detainees opened at the Cibola County Correctional Center in 2017.

A unit for gay, bisexual and trans detainees opened at the Santa Ana Jail in Santa Ana, Calif., in 2011. ICE from 2014 only housed trans detainees in the unit, which closed three years later after its contract with the facility ended.

“Cibola was the only facility I could get in time to be able to not have a disruption of care from 60 transgender women in California in lieu of protective custody, which would be ‘individual isolation,'” Lorenzen-Strait told the Blade when asked why ICE decided to create a unit for trans detainees in rural New Mexico. “That wasn’t an option for me as a pragmatic progressive. I had to figure out a solution that would work. and thankfully this field director, Corey Price, said yes.”

Roxsana Hernández died in NM hospital while in ICE custody

The Cibola County Correctional Center has come under increased scrutiny since Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran with HIV who had been briefly detained at the facility, died at an Albuquerque hospital on May 25, 2018, while in ICE custody.

Alejandra, a prominent trans rights activist from El Salvador who has been in ICE custody since 2017, remains detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center.

Lawyer said he met Alejandra when he visited the facility for the first time in May 2018. He added he and his colleagues try to see her each time they visit the Cibola County Correctional Center.

“There’s been some times that we’ve come to visit when she’s been a little bit too depressed and didn’t want to come,” said Lawyer.

Nicole García Aguilar, a trans Honduran woman who the U.S. has granted asylum, was released from the Cibola County Correctional Center less than three hours before the reporters began their tour. Tania Linares García of the National Immigration Justice Center, a Chicago-based organization that represents García, on Tuesday in a statement to the Blade sharply criticized ICE.

“Nicole is only 24 years old,” said Linares. “She spent the past year of her young life suffering in immigration jails.”

“Her time in ICE custody was unconscionably painful, including spending months in solitary confinement solely because of her gender identity, even as she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression, and suffered panic attacks,” she added.

An LGBTI advocacy group in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, honors Roxsana Hernández, a transgender woman with HIV who died in a hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 25, 2018, while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hernández had been detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center in rural New Mexico before her death. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Blade on June 11 visited the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, an Albuquerque-based immigrant advocacy group, and spoke with three trans women from Mexico and El Salvador who were previously in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center. They each criticized the facility for inadequate medical care and bad food.

Alma Rosa Silva-Banuelos, who works with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, told the Blade on June 11 that ICE also allows the Trans Latin@ Coalition, a Los Angeles-based group with which she is also affiliated, to access the Cibola County Correctional Center and work directly with the trans women there who are in their custody.

Silva-Banuelos helps coordinate a project that allows trans women to stay in an apartment in Albuquerque once ICE releases them from custody. She said the former detainees receive clothes and a home-cooked meal before they leave New Mexico.

Silva-Banuelos added the Santa Fe Dreamers Project also helps trans women in ICE custody find sponsors that will allow them to be released from ICE custody.

“What we like to do is upon their release really make them feel like they’re at home, as we call it here in New Mexico, a bienvenida, a welcome, and (give) them a piece of humanity that was missing inside detention,” she told the Blade. “We like to bring that back so we can restore faith in society, faith in this country and help them start the healing process from the trauma of being detained.”

In spite of these efforts, Silva-Banuelos said the Cibola County Correctional Center’s remote location makes it difficult for advocates and relatives to access the ICE detainees who live in the trans unit.

“There’s very little access and resources out in Milan, N.M.,” said Silva-Banuelos. “It’s harder to access for visitation, for any number of things.”

Kristin Greer Love, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, echoed these concerns

“We were very concerned about that news because Cibola is so remote for legal service providers, for medical service providers,” she told the Blade during an interview at her Albuquerque office on June 11, referring to ICE’s announcement that it would create a unit for trans women in their custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center. “It’s also in New Mexico, a place that’s severely under resourced. And to have people who are exceptionally vulnerable in ICE detention in the middle of the desert who need access to care and shouldn’t be detained in the first place, we were really worried about that.”

Love noted the ACLU of New Mexico has challenged prolonged detentions at the facility that have lasted more than six months. She told the Blade these cases highlight “the really egregious conditions that exist at Cibola.”

The Cibola County Correctional Center is located in Milan, N.M., in rural Cibola County. It is roughly half way between Albuquerque and Gallup, N.M., on Interstate 40. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘It is truly a prison facility’

ICE officials have repeatedly defended its treatment of trans people in their custody.

A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

The trans women from Mexico and El Salvador with whom the Blade spoke said they all received hormones while in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center. The Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico has also conducted a “cultural competency” and “trans 101” training with the facility’s staff.

Lawyer said prolonged detention “doesn’t make sense to me as a civilian.” He added “the vast majority of the women that we’ve visited with and gotten to know in Cibola have not been charged with any crime whatsoever.”

“They’re serving time in a prison that has contracts with the country out there and the U.S. Marshals,” said Lawyer. “It is truly a prison facility.”

“Many of them have already experienced harrowing violence — physical and sexual violence in their home countries — they come here to try to be a little bit safer and the first thing that happens is they’re placed in a prison facility,” he added. “There certainly are these alternatives we can create or expand programs that allow them not to be held in a prison while they’re going through the process.”

Lorenzen-Strait agreed with Lawyer when he said ICE can allow trans women to pursue their asylum cases outside of detention.

“ICE can exercise its discretion and parole these individuals into welcoming and affirming communities,” said Lorenzen-Strait.

“What we need to do is invest in alternatives,” he added. “We need to ensure that ICE has the ability to employ its discretion under the immigration laws and work more hand and glove with people like Adrien.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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