Three undocumented queer and trans activists on Monday in Santa Ana, California, launched a hunger strike demanding that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) end its detainment of transgender immigrants.
The activists, Deyaneira García, Jennicet Gutiérrez, and Jorge Gutierrez, were joined by the Orange County Immigrant Youth United (OCIYU), FAMILIA: TQLM (Trans Queer Liberation Movement), and DeColores Queer OC.
ICE, the federal agency overseeing immigration detention, “claimed it did not know how many transgender women were in immigration detention across the US, let alone where and under what conditions they are being held,” according to a recent Human Rights Watch report about the abuse of transgender women in immigration detention. “However, ICE officials estimate that there are approximately 65 transgender women in detention on any given day among a nationally detained population of approximately 30,000 migrants and asylum seekers.”
Gutiérrez, in a phone interview with Rewire, said she joined the hunger strike because she could no longer remain silent in the face of mounting attacks against the immigrant, transgender community.
“Detention has to end because transgender women, globally, are in a crisis. We are being targeted, we are being murdered, we are being discriminated against and denied basic access and rights,” Gutiérrez said. “Putting us in detention isn’t the solution to that.”
ICE officials in 2011 began transferring queer and trans immigrants from detention centers all over the country and funneling them to Santa Ana City Jail’s segregated unit, the only in the country to have “pods” exclusively for the purpose of detaining queer people and trans women, the Orange County Register reported.
“Officials trained Santa Ana City Jail staff on [LGBTQ] matters in July 2013, June 2014, and again in 2015,” ICE said in a statement to Rewire. The training focused on “ICE policy and procedures addressing sexual assault prevention and response; searches; medical care; privacy; [LGBTQ] sensitivity and transgender detainee care; and specific instruction on the provisions of the Transgender Care Memorandum,” which were guidelines released by ICE in June 2015 outlining instructions for the care of trans detainees.
DeColores Queer OC organizer Roberto Herrera told Rewire that while ICE seems intent on making Santa Ana City Jail “a model facility for the nation” in detaining trans and queer immigrants, advocacy groups are pushing against the notion of detaining this population.
“This model practice of incarcerating queer and trans people is not something that we stand by,” Herrera said. “It is our intention to end this collaboration with ICE here in Santa Ana, and what that would mean is we want the city to shut down this trans detention center and the [LGBTQ] pod in Santa Ana [City] Jail. We can’t incarcerate this vulnerable trans and queer population.”
The hunger strike is being held near Santa Ana City Hall as part of a months-long effort to, as Herrera said, “push the city council to stop profiting off of trans and queer communities” to the tune of as much as $105 per person per day.
Advocates report there are 200 beds available in the queer and transgender pods in Santa Ana City Jail. The number of queer immigrants detained in the jail is unknown, but in December 2015, Univision reported that there were 36 transgender women in a segregated unit at Santa Ana City Jail. This is the same facility many of the trans women featured in Human Rights Watch’s report cited as subjecting them to “humiliating and abusive strip searches by male guards,” not granting them access to necessary medical services, including hormone replacement therapy, and subjecting them to solitary confinement.
Reports of abuse against trans women at Santa Ana City Jail have emerged even after ICE’s Transgender Care Memo. In a statement to Rewire, the federal agency said “Santa Ana City Jail, which houses the overwhelming majority of ICE’s detained transgender population, has medical professionals on staff who have experience providing health care to transgender individuals, including hormone therapy.” A spokesperson from the federal agency also reported that “ICE has not received any recent official complaints from transgender detainees regarding medical treatment at the Santa Ana City Jail facility.”
Many organizations were wary of ICE’s Transgender Care Memo, but considered it a “step in the right direction.” The organizations behind the hunger strike condemn the memo, saying it will only “solidify the detainment of trans and queer people,” according to Herrera.
“We need city council to shut this program down and we need to work at a national level and advocate to free all queer and trans people from detention. Incarceration will never be the answer,” Herrera said. “We can’t be complacent. The city can’t be complacent. We have to tell the city they can not adopt or continue implementing this ‘model practice.’ First, we need to shut this down locally and then do this nationally. We are advocating for the release of all trans women.”
The DeColores organizer told Rewire it’s important to consider why the city of Santa Ana has agreed to pilot these practices. It’s not out of concern for queer and trans immigrants, he said. Santa Ana City Jail has debt “estimated at $27 million through 2024,” the Orange County Register reported.
There were plans to expand queer and trans detention at the jail from 200 beds to 300 beds to help repay that debt, but the plan was nixed this year because of protests from queer and trans immigrant rights activists. The expansion would have resulted in $2.2 million annually. Even without the expansion, advocates said the city is making $7 million each year off of the detention of queer and trans immigrants.
“ICE has taken advantage of the city and the city is taking advantage of the trans and queer population,” Herrera said. “The city is more than willing to incarcerate queer and trans people in order to accept money from the Department of Homeland Security and allow officers to keep their jobs. Santa Ana City Council is leading the effort to detain queer people and trans women. It is the model being set for the rest of the country, and it’s all for profit. The city is profiting on the backs of our communities.”
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokesperson, told Rewire that Santa Ana City Jail’s special housing unit “is NOT a means to ‘target’ transgender individuals. It is a protective custody environment established by ICE to ensure that transgender individuals who are subject to detention while their immigration cases are being adjudicated can be housed in a safe setting.”
“You know where the best place for our queer and trans brothers and sisters is? It’s with their communities,” the activist said. “In detention, no matter where, we are harassed, we are made fun of, we are threatened, we are misgendered. We are denied medical access. If you complain about this, they put you in solitary confinement and say it’s for your ‘safety’—and that is punishment. I believe that is torture. Trans women who have been detained verify this. The Human Rights Watch report verifies this. They say they care, that they are doing everything they can to treat trans people fairly, but the reality is a different story.”
Herrera said ICE officials and the city of Santa Ana are pushing a narrative intended to create fear and doubt in the community, positioning the queer and trans pods at the jail as “the most humane option” for queer and trans undocumented immigrants in detention. Herrera said he is distrustful of being told to pick the lesser of two evils.
“We really have to be resistant against this messaging. Being incarcerated is not the best or only option for these populations,” Herrera said. “The intent is to create fear and we can’t accept the lie that detention is the solution to how best to deal with immigration and how best to handle queer and trans immigrants. We do not accept that ICE knows what’s best for our communities or they know how best to care for this population.”
Gutiérrez initially signed on to hunger strike for two days, hopeful the Santa Ana City Council would “do the right thing” at tonight’s city council meeting by triggering a 90-day cancellation clause in its agreement with ICE, effectively canceling its contract to detain queer and trans immigrants. If the city council makes no such announcement, Gutiérrez said, the hunger strike could last as long as two weeks until the next city council meeting.
At the core of all of this, the organizer said, is transphobia. Trans women should not be expected to trust an agency that has a long history of abusing them.
“We know that detention is not the answer, but this idea that ICE knows what’s best for us or how to care for us—it’s so offensive,” Gutiérrez told Rewire. “It’s crucial that we make the connection that violence inside detention centers is a symptom of transphobia. I want us to keep talking about transphobia. As a transgender immigrant, I’m going to keep being outspoken and being visible and providing a strong stance on this issue.”