By Paul Canning
Over the past year a number of American non-government organisations have reported on the abuses prevalent in that country's vast and expanding immigration detention system. This website has covered those reports.
One transgender woman detained in California was abused and singled out for public searches where guards forced her to remove her outer clothing and mocked her exposed breasts.
Both transgender and lesbian or gay people in immigration detention are often segregated and kept in cells for 22 hours per day. They have far less access to recreation compared with the general detainee population. When this transgender woman asked why she could have recreation access for only a couple of hours she was abused by a guard, told it was to “teach her not to be transgender.” When she asked for toilet paper she was abused.
Transferred to a Jail she suffered further mistreatment and discrimination, including denial of access to a doctor.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented the prison-like conditions to which immigration detainees of all ages are subjected. This means confining detainees in general in small cells for up to 12 hours a day, forcing them to wear prison uniforms, and routinely depriving them of access to education, health care, and privacy.
Mass immigration detention is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Prior to the 1980s, only those immigrants deemed “a danger to national security” were detained for any period of time. Mass detention as we know it today evolved under the Reagan administration, as a means of deterring large influxes of Cuban, Haitian, and Central American refugees.
Since 9/11, the detainee population has increased from 7,500 people per day in 1995 to approximately 33,000 per day in 2010. With few dedicated immigration detention centers available to house the growing number of detainees, authorities began renting out beds in a variety of facilities primarily used for housing criminal convicts under very restrictive conditions. Often these facilities are in remote areas, restricting access to legal help. The intermingling and eventual conflation of civil and criminal detainees pushed immigration detention towards the highly punitive model prevalent today. Today nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants are detained every year.
Human Rights Watch released a report last August that documented sex crimes committed in detention centers across eight states.
According to ACLU attorney Victoria Lopez she has seen gay and transgender cases of harassment, "starting with verbal harassment all the way to physical assault. In a more egregious case, one of the transgender detainees we worked with was sexually assaulted by a guard.”
This month Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a report on the difficulty of providing quality health care to detainees in the US immigration detention system. The report highlights the conflict between health professional's duties to their patients and their obligations to an employer, government, insurer, or the military - which can be devastating for patients. It tells the story of one immigrant from Ecuador who had persistent headaches for which she was only given the Tylenol painkiller. After a month she fell from a bunk bed and was taken to a local hospital where she was diagnosed with an infection of the brain common among Latin American immigrants, and died shortly after.
The PHR report also documents cases of sexual assault, abuse and even death.
In February Human Rights Watch and 10 other organizations, including Immigration Equality, said in a letter to the president that he should direct the Justice Department to apply Prison Rape Elimination Act standards to detainees in US immigration facilities.
Proposed standards under the law for detecting, preventing, reducing, and punishing sexual abuse of people in government custody would exclude detainees in US immigration facilities even though the law calls for establishing standards for all federal, state, and local confinement facilities.
This week the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) filed a civil rights complaint detailing 13 cases of abuse of LGBT detainees including the transgender woman mentioned above. Another is a Peruvian held in solitary confinement for almost six weeks on the sole basis that he is HIV-positive. All are asylum seekers fleeing persecution and some have subsequently won their cases.
The filing has draw coverage from immigrant advocacy websites and some MainStream Media (AP, Washington Post, Orange County Register) - but almost nothing from the LGBT press and also nothing from the main LGBT immigration group, Immigration Equality.
NIJC have launched a campaign targeting Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who both have the power to enact policies that would reduce unnecessary detention of vulnerable populations including sexual minorities and bring ICE and detention center staff into line to ensure humane conditions.
Advocates tell me that fighting for these detainees is "like an uphill battle these days." The Obama administration should be ashamed to govern over such an abusive system but very few Americans seem to know or care about what people fleeing repression are enduring once they get to America.
This lack of support for NIJC's complaint is outrageous. Many of our readers are American and I would urge them to contact LGBT groups and media to demand that they stand behind NIJC and their attempt to try and win some dignity from Obama and Napolitano's immigration system for LGBT refugee detainees.