Victoria Vilalba, former detainee and co-founder of Transcend Arizona

As our Founder, Nina Chaubal has been held in immigrant detention in Arizona, we’ve faced a steep learning curve ourselves coming to understand why she’s being detained, how we an support her, and how you all can be part of the #FreeNina campaign. We have come to realized that many Trans Lifeline callers and supporters know very little about how immigration works. Going into 2017, we know that Trump’s America will be even more hostile to LGBTQ immigrants, so we wanted to set the record straight. We sat down with co-founder of Transcend Arizona, Victoria Villalba, who is a trans latinx activist, organizer, and former detainee herself. She generously agreed to answer our top 10 questions, and here’s what she said!

1) Why should LGBTQ and allied people care about immigration?

Often LGBTQ people flee their country of origin because they are unsafe — facing physical violence, severe discrimination, and/or death threats. These people seek asylum, protection granted by a host nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee. People who request asylum at the border or are caught at the border trying to cross illegally are taken into custody and sent to an immigration detention facility.

Graphic from Fusion- http://interactive.fusion.net/trans/

2) What are the common misconceptions that US citizens have about non-citizens?

Many citizens assume that people are in immigration proceedings because they did something wrong. They assume that there is an “easy way” or a “right way” for most people to come the United States. For most people who do not have US citizen family members or an advanced degree in a specialized field, there is no real legal pathway to immigrate to the United States. People can only request asylum from within US territory or at the US border, which is extremely difficult for many non-Mexican asylum seekers.

3) Can you describe a typical scenario in which LGBTQ immigrants are put into ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody?

ICE, Border Patrol, and law enforcement are continually looking for undocumented people through various means — immigration checkpoints, busts on employers, and even traffic stops. These officials will put undocumented people in immigration detention centers even if they have already been living in the US for many years and have not committed any crime.

With only 3 judges and thousands of cases to be heard, the courts are backlogged. The immigrant then waits to be issued a bond, a contract in which the prisoner will pay money as a promise that they will come to a court date at a later date. People often wait 6 months to get a bond, and even then the cost is usually over $10,000 so many lack the ability to pay and spend months behind bars waiting to see a judge.

Since, the US government pays privately-owned detention centers for every person that they hold, the centers have an incentive to keep people as long as possible. In 2009 Congress passes the bed quota, requiring ICE to fill at least 34,000 detention beds each night or pay a fine. This often leads ICE to lock up immigrants who are not required to be locked up by law. Some people may languish in detention for 3+ years as their case goes through the courts and the appeals process.

After submitting an asylum application, immigrants wait another 180 days to get a work permit. At the trial, the judge ultimately decides if the immigrant has enough reason to fear returning to their country of origin in order to qualify for asylum. The judge’s determination is made based on letters, individual testimony, and country conditions reports. The vast majority of asylum seekers who fight their cases from inside detention centers are denied; those who are free have better odds.

4) Q: How do people get out of detention?

People can be granted parole by ICE, which is not common but may be granted under pressure from the community. Another way that people can get out of detention is by having their bond paid assuming the are granted a bond. The other way to get out of detention is to win your immigration case or to be deported.

5) Q: What rights do undocumented people have?

Officially, undocumented people have constitutional rights such as those guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (freedom of expression, etc). However, those rights are often withheld, especially in ICE custody. Many trans women are held in solitary confinement or with men, where they are likely to be seuxally assaulted. ICE is notorious for human right violations against trans women with cases dating back over a decade ago of refusing medical care, covering up inmate abuse, and more.

6) How prevalent are abuses against trans women?

One fifth of all confirmed sexual assault cases in ICE facilities involved transgender victims. There have been cases in which guards sexually assaulted transgender detainees while “in protective custody”. The Santa Ana pod in California houses exclusively transgender women, but reports of abuses and human rights violations are common there as well. ICE has shown time and again that they are incapable of keeping transgender people safe.

Graphic from Fusion- http://interactive.fusion.net/trans/

7) What was your experience in detention like?

Detention was one of the most traumatizing and emotionally scarring things that ever happened to me, being arrested for something as simple as wanting to survive. To the present day, I suffer from many post-detention illnesses (mental, emotional problems).

8) Can you describe the work that you do supporting trans immigrants?

Transcend Arizona visits and writes letters to trans and queer migrants in the detention centers. We also correspond with trans people in jails and prisons. We try to connect migrants with legal resources and sometimes try to help them with fundraising to pay bonds. We provide support after people are released from detention, including those who are deported. The support we provide includes connecting people with housing and legal resources, helping them find jobs as well as emotional support. Sometimes, asylum seekers contact us before reaching the border and we provide them with support and information.

9) What are resources you would suggest for people who want to learn more?

People are welcome to message us on Facebook through our page. https://www.facebook.com/transcendarizona

The graphic above is from an article by Fusion provides more background into trans immigrant issues. Read it here: http://interactive.fusion.net/trans/

Do You See How Much I Am Suffering Here? A Report on Abuses Towards Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention by Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/03/23/do-you-see-how-much-im-suffering-here/abuse-against-transgender-women-us

10) Q: How can people help support your work?

We are a grassroots organization that operates on a shoestring budget. If people are able to donate, every dollar makes a huge difference. We are all volunteers so all donations go directly to our work, there is no overhead. We especially need money to be able to pay bonds so that people can get out of detention. https://www.youcaring.com/transgenderrefugeesandmigrants-733111

If people follow us on Facebook, (https://www.facebook.com/transcendarizona/) they can stay updated about fundraising campaigns or petitions.

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