On November 18, dubbed the “End Trans Detention National Day of Action” by immigrant rights groups, a coalition of organizations launched what the Transgender Law Center is calling a “new immigrant leadership initiative” that seeks to build leadership and capacity within transgender immigrant communities.
According to the Transgender Law Center, there has been significant work to end the detention and abuse of transgender people being held in immigration custody, including efforts by the organizations involved in the day of action, but there has not been a coordinated, national effort to build transgender immigrant leadership or support transgender immigrants post-detention.
Groups behind the Honor Trans Immigrant Lives initiative—including Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, the Transgender Law Center, GetEQUAL, Southerners on New Ground, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, and the #Not1More Deportation Campaign—are rallying on Wednesday and throughout the week to free all transgender people held in detention and are demanding the release of Christina Lopez, a 35-year-old transgender woman and survivor of domestic violence who has been in detention for over a year following a DUI charge.
Immigrant rights groups organized the campaign rallies as part of a week of action involving more than two dozen events across 17 different states, during which they are seeking to highlight the “unjust enforcement and deportations” that have continued in the year since President Obama’s executive actions.
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On Wednesday, outside of the jail where Lopez is being detained, Familia is organizing a vigil in her honor and is asking that people put pressure on Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release Lopez and all other transgender detainees.
Lopez requires treatment for hepatitis C, which she has been denied as she’s been held in Santa Ana City Jail, according to the Transgender Law Center. Advocates say she has spent the past three months in solitary confinement.
Jennicet Gutiérrez, an organizer with Familia, says cases like Lopez’s are more difficult to fight because of her criminal background and transgender identity.
“Being trans is already very difficult, but when you add your citizenship status, it becomes so much more complex,” Gutiérrez said. “Figuring out the proper channels is very hard and honestly, a lot of [immigration] policies are structured to benefit heteronormative people. Our trans community members don’t have the ability to go back to our countries to change our documentation to match our gender identity.”
“A lot of times members of our undocumented community in mainstream immigrants rights organizations don’t include us because they think by making the conversation more complicated, it will shatter their chances of getting improvements,” Gutiérrez added.
This past summer, Gutiérrez caused a stir when she interrupted President Obama during the White House Pride celebration, shouting, “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations!” At the time, Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate Pride while approximately 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse while in ICE custody. Gutiérrez was booed by LGBTQ members in the audience, which she said was indicative of the challenge undocumented trans women face: Both mainstream LGBTQ organizations and immigrant rights organizations have little understanding of those at the intersection of being trans and undocumented and do little to include and advocate for this community.
Undocumented transgender people are a particularly vulnerable population. Their citizenship status and fear of deportation makes interacting with law enforcement to report hate crimes and instances of violence dangerous. If detained, they are often abused by other detainees and detention center guards, and until ICE’s announcement earlier this year that trans detainees would now be locked up according to their gender identify, transgender women were held with men. According to a Fusion investigation, this sometimes meant transgender women asylum seekers fleeing persecution and oppression were “locked up alongside … the very men they were trying to escape.”
“Many organizations have been unwilling to address these issues,” Gutiérrez told Rewire. “At these intersections are many different kinds of oppression and we live with those oppressions every day. I don’t know if organizations are moving toward inclusivity, but we are certainly demanding to be heard. Whether they want to hear us or not, we’re pushing our issues to the front of the discussion.”
Alexa Vasquez, who works with Transgeneros en Accion Santa Ana, a trans Latina group working for the empowerment of the transgender Latina women of Orange County, many of whom are undocumented, shared similar sentiments with RH Reality Check.
“I always think of the speech Sylvia Rivera gave about how the gay movement erased trans women. That’s still happening, and it makes me think of the ways undocumented trans women are also erased from LGBT organizations and immigrants’ rights organizations and how the violence we experience isn’t addressed in real ways,” Vasquez said.
The activist pointed out that many of the statistics used to illustrate the violence transgender communities face primarily impact transgender women of color. This year alone, 22 transgender women have been murdered; 19 of them were women of color.
Actions taking place this week in honor of the National Day of Action to End Trans Detention coincide with the National Trans March of Resilience and Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), an annual day of observance to honor those who have lost their lives to anti-trans violence. At TDOR events in Santa Ana, the same city where Lopez is currently detained, there are plans to honor Zoraida “Ale” Reyes, the 28-year-old undocumented transgender activist who was murdered in Anaheim, California, last year.
“Transgender Day of Remembrance is an important reminder to others of the violence and transphobia our community faces. We know it. We live it. We see it every day. For us, it’s a way to honor those we have lost,” Gutiérrez said. “Our lives are valuable. These actions this week and for TDOR are necessary. We have to disrupt business as usual and send the message that violence shouldn’t be tolerated in any form and we will not continue to lose members of our community to murder or deportation.”