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Accountability Letter. Photo courtsey of Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement
Accountability Letter. Graphic: Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement

A new call to release transgender ICE detainees gains momentum nationwide

It came in the form of a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas from a group of formerly-detained transgender people under the banner of Familia Trans…

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On Tuesday, March 2, 36 formerly-detained transgender people sent a letter to President Joe Biden, calling on him to immediately release all transgender immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, citing a history of inhumane treatment. 

The letter was organized by Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM), a Los Angeles-based immigrant advocacy group and it is part of Familia’s ongoing #EndTransDetention campaign.

The group of activists requested that President Biden honor the commitment made in his Feb. 2 memo promoting global LGBTQ rights. The activists insist that these efforts “must start at home,” and that translates to the release of all transgender individuals currently in ICE’s custody.

ICE has not publicly shared how many transgender immigrants are currently detained, but the group of former detainees know the stories of harassment, violence, purposeful misgendering, and transphobia all too well. 

“When some of us have been vocal about our abuse, ICE agents have separated us from the general population and put us in solitary confinement. Even though ICE agents often use solitary confinement as a way to keep transgender people safe, it is a harsh and inhumane treatment, given that we are left in isolation, often for long periods of time,” the letter reads.

It goes on to cite several instances of abuse and negligence that have led to the deaths of two transgender detainees, Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, and Johanna Medina Leon.

Hernández, a 33-year-old Honduran trans woman, came to the states in search of a better life for herself in early May 2018. Two weeks after requesting asylum, she died from dehydration and complications associated with untreated HIV. 

An independent autopsy commission by Hernández’s family revealed the likelihood that she was badly beaten before her death. ICE received intense criticism for the delayed release of a legally mandated report on her death as well as for deleting surveillance footage of Hernández’s final days. 

Andrew Free, the attorney assigned to Hernández’s wrongful death lawsuit, argued that her need for medical attention was evident, documented and dire, and that there are records showing that ICE officials were aware of these things, but decided to transfer her from one facility to the next despite her condition. 

"If DHS cannot be trusted to play by the rules, both before and after a detained migrant's death based on these records, how can DHS be trusted to continue imprisoning migrants at all?” Free said. 

A year later, a trans asylum seeker from El Salvador, Johanna Medina Leon, died just four days after being released from ICE custody, where she was allegedly denied medical care for HIV. 

Both deaths sparked nationwide outrage and calls for reform. 

Last January, 45 members of Congress called on ICE to release its transgender detainees, asserting that they had failed to demonstrate that it would keep this community safe, an allegation that the agency refuted. 

The Biden administration signals a new era of hope for transgender advocates who felt that the Trump administration was hostile towards immigrants and the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people. 

In a sweeping LGBTQ+ rights platform released during Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, he promised to end “prolonged detention” for trans migrants and to invest in “proven alternatives to detention and non-profit case management programs.” 

However, this agenda does not explicitly guarantee the end of trans detentions. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration recently reopened a detention facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, drawing sharp criticism from progressives, who have questioned his commitment to immigration reform. 

In an interview with the LGBTQ publication, Them., Isa Noyola, co-founder of Familia TQLM, noted that many countries have already established the kinds of policies that their group is seeking. For example, Noyola explained that Canada does not treat immigrant detention as their first response when someone claims asylum or is fleeing violence. 

“Detention is a last resort,” she said. “Here in the U.S., it’s been just so twisted, where we’ve normalized it. We think detention systems are normal.”

Regardless of how the Biden administration responds to their campaign, Noyola said that Familia TQLM will continue pushing for the freedom of all immigrant detainees that are routinely subjected to dehumanizing violence. 

“This campaign is a larger call to understand that detention systems — and especially the profiting off detention — are damaging for everyone. It puts in question our humanity as a whole,” Noyola said. 

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