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Trauma Compounded: The Plight of LGBT Immigration Detainees

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By Ian Thompson, Legislative Representative ACLU Washington Legislative Office

The Department of Homeland Security assumes that mass detention is the key to immigration enforcement. But in fact, our detention system locks up thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers. Throughout the next two weeks, check back daily for posts about the costs of immigration detention, both human and fiscal, and what needs to be done to ensure fair and humane policy.

The ACLU recently unveiled government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act which show the widespread, systemic nature of sexual abuse of detainees in immigration detention facilities. While the problem of sexual abuse of immigration detainees reaches far and wide, there are particularly vulnerable populations in detention including those with mental disabilities, asylum-seekers, torture survivors, women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ("LGBT") immigrants.

While it is true that physical and sexual abuse is one of the most serious problems for LGBT detainees, it is by no means the only concern facing them. Additional concerns, which often compound the trauma of a sexual assault, include placement in long-term segregation or "protective custody"; inadequate medical care; and, in the case of transgender detainees, being housed with detainees of a gender with which they do not identify.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Arizona released "In Their Own Words: Enduring Abuse in Arizona Immigration Detention Centers," which includes a section highlighting the array of problems confronting LGBT detainees. The ACLU of Arizona documented five cases involving transgender or gay detainees who were sexually assaulted or treated in an abusive manner while in detention in Arizona facilities.

The report quotes a local Arizona immigration attorney discussing his client's placement in isolation after he was raped by another detainee in a bathroom:

He couldn't eat, couldn't sleep; just kept reliving the trauma. He is completely alone, not even a television. We can only visit him on certain days because he is in protective custody. Everything has to be put on lock-down for him to be moved to visitation. When he is brought to visitation (or anywhere else), he is shackled hands, feet, and waist. They refuse to take off the shackles even to speak with me, and this is despite the fact that we are in a non-contact booth through a glass window. And the guards stand right outside. He is also in stripes. It is so degrading, after having been a victim, that I am truly outraged.

Subjecting individuals who have experienced sexual abuse to prolonged isolation and what are essentially harsh punitive measures is beyond the pale. Yet it is a reality facing far too many LGBT immigration detainees. No one should have their dignity assaulted in such a fashion.

Earlier this year, the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed 13 complaints with the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties detailing serious civil and human rights violations committed against LGBT immigration detainees. This month, the organization filed four more such complaints with DHS.

It is absolutely critical that the Obama administration act to address this devastating problem by ensuring that all immigration detainees, including those who are LGBT, are covered under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The proposed PREA standards issued by the Department of Justice already include LGBT individuals, but they don't incorporate protections for anyone in immigration detention, whether LGBT or not. Finalizing those standards and ensuring their application to immigration detention facilities is essential.

Join us in demanding that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder grant the full protections of PREA to immigration detainees.