Working with Trans Immigrants in the Shadows of a National Crisis

Cibola County Correctional Center

This has been a rotten summer for immigration. Zero tolerance, family separation, kids in cages. Just today it seems that the government completely blew the deadline for reuniting families. It is almost too horrific to wrap my head around. Where I live, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there has been a flood of justified public rage about these separated families. There have been marches, vigils, benefits, and rallies. Politicians have made showy moral proclamations about the unacceptability of our government policies. Being an immigration attorney and the director of a legal services non-profit, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, that serves immigrants and refugees, my organization has been a deserving and grateful recipient of so much support and donations during this time. My inbox is flooded with offers from concerned citizens who are determined to lend a hand. We have raised an exorbitant amount of money that we can use to be as responsive as possible to this crisis. Yet even amid all this energy and movement towards helping separated families, my own summer has been marked by a very different crisis in immigration, a terrifying one that is playing out in the shadows cast by the spotlight on the children: the horrific detention of transgender women seeking asylum on our border.

I would never have considered myself any kind of activist for the rights of trans women. I wasn’t oblivious to the issues, but last summer when ICE decided to transfer the “trans-pod”, as it is known, to Cibola County, New Mexico, my biggest exposure to the lives of trans folks was a “Trans 101” class offered by a local non-profit, one name change case, and hearing about the experiences of a couple friends. But I am an experienced asylum lawyer. So when ICE announced that they were opening the trans-pod in my neck of the woods, our organization, in partnership with another local non-profit jumped right in to offer legal services to the detained population. It has been an incredible learning experience for me filled with equal parts astonishment at the strength and bravery these detained women are capable of and rage that our government is detaining them.

Here is some critical background information about the circumstances of these womens’ detention:

  • They are detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, NM. This jail is operated by Core Civic, formerly the Correctional Corporation of America. Core Civic is the biggest private corporation making money off of the detention of immigrants. Their stock holders are getting filthy rich while immigrants and refugees of all walks of life, including children, suffer needlessly behind bars. The transgender women are not the only immigrant population detained in Milan. There are also adult males but the two populations are segregated.
  • The population fluctuates but there are around 50–60 women detained in the pod right now.
  • Although theoretically any detained immigrant transgender woman has the option to transfer to Cibola, every single woman detained there now is asking for political asylum from their countries of origin. Asylum cases can take anywhere from a few months to a couple years to complete. My guess is the average case takes around 6 months from start to finish if everything goes as planned.
  • The vast majority of the women are seeking asylum from Central America and Mexico. For most of them it is the first time in the United States, although there are a few women who have lived here at various other times in their lives.
  • This is where it gets tricky: When someone seeks asylum in the United States they can enter two ways. The first way is as an “arriving alien”. This means that they turned themselves in at a port of entry and asked for political asylum. Another way is to cross the border without permission and get caught and request asylum at your arrest. Most of the women did it the first way (the completely legal way for anyone who wants to say that these women deserve detention because they broke a law. I see you. You are wrong). The problem with turning yourself in is that there is no way for a judge to give you a bond. ICE is in charge of your custody determination. They can give you a release called a parole. It used to be really common. In fact ICE has specific memos that say asylum seekers should get parole. They also have specific internal memos that transgender individuals should be paroled too. But right now, in the El Paso sector where Cibola is located, ICE is doing blanket denials of parole. This means that any woman who turned herself in seeking asylum is being held indefinitely to wait for her asylum hearing. There are a few women who were arrested instead of turning themselves in and they are getting bonds from judges but it has only been a handful. Most women are stuck there because of the policy to deny all parole. The ACLU has sued aggressively on this issue in a case known as Damus and progress is being made as the wheels of justice turn. Litigation is powerful but it is also slow. So in the mean time some 60 women are housed together in abjectly terrible conditions.

It is worth mentioning that none of these women are being accused of a crime and most have no criminal record to speak of. Immigration violations are not criminal — they are civil (plus all the woman who turned themselves in don’t even have a civil violation). Yet immigration detention is indistinguishable from criminal detention with the jumpsuits, the razor wire, the cells they are locked in, the labor they are forced to perform, their restricted movement, and the general attitude that they can be treated as poorly as we want because they have done something wrong. Cibola County Correctional Center walks and talks and looks and smells like a criminal facility. The trans pod is no exception. The conditions that the women face there are horrifying. I will refrain from telling detailed stories that are not mine to tell but I can give a general sense of the atrocities we have witnessed and heard about:

  • Medical Neglect: There are women with chronic and acute conditions who are not receiving anything close to the medical care that they deserve. Nearly everyone reports that they request help and are routinely ignored. This negligence extends from simple things like migraines, rashes, STI treatment, stomach illnesses to much more complicated treatments for HIV and potential cancer diagnoses.
  • Use of Solitary Confinement: the segregated housing unit, known as SHU in Cibola, is actually just solitary confinement. Women are kept alone and let out for only one hour a day. This practice is considered torture by the UN. They are thrown in SHU as punishment if they misbehave or complain or or if they express the need for mental health services. We have several clients who have spent well over a month in segregation, which seems in many cases to lead to suicide attempts.
  • Lack of Mental Health services: many of the women have faced extraordinary violence and trauma in their lives in their home countries and suffer PTSD or anxiety or depression or other more severe conditions requiring mental health services. Many report a complete lack of attention to their needs and a fear of expressing themselves because they may get thrown in SHU as a consequence.
  • Lack of protection from sexual assault: transgender women seek much higher rates of assault in prison than any other prison populations. To say it is disproportionate is an understatement… they face insanely higher rates. Multiple women we work with have been subjected to rape and assault and often face discrimination, shame, or segregation when they report it.
  • Discrimination: most women report that being mocked and dismissed by staff members is a routine part of life at Cibola.

In late May, a young woman housed at Cibola, Roxsana, died from a treatable medical condition. I can remember finding out about that, just moments before going on a Memorial Day camping trip with my family. It was devastating. I did not know Roxsana well at all but I had met her briefly while convening with the migrant caravan in Mexico earlier in the spring. She was not in Cibola for long and it remains unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for her death… a lawsuit will determine that. But it is hard to believe she would have died if she were not in government custody. As the first reports started coming out about the nightmarish “Zero Tolerance” policy and children being separated from their parents on the border, I had a whole different set of fears to deal with as well — that our clients would continue to die in Cibola. With the help of an incredible legal organization in Portland and remote attorneys and sponsors all over the country, we put in 21 humanitarian parole requests for women who had been travelling with Roxsana in the migrant caravan, well prepared and well researched requests explaining to ICE why they should release each individual woman, each one bearing my signature as the attorney of record. In the mean time, America lost it’s mind over the families on the border. It was justifiable. Separating families is close to the most monstrous and disgusting thing we could do, as a nation, to refugees. New Mexico’s congress people drove to Texas to take photo ops outside the camp in Tornillo. A huge march was held in Albuquerque. Op eds flew. Money was raised. It was pretty incredible to witness. Yet here we were in New Mexico and hardly anyone was talking about trans-detention. Cibola is only about an hour outside of Albuquerque and there were no public officials gathered for photos outside it’s walls. There were no crowds of people demanding that these women were released. As June wore on, and then July, ICE provided me with no answers to my parole requests and women were assaulted and sick and losing their minds in segregation. A couple women were released on bond and some, with the help of dedicated pro-bono attorneys, have been able be released on asylum. But more women kept coming and the high population remains the same. I think it is worth wondering why their detention doesn’t capture our imaginations and ignite our rage the same way that families do. For one their detention happens on a much smaller scale. Also, they are not children and they are not mothers. Yet I have been reflecting on what it means that too many of us can see ourselves in the women and children being ripped apart at the border but probably don’t see our life experiences reflected in the trans-pod. How does that affect our ability to react and respond to their suffering? Are we simply comfortable with the same persecution of trans women that we cannot live with when it happens to CIS women and children in family units? I am new to these questions but I believe they are worth asking and exploring. I wish more folks had the access to come with us to the jail and get to know the women I have met there and could understand that some of the strongest and bravest women on the planet are in danger of being hurt and forgotten in the shadows of a national crisis. It is heartbreaking in the same way watching innocent families get hurt is heartbreaking.

Week after week I contacted ICE and I was told that an answer is coming and week after week I heard nothing and my clients lost hope that they would be released and conditions worsened. I have been so frightened that ICE can gaslight me and stonewall me and lie about conditions with impunity. Today I have finally heard that 14 women will be released tomorrow. 14 is good. But there are dozens more detained. It will be enough when there are no more women left in the pod and we can end trans detention in the United States.

Below are things that we can do:

  • Call ICE in El Paso with this message: “We demand that ICE release all trans women detained in Cibola who are eligible for parole. Furthermore, we demand they provide adequate medical and mental health services to everyone detained there, protect women from sexual assault, and stop the use of long-term solitary confinement immediately.” Here is the phone number: (915) 225–1901/1941. Here is the email: ElPaso.Outreach@ice.dhs.gov
  • Let NM legislators know that the policy of detaining trans women in Cibola needs to end. Often when I speak with legislators’ staff about this issue in my state, they shrug and say, there isn’t a whole lot we can do. These are the same legislators, though, who are taking strong moral stands against the detention of families. We need to make this an issue they have to respond to. Here are their contacts: Congressmen Ben Ray Lujan’s Office (505) 984–8950, Congresswomen Michelle Lujan Grisham (202) 225–6316, Senator Tom Udall (202) 224–6621, Senator Martin Heinrich (202) 224–5521. They know this is happening. These women deserve their attention.
  • Listen to and learn from the advocacy organizations that have been defending the rights of transgender people for decades. In New Mexico one group is the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, whose staff supports the women of Cibola.
  • Support legal services. This can be direct service organizations like ours, Santa Fe Dreamers Project or our partners New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. We also gratefully partner with national organizations like TLC and NIJC and the Innovation Law Lab and ACLU. We also mentor pro-bono attorneys from all over the country to take asylum cases.
  • Work to end corporate detention all over the US. Core Civic, specifically, is the corporation that is endangering the health and welfare of the women detained in Cibola, yet it is making millions of dollars in the contract with NM. The corporate correctional lobby is gaining power and reach under the Trump Administration. We need our states to pull out of their contracts with these corporations, our legislators to stop accepting their handouts, and our private citizens to divest any holdings they may have in financial institutions that support these corporations.