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Keren Zwick Headshot

Obama Administration Slow to Address Abuse of LGBT Immigrant Detainees

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Last week Jose* decided to give up his case and be deported to Mexico. He made this choice not because he didn't have a claim to relief but because he could not bear the thought of spending another moment in the county jail where he was being detained. Jose is a gay man who endured severe physical and emotional abuse in Mexico because of his sexual orientation. The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained him after local police pulled him over for speeding, and he spent nearly four months in a county jail waiting for his chance to present his case in immigration court. Despite my efforts to convince him to stay and seek protection, when he finally got to see a judge for the first time on April 13, he asked to be put on the next flight to Mexico, a place that he has feared for most of his life. Jose sacrificed his chance at safety in exchange for release from a U.S. detention center. He decided to risk his life in the country where he was arrested and abused for being gay, the country with the second highest murder rate of gay people in all of Latin America. This is a choice he should not have had to make.

Jose gave up on his immigration case exactly one year after my organization, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties (CRCL) on behalf of 13 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrants who suffered abuse in ICE custody. Some of the individuals asked CRCL to address gaps in medical care, including lapses in HIV medication and the outright denial of hormone therapy. Others complained that sexual harassment and physical and sexual abuse by guards and other detainees was commonplace. Still others challenged immigration authorities' practice of placing LGBTs in "protective custody" -- a perverse euphemism for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement -- because they looked "too gay" to survive in the general population.

In the past year, despite strong Congressional and organizational support for investigation into the abuses, little has changed. CRCL did investigate, but it has not released any findings or publicly acknowledged the dangers that sexual minorities face in immigration detention. In the meantime, more of NIJC's clients joined the complaint and several others continue to suffer. For example, NIJC represents a transgender woman who was propositioned for sex and then placed in solitary confinement, where she has been held for months because officials concluded that this was the "best" way to deal with a victim of sexual violence. Another of NIJC's gay clients has been detained for four years -- twelve times longer than Jose's detention -- pursuing his right to remain in the United States all while enduring persistent harassment relating to his sexual orientation. These are just two examples. On any given day, detained sexual minorities still experience physical abuse, harassment, discrimination, and the denial of appropriate medical care.

One year of waiting is long enough. For individuals like Jose, it is too long. CRCL must issue the findings from its investigation immediately, and the U.S. government must take concrete steps to resolve the problems identified in the complaint. Punitive and unnecessary detention of vulnerable immigrants who pose no risk to the community is inhumane, especially for individuals who have strong claims to refugee status. And for those who remain detained, their jailers must provide appropriate medical care and humanely protect them from sexual and physical abuse. For many non-citizens, the immigration system is the only interaction they have with the American justice system, yet the circumstances of their detention are sometimes only marginally better than the lives they fled abroad. The discrimination, harassment and abuse that many immigrants face in ICE custody should shame us as a nation. Our government can, and must, do better.

*Pseudonym use to protect our client's privacy.