Advocates of Color Are Creating Alternatives to Detention for LGBTQ Migrants

“The solution to detention already exists. We are the solution."

[Photo: A group of people of different sizes, shades and genders hold signs in protest during a direct action on the street.]
Nationwide, queer and trans leaders of color⁠—many of whom are immigrants themselves⁠—are creating resources that could be used by the federal government as alternatives to detention (ATD) programs, and it couldn’t come at a more needed time. HOPE for TGNC NY

While the news is saturated with articles about immigration, queer and trans migrants rarely make headlines “unless they die,” said Jennicet Gutiérrez, an organizer with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM). But trans activists like Gutiérrez have long been on the front lines in the fight for immigrants’ rights because the conditions facing LGBTQ migrants have always been dire.

“It’s life or death for a lot of us,” Gutiérrez told Rewire.News.We centralize our people [in our advocacy work] because we have to. We want our people free and we want our people safe.”

Nationwide, queer and trans leaders of color⁠—many of whom are immigrants themselves⁠—are creating resources that could be used by the federal government as alternatives to detention (ATD) programs, and it couldn’t come at a more needed time. ICE is currently detaining an unprecedented number of trans people. Since October 2018, the federal immigration agency has detained about 300 trans people, the highest number since 2015, when ICE began tracking this data. Many LGBTQ migrants who have been detained have reported unsafe conditions, medical neglect, and sexual harassment and assault. Advocates assisting these migrants, who are often asylum seekers escaping violence in their home countries, said their efforts make a tangible difference in the lives of LGBTQ immigrants released from ICE custody. But they are up against overwhelming hurdles, including a lack of funding and resources.

“We don’t get millions of dollars in funding,” explained Gutiérrez, “but our people have been on the ground doing this work before Trump, and we will be here after Trump. [I just ask that people] listen to us: Trust our work and trust our strategy.”

“What People Need Is Community”

In 1999, before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE were created, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) collaborated with Catholic Charities of New Orleans for an ATD program that served more than 100 immigrants, with the goal of ensuring those released into communities appeared for their court hearings. Over the span of three years, the court appearance rate for participants was 97 percent.

The Obama administration appeared to seriously consider implementing ATD programs for immigrant families. In 2015, DHS issued a request for proposals for its Family Case Management Proposal (FCMP), a program that would allow immigrant families to be released from detention and assigned a caseworker to monitor them. Later that year, DHS awarded the entire FCMP to GEO Care, a subsidiary of GEO Corporation, one of two notorious private prison companies that maintain a bulk of ICE’s detention centers, even while the rates of in-custody deaths and allegations of human rights abuses have steadily grown. Today, GEO Care continues to oversee the electronic monitoring of newly released immigrants, as well as case management and supervision services for DHS’ Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.

To this day, there has never been an ATD program specifically for LGBTQ migrants, who experience unmatched rates of sexual violence in detention. A 2018 study found that LGBTQ people in ICE custody are 97 times more likely to be sexually victimized than non-LGBTQ people in detention.

At the same time, advocates have found that asylum seekers, especially those with legal representation, show up for their court hearings. Eighty-six percent of family members released from detention between 2001 and 2016 attended all their court hearings, according to the American Immigration Council. When families and unaccompanied children have access to legal representation, the rate of compliance with court obligations is nearly 98 percent, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. LGBTQ asylum seekers also tend to have “incredibly strong immigration cases,” said Nishan Bhaumik, a staff attorney at Immigration Equality. The organization has a 99 percent success rate representing LGBTQ asylum seekers. This number plummets dramatically for trans and queer asylum seekers forced to fight their cases alone from detention without access to legal counsel. 

There is no reason to detain LGBTQ immigrants at all, Bhaumik said, especially when there are alternatives. 

Many advocates also push against the idea that DHS must electronically monitor and surveil immigrants released from detention. But a majority of LGBTQ immigrants don’t get the option to choose and instead must fight for asylum from ICE’s “LGBTQ pods.”

These pods were created following a complaint filed by legal advocates in 2011 against DHS on behalf of 13 LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants who were denied medical care for chronic conditions, sexually assaulted and physically abused by guards and other detained people, and placed in solitary confinement. In response, ICE created its first protective custody unit for LGBTQ migrants at the Santa Ana City Jail in California. (The city ended its contract with ICE after a hunger strike in 2016 outside the jail by members of Familia: TQLM.)

ICE’s one “official” LGBTQ pod is at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, but advocates say others have sprouted up. A legal advocate who spoke to Rewire.News said “unofficial” pods housing transgender women are located at New Mexico’s Otero County Processing Center, California’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, and the South Texas Detention Complex. ICE did not respond for comment by publication time.

In 2018, the Center for American Progress’ Sharita Gruberg wrote that the agency detains transgender women in 17 facilities⁠—four of which are all male, and 13 have a mix of male and female populations. Except for the pod at Cibola, “ICE has not provided information about whether ICE detained transgender women with other women, with men, or in isolation in these facilities,” Gruberg wrote.

Jon Beebe Giudice of Phoenix-based Trans Queer Pueblo said ICE’s LGBTQ pods are “a falsehood, a lie, a trick, an empty promise,” as well as wholly unnecessary. “There are groups caring for their people. Groups like ours, with very little funding, are building the things that our communities really need,” the organizer said.

Nekessa Opoti, communications strategist with the grassroots UndocuBlack Network, agreed, adding that detaining LGBTQ immigrants in specific areas of detention centers “hardly makes a difference.”

“It’s like putting all Black people in the same jail. They’re still locked up, they still have no freedom and no agency to exist,” Opoti said. “It’s a ridiculous strategy by ICE and DHS. These pods were created for appearance. They don’t make anyone safe.”

In fact, 29 trans women and gender-nonconforming migrants detained in Cibola’s LGBTQ pod came forward with allegations of abuse in June, with the help of Trans Queer Pueblo.

To put it plainly, LGBTQ migrants are not safe in detention, advocates said.

“We are talking about asylum seekers who have experienced horrible violence and trauma. They are fleeing persecution and harm. They should not be detained,” Opoti said. “What people need is community, especially Black LGBTQ asylum seekers who are coming to the border and dealing with such widespread anti-Blackness in isolation only to be abused in detention. They need to be free, and they need a support system.”

In a Perfect World, These Groups “Wouldn’t Need to Exist”

Because trans and gender-nonconforming immigrants live at the intersection of multiple identities and oppressions, connecting them to support services is not as straightforward or simple as it might be for other populations in need. To meet their multiplicity of needs, a small, vibrant network of grassroots organizations has sprung up, using limited resources to provide wraparound services to LGBTQ migrants.

Phoenix’s Trans Queer Pueblo, for example, offers asylum case assistance and limited housing, has open clinic hours, provides mental health support, and runs a number of economic support initiatives. According to Beebe Giudice, some of the organization’s members even traveled to Mexico to meet with LGBTQ asylum seekers migrating to the United States. These are the same asylum seekers, now detained at Cibola, whose allegations of abuse Trans Queer Pueblo publicized this summer.

Casa Mariposa in Tucson works alongside Mariposas Sin Fronteras to provide housing and community support to LGBTQ immigrants who were detained inside the Florence Correctional Center and Eloy Detention Center. There is also Washington, D.C.’s Casa Ruby, which offers immigration services, housing, health care, and other social services to LGBTQ immigrants, including mental health support for abuse survivors. Groups like the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, based in New York, assist LGBTQ immigrants coming out of detention in securing health care, legal help, educational opportunities, and other support services.

Then there is the Transgender Law Center’s Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), which operates hubs nationwide and models what community-based support can look like for Black LGBTQ immigrants.

As Rewire.News reported in September, BLMP gathers resources from its communities to help find housing for newly arrived asylum seekers. The organization also helps immigrants navigate the United States post-detention. This includes providing access to legal information in their language, helping them access pro-bono legal services, and pooling BLMP’s resources to help immigrants pay their bills.

BLMP also develops deportation defense campaigns for detained LGBTQ immigrants like Udoka Nweke, who was released from the Adelanto Detention Center after being detained in the Southern California facility for almost two years.

A “constant, overarching thought” for Ola Osaze, BLMP’s founder and national organizer, is “how to take down DHS and ICE and divert those funds into the community.”

“In a perfect world, BLMP wouldn’t need to exist,” Osaze said. “What we are always working toward is a world without ICE and a world where no one is forced to migrate and leave behind their homeland.”

Osaze told Rewire.News that thanks to funding from private foundations and individuals, the organization just secured a few attorneys to work with their team and provide “intensive legal support” to detained Black LGBTQ migrants. Right now, they are focusing on “getting people out of cages,” but, as Osaze explained, their work runs the gamut.

Similar to the work of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, BLMP arranges for people to visit immigrants in detention, lines up legal aid, and provides commissary funds. But when LGBTQ immigrants are released from federal immigration custody⁠—meaning after advocates have carried out a deportation defense campaign, connected them to an attorney, and raised bond money⁠—they need a post-release plan.

Osaze said that BLMP is “by no means” a service organization, but the Black immigrant communities the organization works with are in need of a wide range of services.

“A lot of times we’re just helping people connect to housing or housing stipends; finding sponsorship; or connecting them to services. We’re like the community link, we link people to communities all over the country so they can access what they need,” Osaze said.

Housing: The Most Critical Need

Across the board, the people Rewire.News spoke to named housing as the most critical need for newly released LGBTQ migrants.

In Houston there is Casa Anandrea, a shelter for homeless undocumented trans, queer, and nonbinary people directed by Ana Andrea Molina, an undocumented trans woman. The shelter, which the Organizacion Latina de Trans en Texas opened in 2017, has struggled to stay open due to a lack of funding. It provides both emergency beds and permanent housing, and has helped dozens of undocumented immigrants since opening its doors.

Elizabeth Chavez said that she and her trans sisters, Jessica Guaman and Alejandra Rodriguez, were inspired by Casa Anandrea to start their own grassroots organization, called Hope for TGNC NY, after an eye-opening experience visiting the LGBTQ pod at Cibola during the summer of 2018. “We saw the suffering of what the girls go through,” Chavez told Rewire.News. “We crossed the border, but we never experienced anything like that. We came back to New York with the purpose of helping them.”

Hope for TGNC NY started with commissaries; the group’s co-founders put money on trans women’s books in detention so that they could access basics like food, shampoo, and deodorant. But they soon tapped into a larger network of grassroots organizations working with LGBTQ migrants. As trans women were released from detention, the organization began providing housing and other services. They quickly realized they wanted to be the ones to give trans woman released from detention a safe place to live in New York City.

“We have hosted four women released from detention; one of them stayed with our co-founder for four months at no cost,” Chavez said.

Chavez explained that when trans women are released from detention to sponsors in the United States, they are sent to live all over the country, often to places they have no connections or community. One of the women Hope hosted was first sent to Louisiana after being released, and another was sent to Texas. The women were not happy in those places, Chavez told Rewire.News, partly because many sponsors don’t realize that providing a bedroom in their home isn’t enough for LGBTQ migrants, who also need help with navigating life after detention, including accessing legal aid and health care.

Housing also sometimes comes with a curfew, which can be a problem for many LGBTQ migrants. Some may have been linked to jobs that are two hours away. If they miss their curfew, they lose their housing—and if they lose their housing, maintaining their job becomes almost impossible. Unemployment can also affect their ability to access necessary health care, including mental health care. Osaze said that the Black trans women BLMP works with have endured a great deal of trauma, and they have few places to turn for resources in navigating it.

“When our people go through so much trauma and are put in places without adequate support, things erupt,” Osaze added. For example, a Black trans Garifuna woman had been transferred many times after she was released from Cibola. She was disconnected from her community. This woman was one of the women that Chavez’s team at Hope for TGNC NY helped. To get her there, however, was a long process, and involved raising money for her living expenses. All the while, this woman still had financial obligations to her family.

“In New York City, [the women] were so happy because they had a community with us and we could walk them through all the things they needed,” Chavez said. “They all have jobs right now and are living on their own.” The women are also involved in the liberation movement for transgender people, showing how the impact of this work could extend beyond those receiving immediate assistance. ”We want to help more and give more girls this life,” Chavez added, “but we just can’t right now.”

Developing sustainable organizations that can expand their offerings is an issue for all of the grassroots organizations doing this work. If DHS considered allocating funding to these groups, some who spoke to Rewire.News said they would take the money. Others said they wouldn’t.

Chavez, who said she wants to do more than offer shelter to trans women, is in conversation with a few elected officials and hopes it leads to state funding. But she also needs access to pro-bono legal services so that Hope for TGNC NY can be structured into a nonprofit organization to expand its offerings.

“We want to help them continue their education, get therapy to deal with their trauma, and even work like a job agency so that we can get our sisters safe jobs once they are ready,” Chavez said. “Many of our sisters do sex work to survive. We don’t criticize that, but it’s different if they feel forced. Our wish is to help them have whatever life they want to have, and to support them doing that.”

“We Need Folks to Give a Damn”

Given the onslaught of news about LGBTQ migrants, many social justice advocates are asking how they can help. The organizations Rewire.News spoke to said there are a number of ways to get involved.

Osaze said that BLMP is always looking to connect with Black immigrants nationwide to join the organization’s existing hubs, start new ones, or help raise resources to get people out of detention and prevent future deportations. The organization and others like it need money and resources from allies, but Osaze added that BLMP also needs people’s time.

“Folks can always give money, but we always need more attorneys. We need folks to undergo training to open their homes and help support people getting on their feet,” Osaze said. “Even in this moment, it feels like pulling teeth to get people to understand that queer and trans migrants are under attack and we need resources poured into these communities. Frankly, we need folks to give a damn. We are tired of screaming into the void.”

Other advocates emphasized the importance of supporting organizations led by affected people who understand the needs of their communities. Beebe Giudice told Rewire.News that powerful things happen when people of color organize in their own communities.

“The solution to detention already exists. We are the solution,” the Trans Queer Pueblo organizer said. “All of the grassroots organizations doing this work are different and sometimes we don’t all get along, but we are all queer and trans people of color organizing ourselves because we know what we need—we need autonomy and self-determination for our communities. We have the answers, we can offer the healing and services our communities need, we just need more resources to do it.”