The Precarious Position of Transgender Immigrants and Asylum Seekers

An international spotlight has been placed on the mistreatment of transgender people in the U.S. immigration detention system.

Over the last year, an international spotlight has been placed on the mistreatment of transgender people in the U.S. immigration detention system. Many transgender people come to this country fleeing persecution in their home countries -- and the number of undocumented transgender people and trans asylum seekers in the U.S. is higher than many may think.

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that there are currently between 15,000 and 50,000 undocumented transgender immigrants living in the U.S. However, these numbers are hard to estimate, as many people are reluctant to self-report as transgender due, in part, to fear of maltreatment by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and the persecution they faced at home. More than 70 countries criminalize LGBTQ people, while many more still serve as challenging places for transgender people to live freely and peacefully.

It was for this reason that Karolina López left Mexico in 2009. “I asked for asylum because of prosecution in my country,” she told Remezcla. “A gang raped me and wanted to mutilate my genitals, so I asked for political asylum in the United States.”

Griselda, a 25-year-old trans immigrant from Nicaragua, told AZCentral that "I’ve had people point guns at me and threaten to throw me out the window of the hotel...I was afraid they would knock my teeth out because they wanted to beat me, to kill me, simply because of who I am, because of my gender identity."

When trans people arrive in the U.S. seeking asylum and safety, however, they are met with further mistreatment and discrimination. According to the Center for American Progress, ICE “detains transgender women in 17 facilities. Four are all-male facilities.” There is one transgender “pod” of detainment in Cibola County, New Mexico, a location rural enough that it makes it very difficult for detainees to report assault or maltreatment or to seek legal protection.

In addition, trans women were detained on average more than twice the average length of detainment of all immigrants held in ICE custody during fiscal year 2017. Trans people (and particularly transgender women) have also consistently reported harassment, assault and maltreatment from ICE officers due to their transgender status. Roxana Hernández, 33, ​passed away on May 25, 2018 while in ICE custody after fleeing violence and discrimination in Honduras. The Transgender Law Center is spearheading legal action to hold “all parties responsible for Roxsana Hernandez’s death accountable.”

Although there is existing Obama-era guidance on best practices for treatment of transgender immigrants, they are not mandatory and facilities often do not follow them. According to a 2018 letter from the Office of Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “of the 298 transgender people ICE detained in fiscal year 2017, 13% were placed in solitary confinement.”

Coming to the U.S. as a transgender person in order to escape persecution or maltreatment due to transgender status is considered by U.S. immigration policy to be a meritable reason to request asylum. However, being granted asylum is an arduous process that can take years.

For one transgender immigrant, Estrella Sanchez, it took six years to be granted asylum status, “including three appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and a trip to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit” before her asylum petition was finally signed by a judge this past May. This was after attaining a pro bono lawyer, whose firm spent around 800 hours on Sanchez’s case.

Last month, HRC submitted comments to oppose a shameful proposed “public charge” rule from DHS that would exclude people from entering the U.S. if they might utilize Medicaid, food stamps, rental assistance or prescription drug subsidies. This could disproportionately burden transgender immigrants, who face higher rates of discrimination, poverty, homelessness and violence.

As we enter the new year, here are a few steps you can take to support and protect undocumented transgender people in the U.S. and at the border: