Transgender asylum-seekers often mistreated in detention, study finds

Protesters demonstrate in Santa Ana in 2014 over mistreatment of LGBT immigrant detainees at the at the country's only housing unit that ICE sets aside for gay, bisexual and transgender detainees. A new report says transgender detainees suffered abuse at the Santa Ana facility.

Protesters demonstrate in Santa Ana in 2014 over mistreatment of LGBT immigrant detainees at the at the country’s only housing unit that ICE sets aside for gay, bisexual and transgender detainees. A new report says transgender detainees suffered abuse at the Santa Ana facility.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Transgender women fleeing abuse in their home countries who seek asylum in the United States have been sexually assaulted, denied medical care and held in indefinite solitary confinement in prison-like detention facilities, according to a report released Wednesday.

“In essence, many transgender women have simply traded one set of abusive conditions for another,” says the report released by Human Rights Watch and a coalition of immigrant rights organizations.

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Some of the mistreatment described by detainees occurred after the Obama administration released new guidelines in June aimed at preventing it, the report found.

The 68-page document, called “Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here: Abuse Against Transgender Women in U.S. Immigration Detention,” comes at a time of mounting criticism against Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials’ treatment of female transgender detainees.

Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency will review the report, stating that the agency is “committed to providing a safe, secure, and respectful environment for all those in our custody, including those individuals who identify as transgender.”

The study is based on 28 interviews with transgender women, mainly from Mexico and Central America, who were held from 2011 to 2015 in facilities across the country — mostly in Southern California. The detainees said they were unnecessarily strip-searched by male guards, denied HIV medication and were ignored by immigration officials after reporting sexual assault by other detainees.

The majority of transgender detainees are housed at the Santa Ana Jail. In the report, 12 respondents had spent some time at the facility — the only one in the country that has an area exclusively housing transgender women in immigration detention.

Although the unit is seen as a better alternative to housing transgender women in all-male facilities, the report’s authors said the Santa Ana guards mistreated the detainees. Invasive strip searches, frequent lockdowns that involve cell confinement for up to 24 hours a day and inadequate medical and mental health services are the norm, the report stated.


Several transgender women told Human Rights Watch that they were unable to access their HIV medications for periods ranging from two to three months after entering detention, including one transgender woman who was held in Santa Ana.

A transgender woman from El Salvador, identified in the report as Linda F., said Border Patrol agents confiscated her HIV medication when she was apprehended in South Texas in May.

“When I saw the doctor, I told her that I was missing my medication and that I felt something strange in my body,” she said in the report, adding that it took two months for officials to provide her with her drugs.

Amid increased criticism of the Santa Ana facility, City Council members in January rejected an ICE contract proposal that would have expanded the number of transgender immigrant detainees at the location.

In Texas, a 23-year-old transgender woman from Honduras named Monserrath told the report’s authors that she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and verbally harassed by male detainees and guards during her 2014 stay at a detention center in Pearsall.

Monserrath, who fled her home country after she was beaten and threatened with death, said she was sexually assaulted by a male detainee while showering. After reporting it to officials, she said a guard threatened to place her in solitary confinement. Monserrath was eventually granted asylum in May.

“Immigration detention can be a difficult experience for anyone. But it is often particularly harmful for transgender women due to the abuse they have previously endured,” the report said.

The new allegations follow a host of others included in a letter sent to ICE by members of Congress in July. The letter highlighted nearly a dozen cases of suspected neglect, including the 2012 pneumonia death of a Mexican immigrant named Fernando Dominguez.

An inspection report that year by the Department of Homeland Security said that Dominguez “received an unacceptable level of medical care” at a detention center in the San Bernardino County city of Adelanto, and that his death could have been prevented.

Last summer, ICE abandoned a plan to detain transgender immigrants exclusively at Adelanto after mounting opposition from immigrant rights activists, who said detainees would be at risk of receiving subpar medical care, citing past allegations of medical neglect at the facility.

They also argued that Adelanto was too far from the population centers in Southern California, where there is easier access to attorneys.

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