No Transit: The criminal treatment of transgender asylum seekers in the United States

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Over the past four years, the Trump administration enacted an unprecedented reduction in the number of asylum seekers admitted to the United States—admissions are only about 16% of the cap the Obama administration established in 2016. Transgender asylum seekers, who are already more at-risk than typical applicants, now face tremendous hurdles and abuse as they try to survive in the opaque confines of this increasingly constrictive immigration system.

By their own accounting, the Department of Homeland Security had approximately 300 transgender asylum seekers in their custody in 2019. Under U.S. law, anyone has the right to present themselves as an asylum seeker at the U.S. border or within the United States—regardless of how and where they enter. Before they can be removed, the law requires they be given the opportunity to present their case for a “credible fear” screening before a judge or qualified asylum officer. However, transgender asylum-seekers find themselves housed in detention centers at rates over twice that of typical applicants, their average detainment being about 99 days. They are also unlikely to have their cases reviewed by individuals familiar with their unique needs and circumstances, both as transgender individuals and in the context of their home countries.

Once in the country, trans asylum seekers experience mistreatment in multiple ways. Significantly, they are not typically placed in housing reflecting their gender identity, despite this being an ICE directive established under the Obama administration. This practice places them at risk for harassment and sexual assault. In fact, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, LGTBQ asylum seekers in general are 97 times more likely to experience sexual assault than typical detainees. This staggering statistic reflects the fact that such detainees also may suffer multiple instances of sexual assault in custody.

Additionally, transgender detainees seldom receive the level of mental health and medical attention they need. Commonly, such trans-specific treatment includes affirming psycho-social services, provisions for ongoing hormone replacement treatment, post-surgical care, and medication and treatment for any health conditions, such as HIV. Consider, during this pandemic, too, the impact of COVID-19 upon transgender asylum seekers, as members of the LGTBQ+ community whose vulnerabilities are already amplified.

Even facilities dedicated to transgender asylum seekers fail to meet their particular needs. The Cibola County Correctional Center, a private prison in Milan, New Mexico, was shut down in 2016 after complaints of repeated medical violations and at least three health-related deaths there. Remarkably, Cibola reopened just three months later as a detention facility, which now includes a dedicated unit housing 60 transgender women. Apparently, many previous guards were reinstated there. Cibola is run by CoreCivic, a private company, which contracts with ICE to profit off of detainees. As is often the case, the facility's remote location makes it difficult for lawyers to work with asylum seekers. In mid 2019, 29 transgender detainees at Cibola collaborated on an open letter complaining about sub-standard medical attention and abuse at the hands of the facility’s employees.

One of the women signing that letter was Alejandra Barrera. After fleeing El Salvador, due to multiple instances of sexual assault by both Salvadoran military and MS-13 gang members, Barrera found her way to the U.S. where she spent two years in detention at Cibola with no explanation for why she could not be released. She requested but was denied proper medical attention six different times. She was denied parole five times. She says six of her teeth were removed at the facility due to inadequate dental care.