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Report documents abuse of LGBTQ asylum seekers in ICE custody

Incidents took place during Biden administration

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Eloy Detention Center, a privately-run ICE detention center in Eloy, Ariz. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Human Rights First on Thursday released a report that documents the abuse of LGBTQ asylum seekers who entered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after President Biden took office.

The report notes an ICE PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003) coordinator at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, La., in October 2021 “prevented” a transgender Mexican man “from providing his attorney a draft copy of the complaint he wished to file” after he was sexually assaulted. Several trans asylum seekers at the same facility said guards “subjected them to transphobic verbal abuse and other mistreatment.”

“A Mexican transgender man reported that in August 2021 a guard pointed at him and said, ‘How many of them are there? That’s not a real man.’,” reads the report. “Guards intentionally called him ‘ma’am’ and ‘girl’ and used incorrect pronouns despite his repeated attempts to correct them.”

The report notes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Houston Asylum Office last spring “went forward with a CFI (‘credible fear’ interview)” for a gay activist from Angola, “even though he expressed that he was suffering symptoms of COVID-19, pain from a recent physical assault, and psychological distress from conditions of confinement, resulting in a negative credible fear finding.”

“The man told the asylum officer that he was experiencing anxiety and felt claustrophobic in the ‘tight space’ where the telephonic interview was being conducted,” reads the report. “The asylum officer proceeded with the CFI during which the man was unable to disclose that he is gay because he was afraid that the officer would inform others at the detention center of his sexuality.”

“He feared that such disclosure would further endanger his life since in detention he had been threatened and harassed by people who called him homophobic slurs, according to his attorney at the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative,” it adds.

Asylum seekers with HIV denied medication

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, a Venezuelan man with AIDS, died in ICE custody on Oct. 1, 2021. Sánchez had been in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., before his death.

The report not only mentions Sánchez’s death, but other cases of asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS who said they suffered mistreatment while in ICE custody. One case the report cites is a Cuban asylum seeker who said he was “denied access to HIV medication” while in ICE custody at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., from April-July 2021.

“Despite sending around nine requests for treatment to medical staff, he reported to his attorney at Immigration Equality that he did not receive HIV medication for at least two-and-a-half months,” reads the report.

The report also documents the prolonged detention of asylum seekers who are LGBTQ and/or living with HIV.

Several trans women from Jamaica who were in ICE custody at La Palma Correctional Center and the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz., “were subjected to months of traumatic and unnecessary detention before they received CFIs (‘credible fear’ interviews), which confirmed their fear of persecution.” The report notes ICE did not release a bisexual asylum seeker from Ghana from La Palma Correctional Center last spring until an immigration judge granted him bond, even though he passed his “credible fear” interview.

The report cites a trans asylum seeker from Honduras who the Department of Homeland Security detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for two months, even though he received an exemption to Title 42 that allowed him into the U.S. last summer.

Title 42 is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. The Biden administration earlier this month announced it will terminate the policy on May 23.

The report notes a gay asylum seeker from Senegal did not receive his “credible fear” interview until he had been in ICE custody for three months. The report also cites the case of an LGBTQ person from Russia who the Department of Homeland Security detained at La Palma Correctional Center, even though he and his partner asked for asylum together at a port of entry in California.

“Under its flawed enforcement priorities, which effectively treat asylum seekers as detention priorities and do not contain exemptions for sexual orientation or gender identity, the Biden administration has detained many LGBTQ asylum seekers for months in ICE detention centers where they are particularly vulnerable to violence,” reads the report.

The report cites studies that indicates detained LGBTQ asylum seekers are 97 times “more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse than non-LGBTQ individuals.”

“Transgender people face a high risk of violence, discrimination and medical neglect in ICE detention, which has resulted in multiple recent deaths,” reads the report. “DHS has long recognized that detained LGBTQ people have ‘special vulnerabilities’ based on sexual orientation and gender identity and issued guidance on release of transgender individuals. Yet despite a February 2021 memorandum committing to ‘protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons everywhere,’ the Biden administration continues to detain LGBTQ people, including asylum seekers who request protection at the border.”

Human Rights Report in its report makes a number of recommendations to the Biden administration, the Department of Homeland Security and Congress.

To the Biden administration:

  • End the mass jailing of asylum seekers and shift to community-based case support programs in cases where such support is needed. Community-based case support programs, which generate high appearance rates, should be used rather than “alternative to detention” programs that resort to punitive and intrusive ankle shackles and electronic surveillance or that amount to house arrest.
  • Do not designate or treat asylum seekers as priorities for detention, enforcement, or other punitive treatment. The administration and DHS should rescind the 2021 enforcement priorities memorandum and replace the policy with a protection framework that designates categories of individuals, including asylum seekers, as priorities for protection.
  • Support legislation, including the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, limiting the use of immigration detention and mandating bond redetermination hearings before an immigration judge for anyone subjected to immigration detention.
  • Work with Congress to further reduce funding for immigration detention and to instead fund: case support programs; the cost effective and successful Legal Orientation Program (LOP), which should be expanded to border shelter networks as well as all DHS facilities where asylum seekers are held, including CBP and Border Patrol facilities; and expanded legal representation for asylum seekers and other immigrants.

To the Department of Homeland Security:

  • Apply all applicable parole, bond, and other criteria with a presumption that release of asylum seekers is in the public interest, consistent with U.S. human rights and refugee treaty obligations, including the right to liberty under the ICCPR.
  • Issue parole guidance that includes a presumption that release of asylum seekers serves a significant public interest. The guidance should: apply to all asylum seekers regardless of whether they requested asylum at ports of entry or after entering the United States away from a port of entry and regardless of whether they are subjected to expedited removal; prohibit the use of bond as a condition for release on parole; and make all individuals seeking protection, including those placed in reinstated removal proceedings (which should not be used), eligible for parole consideration under the guidance.
  • Issue regulations that include a strong presumption against the use of detention, shifting the burden of proof to the government instead of the non-citizen in all custody determinations to show by clear and convincing evidence that the non-citizen should remain detained.
  • The Office of Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties should closely monitor and investigate allegations of abuse, improper use of force and solitary confinement, detention center conditions, medical neglect, racist treatment, disparate impact on Black asylum seekers in ICE detention facilities. These investigations must include interviews with asylum seekers, attorneys, independent medical experts, rights monitors, and relevant non-governmental actors.
  • ICE and detention facility operators should work with communities to implement Independent Medical Oversight Boards (IMOB) to increase public transparency and accountability on the delivery of quality medical and mental health care for detained individuals. The IMOB should have authority to review individual cases and medical files brought before it by detained individuals, attorneys, or advocates to ensure adequate care. IMOB members could include medical and mental health professionals, representatives of advocacy or community-based groups, and attorneys familiar with detention settings.
  • Avoid the use of the flawed and inefficient expedited removal process and instead refer asylum seekers for asylum adjudication before the USCIS Asylum Office. As Human Rights First and other NGOs have repeatedly explained, these adjudications should not take place within or rely on the expedited removal process.
  • To the extent expedited removal remains in U.S. law, DHS and the Department of Justice should issue regulations to, at a minimum, ensure access to counsel before and during credible fear interviews; provide appropriate interpretation, prohibit CFIs from being conducted in a language other than the asylum seeker’s native or best language, and permit asylum seekers to apply for asylum without a CFI if an interpreter in their native or best language is not readily available; and revise the March 2022 Interim Final Rule to preserve to the fullest extent a critical asylum office mechanism for review of erroneous negative credible fear determinations. DHS should not conduct these flawed interviews in CBP or ICE detention.

To the U.S. Congress:

  • Adopt legislation, including the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, limiting the use of immigration detention and mandating bond redetermination hearings before an immigration judge for anyone subjected to immigration detention.
  • Sharply limit funding for immigration detention to decrease its massive overuse and instead fund community-based case support programs, which should be employed only when additional measures are determined necessary to assure appearance in an individual case.
  • Support—along with state, local, and private entities—funding for universal legal representation without any carve-outs. Congress should also expand funding for LOP and improve access to counsel at immigration detention facilities, including by setting requirements for a minimum number of confidential attorney-client visitation rooms by facility capacity and guaranteeing in-person, contact visits for attorney- client meetings.
  • Conduct vigorous oversight on the administration’s compliance with laws, rules, and other authorities that authorize release of eligible asylum seekers from detention; access to counsel in detention; abuse, conditions, racist treatment, and disparate impact of detention on Black asylum seekers; continued violence, mistreatment, and unsafe placements of LGBTQ asylum seekers; unjustified and dangerous use of solitary confinement; and ICE’s failure to comply with necessary medical and mental health care to asylum seekers and immigrants in detention, as provided for by the NDS.
  • Ensure DHS complies with all legal requirements to provide data and information on the detention of asylum seekers, including reporting to Congress mandated by the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 1998. These reports have not been released publicly since the FY 2015 to 2017 reports were obtained through FOIA and posted by Human Rights First.

An ICE spokesperson on Friday in a statement to the Washington Blade responded to the report.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focuses its civil immigration enforcement priorities on the apprehension and removal of noncitizens who pose a threat to our national security, public safety and border security,” said the spokesperson. “ICE takes seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care, and commits to protecting their rights under the law.”

“In FY21, ICE shifted its operations away from the detention of families while adapting new and existing detention capacity to address an influx along the Southwest Border,” added the spokesperson. “ICE also previously announced it would discontinue or limit the use of certain detention facilities and will continue to monitor the quality of treatment of detained individuals, the conditions of detention, and other factors relevant to the continued operation of each facility, while assessing its operational needs for detention.” 

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National

Senate passes Respect for Marriage Act

Bill approved by 61-36 vote margin

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(Public domain photo)

The U.S. Senate voted 61-36 on Tuesday to officially pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a historic piece of legislation that is expected to soon become law after members in the U.S. House of Representatives sign off on a bipartisan amendment added by their Senate colleagues.

Designed as a vehicle to mitigate the fallout if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority guts the constitutional protections for marriage equality, the bill was narrowly construed — in part to help guarantee that it withstands potential challenges from conservative legal actors.

Nevertheless, the Respect for Marriage Act is a landmark bill that has been backed by virtually every LGBTQ advocacy organization in the country. The legislation repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act while enshrining into law substantive protections for same-sex couples.

Regardless of whether or how the high court might decide to revisit the marriage question, the Respect for Marriage Act will protect the federally ordained rights and benefits that have long been enjoyed by married gay and lesbian couples. And should the court pave the way for conservative states like Texas to renew their bans on same-sex marriage, the law will require them to officially recognize and honor those that are performed in jurisdictions where they remain legal.

Despite earning broad bipartisan support from lawmakers in the House, which passed its version of the bill this summer with an overwhelming majority — including votes from 47 Republican members — the Respect for Marriage Act faced an uncertain future in the Senate.

Conservative members in the chamber’s Republican caucus argued the bill would jeopardize religious freedoms, concerns that a group of five bipartisan senators sought to allay with an amendment that, among other provisions, clarifies the right of religious nonprofit organizations to refuse “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

Writing the amendment were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was considered the driving force behind the bill’s passage through the Senate.

Several Republican senators proposed additional amendments that — per a narrow procedural vote before and another shortly after the Thanksgiving break — were not put up for debate, thereby allowing the Respect for Marriage Act to clear the Senate with Tuesday’s vote.

Barely surpassing the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority with one extra “yea,” the Senate’s passage of the bill came despite the best efforts of conservative opponents who had run coordinated campaigns to erode support among GOP members.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris each issued statements shortly after Tuesday’s vote.

The president celebrated the “bipartisan achievement” by Congress, writing: “For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled. It will also ensure that, for generations to follow, LGBTQI+ youth will grow up knowing that they, too, can lead full, happy lives and build families of their own.”

Harris wrote: “The Respect for Marriage Act ultimately stands for a simple principle: all Americans are equal and their government should treat them that way. Today, we are one step closer to achieving that ideal with pride.”

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also praised the victory.

“Today, a bipartisan group of 61 Senators made clear that this country will not roll back the clock on marriage equality,” said Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the Equality Caucus. “The Respect for Marriage Act is a crucial safeguard for LGBTQ+ people whose lives have been forever changed by Obergefell v. Hodges and Americans who are in interracial marriages thanks to Loving v. Virginia. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court declared marriage equality as the law of the land. Today, the Senate ensured those marriages will continue to be protected.”

LGBTQ groups celebrate the win

“Diverse faith traditions across the nation came together to demand respect for LGBTQ+ Americans – we staked our ground and refused to let this opportunity slip away, ” said Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president of the Interfaith Alliance, in a statement Tuesday.

“The  LGBTQ+ community has faced ongoing deadly violence, legislative assaults and constant threats — including the deadly shooting in Colorado Springs barely one week ago,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement from the organization.

“Today, with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate — a historic moment that marks the first federal legislative win for LGBTQ+ equality in over 10 years, since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — the 568,000 same-sex married couples in this country can breathe a sigh of relief that their marriages will be protected from future attacks,” said Robinson, who yesterday began her tenure as the first Black queer woman to lead America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis responded on Twitter and in a statement, writing: “As so many LGBTQ people face uncertainty and harm on the state level and extremists on the Supreme Court vow to reconsider the landmark Obergefell decision, this victory will provide comfort and security to millions of people and their families.”

“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act is a proud moment for our country and an affirmation that, notwithstanding our differences, we share a profound commitment to the principle of equality and justice for all,” reads a statement from National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon.

LGBTQ Victory Institute President Annise Parker said, “This landmark piece of legislation protects the marriages of millions of LGBTQ Americans who have not slept well for months, wondering if our marriages would be dissolved by an activist court. While the Respect for Marriage Act is undoubtedly one of the most important pro-LGBTQ laws ever passed, it does not require states to grant marriages to LGBTQ couples. Until then, our fight is not over.”

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District of Columbia

D.C. Rainbow History Project launches Trans History Initiative

$15,000 D.C. government grant funded project

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s Rainbow History Project announced it has launched a new project called the Trans History Initiative “to better integrate the often-under-represented histories of trans people into RHP’s existing programming.”

In a statement announcing the new initiative, the LGBTQ history group says it has been awarded a $15,000 grant from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs to fund the project.

“The Trans History Initiative will help RHP deepen its connections with the Trans community through expanded efforts to preserve the history and cultural contributions of Washington-area trans communities,” the statement says. “The Initiative was developed with RHP’s trans members, trans community pioneers and trans board members,” it says.

The statement says the grant will enable Rainbow History Project to hire one or more coordinators to “build on four exiting RHP programs: collecting oral histories; preserving archival documents; tracking timelines and historic places; and hosting public education panels.”

According to the statement, the new trans initiative is in keeping with Rainbow History Project’s long-standing mission.

“Since its founding in 2000, RHP’s mission is to collect, preserve and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts and culture of metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s diverse LGBTQ communities,” the statement says. “RHP strives to ensure that its collection, volunteer corps and programming reflect and represent the full diversity of those communities.”

The statement also points out that due to longstanding bias and discrimination faced by transgender people it has been difficult to obtain information about their lives and accomplishments.

“Unfortunately, many trans people often left behind little record of their lives — and personal histories that do exist are often scrubbed of an individual’s trans identity by society or even their own families,” said Jeffrey Donahoe, RHP’s director of oral history.

“This revisionism, both unintentional and intentional, makes it difficult for the broader community to understand and empathize with the struggles and successes of the Trans community,” Donahoe said in the statement.

“The Trans History Initiative will counter this revisionism by giving another platform for trans people to tell their stories to the broader public,” he said. “We need to ensure that trans narratives are not lost to the ravages of time but preserved as part of the historical record.”

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State Department

U.S. diplomat says negotiations to release Brittney Griner have stalled

WNBA star remains in Russian penal colony

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In remarks published Monday, Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that talks to free jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were continuing through the “designated channel.”

During the long ranging interview covering a variety of subjects, Rood was asked if she intended to visit the imprisoned WNBA star who is serving time in a Mordovian prison.

“Of course, we are going to do this as soon as the Russian authorities give us permission to visit Brittney Griner in the new colony where she was recently transferred,” the American diplomat responded and in answer to a follow-up question regarding Griner’s status. “As far as we understood from talking to her, she is healthy and doing as well as can be expected in her difficult circumstances.”

RIA then focused on the negotiations asking for some of the details including the possibility of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout being included in the “exchange list” in the potential prisoner swap deal between the Russian and American authorities.

“I can say that the United States continues to discuss with the Russian authorities through special channels the issue of the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.  As we have already said, the United States has submitted a serious proposal for consideration. We finalized this proposal and offered alternatives. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has so far received no serious response to these proposals, ” the U.S. chargée d’affaires answered.

“However, I would like to emphasize that the main concern and the first priority of the U.S. Embassy is to ensure the well-being of the American citizens who are here. And the situation is not limited to the names of those who are mentioned in the media headlines — a number of American citizens are kept in Russian prisons. We are extremely concerned about the condition of each of them, and we continue to follow their affairs very closely and support them in every possible way,” she added.

RIA then asked: “What did you mean by ‘serious response’ from Russia? Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the negotiations are being conducted through professional channels … What does the American side mean by “serious response”?

Rood answered telling RIA; “I mean, we have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.”

“By ‘serious answer’ do you mean consent?” RIA asked in a follow-up question.

“I mean an answer that would help us come to an agreement,” she answered.

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