By Daniel González
The assault took place while Ramon Catalan, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was detained by federal immigration authorities in a Pinal County jail.
Catalan, a transgender man who lives as a woman, was in a cell when four other immigration detainees began insulting her in Spanish.
"One guy said he didn't want to be around a (homosexual)," said Catalan, who prefers to be called Monica and wears her hair long and plucks her eyebrows.
Then, the beating started. While one man stood lookout, the others threw her onto the floor, then repeatedly punched and kicked her. The attack lasted four or five minutes. By the time it was over, Catalan's face was covered in blood.
The assault was not an isolated incident, immigrant advocates and lawyers say.
Reports of similar attacks and other abuses against gay and transgender detainees are on the rise around the nation as the number of undocumented immigrants in custody has skyrocketed as part of the federal government's crackdown on illegal immigration.
In Arizona alone, the ACLU found five cases of transgender or gay detainees who were sexually assaulted or abused over a two-year period, according to a study released Thursday. Catalan was not among them.
The 36-page report, "In Their Own Words: Enduring Abuse in Arizona Immigration Detention Centers," [PDF] is based on 115 interviews with detainees in facilities in Eloy and Florence from March 2009 through March 2011. ACLU attorney Victoria Lopez also reviewed hundreds of reports and records, including 500 grievances, some of which were filed by gay and transgender detainees like Catalan who were abused while in detention.
"While (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) does not systemically track the number of sexual assaults in detention facilities across the country, these and other reported cases very likely represent only a fraction of the actual cases of sexual abuse of immigrants in detention," Lopez wrote.In April of this year, the Heartland Alliance National Immigration Justice Center, an advocacy group in Chicago, filed a civil-rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 13 more immigrants.
Catalan, 27, is not named in that complaint. She filed a separate complaint in September 2009 with the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties documenting his March 2009 assault.
Margo Schlanger, officer for civil rights and civil liberties at Homeland Security, said in a written statement that her office is investigating complaints regarding LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) detainees, including the ones submitted by the National Immigrant Justice Center.
She said her office "takes these matters very seriously."
The National Immigration Justice Center complaint alleges that LGBT immigrants have suffered "systemic and severe abuses" while being held at facilities in Arizona and eight other states run by Homeland Security, including the facilities in Florence and Eloy. The reputed abuses include sexual assault, denial of adequate medical care, including HIV drugs and hormone therapy, discrimination, and an ineffective process for filing complaints, the complaint says.
It also alleges that one of the 13 immigrants was segregated for 14 months in Florence. The immigrant, a transgender man living as a woman, said she was told she was isolated for her protection. The ACLU report echoed many of the same concerns.
The complaint asks the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in Washington, D.C., to investigate the complaints and implement a new policy to address any violations. The ACLU report also calls for new policies and practices.
"These abuses are happening across the country. And this is really just the tip of the iceberg," said Jane Zurnamer, associate director of policy at the National Immigration Justice Center.
ICE, the Homeland Security agency that oversees detention and removal of immigration violators, is also reviewing the complaints, said Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman in Phoenix.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes any allegations of mistreatment or abuse very seriously," he said.He said ICE has issued formal guidance to address care and housing of vulnerable and special-needs detainees based on discussions with advocacy groups, including the National Immigrant Justice Center.
He would not elaborate on the guidance but did say, "ICE remains firmly committed to ensuring the health and welfare of all those in our custody and to providing the highest-quality medical and mental-health care available."
Immigrants are often held in detention centers while awaiting hearings in immigration courts to determine whether they will be removed from the country or allowed to stay. In recent years, the number of immigrants detained by ICE has soared as part of efforts by Homeland Security to crack down on immigration violators.
Through April 4 of this fiscal year, the average number of immigrants being detained daily by ICE was 33,390, up from 19,718 in 2005, according to Homeland Security statistics.
ICE uses more than 300 local and state jails and contracts with seven private facilities to house immigration detainees. In addition, it runs eight detention facilities of its own.
The agency deported 392,862 people in the past fiscal year, up from 291,060 in fiscal 2007, according to Homeland Security.
Zurnamer said abuse of LGBT people is a problem in criminal jails and prisons, as well. Although laws protecting them from abuse also apply to immigration detention facilities, LGBT detainees are more vulnerable to abuse because, unlike people charged with crimes, they are not legally entitled to court-appointed lawyers who can advocate on their behalf.
As a result, their complaints are often ignored, or they are deported before they can file a complaint, Zurnamer said.
"It's not whether (abuse) happens more or less (in immigration detention)," Zurnamer said. "It's that there is less accountability if it does happen."Zurnamer said that abuse of LGBT detainees is on the rise because the government is detaining many more immigrants and that oversight is limited because the government contracts with many local and state facilities to house detainees.
Catalan came to the U.S. illegally in 1996 when she was 13 to live with her mother and stepfather in Santa Ana, Calif. Around age 15, Catalan wanted to begin living as a woman but was rejected by her stepfather, so she moved out and began living on the street.
In 2007, she moved to Arizona. A year later, she was arrested by Phoenix police for prostitution. After serving a 30-day jail sentence, she said, she was turned over to ICE because she was in the country illegally.
Catalan was detained by ICE from October 2008 to April 2009, according to her complaint.
Before her detention, Catalan was taking steps to transition from male to female by taking hormone injections, growing her hair and plucking her eyebrows, the complaint says.
The complaint says she was awaiting an asylum hearing in immigration court when she was attacked at the Pinal County jail. The jail houses immigration detainees under a contract with ICE.
Medical records released on Catalan's behalf by Regina Jefferies, a Phoenix immigration lawyer, show Catalan was treated at Casa Grande Medical Center for cuts, bruises, a facial-bone fracture and a concussion.
"One punched me in the face. One was kicking me," Catalan said in an interview. "They tried to cut off my hair with a razor, but I grabbed the razor with my hand and wouldn't let go."Catalan said the men who beat her threatened to find her and kill her if she reported the assault.
Tim Gaffney, a spokesman for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, provided copies of jail records showing that three detainees were disciplined and several others removed from the housing unit where the assault took place.
An immigration judge denied Catalan's request for asylum but ordered that she not be deported out of concern she could be persecuted in Mexico for being transgender, Jefferies said. Catalan is currently appealing the asylum ruling.
More than two years later, Catalan said she still suffers from the beating.