Even as the Obama administration takes steps to protect transgender children in schools and provide access to health care for trans people, the President’s illiberal approach to immigration continues to affect trans women in predictable and violent ways. As accolades were heaped on the administration from transgender advocates, the administration announced the creation of a new detention facility designed to hold trans detainees in Alvarado, Texas. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a 36 bed enclave in the 700 bed facility that will be dedicated to trans detainees and will, in the words of ICE, operate along the most advanced lines of transgender care. The facility will be run by a private prison company.
In building this facility, ICE rejects the reality that ICE’s safe detention of trans women is an impossible task for the agency. ICE has consistently failed to provide even the most basic forms of security and care for detainees in its care. A study by the government accountability office (GAO) found that although trans women make up 1 of 500 detainees, they represent 1 of 5 sexual assault victims within detention facilities. Trans women have been raped, sexually assaulted, beaten, sent into solitary confinement for their own protection, denied adequate medical care and generally humiliated by fellow detainees or prison staff. While the opening of a new trans dedicated facility may provide a measure of protection for trans women from the general male population of the facility, there is no reason to believe that this remote facility can provide protection from the employees of the facility pr provide adequate medical care.
The Alvarado facility is not the first trans-specific detention facility. Previously, ICE detained trans women in Santa Ana City Jail in Santa Ana, California. However, problems there including violence and lack of adequate medical care created significant controversy. Activists Isa Noyola, Jennicet Gutierrez and Jorge Gutierrez led an effort to persuade the Santa Ana City Council to end its contract with ICE. Amazingly, ICE has managed to come up with a worse alternative to detention in Santa Ana. The Alvarado detention facility has several flaws, most of which can be summed up by the real estate adage of “location, location, location.”
- Location. Alvarado is a town of approximately 4000 outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Area. ICE’s experience with detention facilities in Dilley, Texas, Karnes, Texas, and Lumpkin Georgia has shown that detaining immigrants in small towns far from population centers undermines effective legal representation and access to family and advocates who can check in on the well-being of detainees.
- Location. In addition, the location in rural Texas creates a limited pool of employees to work at the facility. It is hard to imagine a more unwelcome place for trans immigrants than Alvarado Texas. The representative from Alvarado is Republican Roger Williams, who rarely misses an opportunity to bash immigrants and is a strong supporter of Texas lawsuits against the President’s executive actions on immigration and trans bathroom and health issues. Other Texas politicians like Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton have made careers out of attacking LGBT individuals and immigrants. Perhaps it is not fair to tar the good folks of Alvarado by the people they elect, but certainly Texas politicians have gone above and beyond in their attacks on trans people and immigrants. One can only assume that they do so because it is good politics popular with the citizenry of Alvarado.
- Location. Alvarado is in Texas. Texas is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, one of the least friendly judicial circuits for immigrants of any type. When Texas and other states wanted to challenge the DAPA and DACA, they chose the 5th Circuit. When Texas and ten other states wanted to attack the Obama actions on trans kids and health, they chose the 5th Circuit. When the government needed a new place for its family detention facilities, it chose Texas. It is a friendly forum for those who seek to fight immigrants.
- Location. And what happens when people get released the detention center in Alvarado? They are in Alvarado (see location problem #2), where there are scant few resources to assist people who are released in a vulnerable state. Once, when I got a woman released from Santa Ana, I was able to convince the immigration judge that she would go into a therapeutic program available in Santa Ana for trans women. His comfort that she would get the help she needed persuaded him to release her. Unlikely that I could offer similar things to the judges overseeing detainees in Alvarado. And speaking of the immigration judges in Alvarado . . .
- Location. It is likely that cases of trans detainees, principally asylum cases, will be heard by the immigration judges in Dallas. Whereas immigration judges nationwide denied asylum cases at a rate of approximately 48%, Dallas judges denied at a rate of 66%. Thus, trans asylum seekers have to run a legal gauntlet from an unfriendly immigration judge through to the 5th Circuit.
Of course, the government was well aware of all these consequences. In fact, Alvarado was likely chosen because of and not in spite of these characteristics. The fact remains, however, and the Alvarado experience will bear this out, that there is no way for ICE to safely detain trans women and ICE should be exploring alternatives to incarceration rather than building more jails. And cities like Alvarado should focus on other ways to employ their citizenry than offering the demeaning work of causing another human being suffering.