Eight immigrant advocacy groups this week demanded the release of all transgender and HIV-positive people who are in immigrant detention facilities.
Immigration Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, the Center for Victims of Torture, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Mijente and the National Immigrant Justice Center made the request in a letter they sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson on June 16.
“As you know, transgender and HIV-positive people are severely suffering in U.S. immigration detention facilities,” reads the letter. “Those who do not perish from mortally deficient medical negligence are regularly mistreated, isolated and sexually assaulted.”
The letter notes DHS “for years” has “attempted to create conditions of confinement that are safe for these historically disenfranchised minorities.”
“This has been a fool’s errand,” it says. “Under both Democrat and Republican leadership, DHS has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars attempting to overcome a simple and inevitable truth: It is not possible for the U.S. government to house transgender and HIV-positive asylum seekers safely. Every progressive policy, every well-meaning protocol and every specialized facility has utterly failed. This has to stop. It is in your exclusive power to put an end to this ongoing human rights atrocity.”
“What makes this situation even more intolerable, is that the vast majority of the transgender and HIV-positive people suffering in immigration detention fled to the U.S. to escape persecution and torture,” adds the letter. “To these asylum seekers, the U.S. is more than a symbol of liberty. It is one of the few places in the world where they may hope to build a safer future. And yet, by detaining trans and HIV-positive people in such inhumane and unsafe conditions, the U.S. government is subjecting them to some of the same kinds of mistreatment they sought to escape.”
The groups in their letter demand ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection “to immediately release all transgender and HIV-positive people in their custody” and “review its system for identifying transgender and HIV-positive individuals, and work with stakeholders to ensure that it is effective and safe.” The groups also seek the creation of a policy “that deems all transgender and HIV-positive individuals non-detainable.”
The letter notes the case of Roxsana Hernández, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras with HIV who died in a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018, while she was in ICE custody.
Hernández’s family in a lawsuit it has filed against the federal government and five private companies who were responsible for Hernández’s care allege she did not have adequate access to medical care and other basic needs from the time she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego on May 9, 2018, to her arrival at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Milan, N.M., a week later.
ICE in 2017 opened a unit for trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center. It closed last year.
The letter also notes the case of Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans woman with HIV from El Salvador who asked for asylum in the U.S. in 2019 after she suffered persecution in her home country because of her gender identity.
Medina was in ICE custody at the privately-run Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., until her transfer to a hospital in nearby El Paso, Texas, on May 28, 2019. ICE on the same day released Medina from their custody.
“She became worse, worse, worse,” Medina’s mother, Patricia Medina de Barrientos, told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador that took place a few weeks after Medina’s death. “She asked for help because she was a nurse, but they refused. She was denied help. There was no medical attention.”
The letter also includes testimonials from dozens of other trans and/or HIV-positive people who say they suffered physical abuse and survived sexual assault while in ICE custody. They also allege they did not receive adequate health care — including access to hormones and antiretroviral drugs — while in detention.
“Throwing LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers into prison is cruel, expensive and dangerous. For transgender and HIV-positive people, it can even be deadly,” said Immigration Equality Policy Director Bridget Crawford in a statement. “In response to years of consistently documented abuses against the community, the government has implemented ineffective half-measures that have utterly failed. That is why we have demanded that DHS release all transgender and HIV-positive people immediately. No one should ever be locked into prison because they fled persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Doing so during a pandemic is a human rights atrocity.”
Immigration Equality is among the groups that have previously demanded ICE release all trans people who are in their custody. Advocacy organizations have also called for the release of people with HIV in ICE custody, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
DHS, which oversees ICE, has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the June 16 letter.
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Lesbian mother from El Salvador released from ICE custody
Jessica Barahona-Martinez arrested on June 26, 2017
A federal judge last week ordered the release of a lesbian mother from El Salvador who had been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017.
Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez and her three children entered the U.S. on May 31, 2016. A court filing notes she fled “persecution she faced in El Salvador as a lesbian, and because the government had falsely identified her as a gang member.”
Barahona-Martinez lived with her sister and other relatives in Woodbridge, Va., until ICE arrested and detained her on June 26, 2017. She was housed at two ICE detention centers in Virginia until her transfer to the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a privately-run facility the GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates in Basile, La., in October 2020.
An immigration judge in November 2019 granted Barahona-Martinez asylum for the second time. The government appealed the decision and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department oversees, ruled in their favor.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana last month filed a writ for habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana’s Lafayette Division that asked for Barahona-Martinez’s release. U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty on Sept. 27 ruled in her favor.
“Petitioner (Barahona-Martinez) ultimately argues that her prolonged detention violates due process; she moves that this court issues a temporary restraining order, requests release, a bond hearing, an expedited hearing and costs and attorney fees,” wrote Doughty.
“This court finds that petitioner has plausibly alleged her prolonged detention violates due process,” added Doughty.
An ACLU spokesperson on Monday told the Blade that ICE has released Barahona-Martinez and she is once again in Virginia with her children and sister.
State Department hosts intersex activists from around the world
Group met with policy makers, health officials, NGOs
The State Department last week hosted five intersex activists from around the world.
Kimberly Zieselman, a prominent intersex activist who advises Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, brought the activists to D.C.
• Morgan Carpenter, co-founder and executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia
• Natasha Jiménez, an intersex activist from Costa Rica who is the general coordinator of Mulabi, the Latin American Space for Sexualities and Rights
• Julius Kaggwa, founder of the Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development Uganda
• Magda Rakita, co-founder and executive director of Fujdacja Interakcja in Poland and co-founder of Interconnected UK
• Esan Regmi, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign for Change in Nepal.
Special U.S. Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine are among the officials with whom the activists met.
Zieselman told the Washington Blade on Sept. 21 the activists offered State Department officials an “intersex 101” overview during a virtual briefing.
More than 60 Save the Children staffers from around the world participated in another virtual briefing. Zieselman noted the activists also met with Stern, U.N. and Organization of American States officials, funders and NGO representatives while in D.C.
“The people we met were genuinely interested,” Rakita told the Blade.
Stern in an exclusive statement to the Blade said “the visiting intersex activists clearly had an impact here at State, sharing their expertise and lived experience highlighting the urgency to end human rights abuses, including those involving harmful medical practices against intersex persons globally.” Andrew Gleason, senior director for gender equality and social justice at Save the Children US, in a LinkedIn post he wrote after attending his organization’s meeting with the activists echoed Stern.
“There are many learnings to recount from today’s discussion, but one thing is clear, this is unequivocally a child rights issue, and one that demands attention and action at the intersection of LGBTQI+ rights, reproductive rights and justice, disability justice and more,” wrote Gleason. “Gratitude to the panelists for sharing such poignant testimonies and providing insights into what organizations like ours can do to contribute to the broader intersex movement; and thank you to Kimberly for your leadership and bringing this group together.”
The activists’ trip to D.C. coincided with efforts to end so-called sex “normalization” surgeries on intersex children.
Greek lawmakers in July passed a law that bans such procedures on children under 15 unless they offer their consent or a court allows them to happen. Doctors who violate the statute face fines and prison.
Germany Iceland, Malta, Portugal and Spain have also enacted laws that seek to protect intersex youth.
A law that grants equal rights and legal recognition to intersex people in Kenya took effect in July 2022. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory earlier this year passed the Variation in Sex Characteristics (Restricted Medical Treatment) Bill 2023.
Intersex Human Rights Australia notes the law implements “mechanisms to regulate non-urgent medical care to encourage child participation in medical decisions, establish groundbreaking oversight mechanisms and provide transparency on medical practices and decision making.” It further points out the statute “will criminalize some deferrable procedures that permanently alter the sex characteristics of children” and provides “funding for necessary psychosocial supports for families and children.”
“It’s amazing,” Carpenter told the Blade when discussing the law and resistance to it. “It’s not perfect. There was some big gaps, but physicians are resisting every step of the way.”
The State Department in April 2022 began to issue passports with an “X” gender marker.
Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Navy veteran who identifies as non-binary, in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department after it denied their application for a passport with an “X” gender marker. Zzyym in October 2021 received the first gender-neutral American passport.
Federal government prepares for looming shutdown
White House warns of ‘damaging impacts across the country’
However remote they were on Monday, odds of avoiding a government shutdown were narrowed by Thursday evening as House Republicans continued debate over their hyper-partisan appropriations bills that stand no chance of passage by the Upper Chamber.
As lawmakers in the Democratic controlled Senate forged ahead with a bipartisan stop-gap spending measure that House GOP leadership had vowed to reject, the federal government began bracing for operations to grind to a halt on October 1.
This would mean hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed as more than 100 agencies from the State Department to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation roll out contingency plans maintained by the White House Office of Management and Budget. On Thursday the Office of Personnel Management sent out memos to all agencies instructing them to ready for a shutdown on Sunday.
Before 1980, operations would continue per usual in cases where Congress failed to break an impasse over spending, as lapses in funding tended to last only a few days before lawmakers brokered a deal.
Since then, the government has shut down more than a dozen times and the duration has tended to become longer and longer.
“Across the United States, local news outlets are reporting on the harmful impacts a potential government shutdown would have on American families,” the White House wrote in a release on Thursday featuring a roundup of reporting on how the public might be affected.
“With just days left before the end of the fiscal year, extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples’ lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown that would have damaging impacts across the country,” the White House said.
The nature and extent of that damage will depend on factors including how long the impasse lasts, but the Biden-Harris administration has warned of some consequences the American public is likely to face.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, for example, warned: “There is no good time for a government shutdown, but this is a particularly bad time for a government shutdown, especially when it comes to transportation.”
Amid the shortage of air traffic controllers and efforts to modernize aviation technology to mitigate flight delays and cancellations, a government shutdown threatens to “make air travel even worse,” as Business Insider wrote in a headline Thursday.
Democratic lawmakers including California Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, meanwhile, have sounded the alarm in recent weeks over the consequences for the global fight against AIDS amid the looming expiration, on Oct. 1, of funding for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.