Eight Months in Solitary

Is a government turf war over immigration detention putting transgender lives at risk?



At Immigration Equality, Rosalba Davis had navigated many of those fiefdoms, including Rappahannock. Last year she worked with a transgender woman named Dulce from Guanajuato, Mexico, who originally fled to the U.S. in the 1990s following a sexual assault. Dulce has the effervescence of an Almodóvar film actress, yet is shy when speaking about her time in detention. She had been transferred to Rappahannock following an arrest for shoplifting shoes at a Kmart. Upon arrival, Dulce was put into an isolation cell (el hoyo, or "the hole") for six days with nothing but a pair of sheets and a thin, wet mattress thrown onto the floor. “I remember asking a female sergeant, ‘Why did you put me here, in the hole? It’s the place for punishment. What did I do?’” Dulce recalled. “She told me they didn’t know where else they could put me.”

Dulce was transferred to the same area where Kripcia had been held, the one designated for male sex offenders. She waited four months before her first court appearance and eventually spent eight months at the facility. CAIR Coalition, a local immigrant advocacy group, found out about Dulce’s case, which was soon taken up by Davis. "When I found out that Dulce was being held with sex offenders, I was not sure what to do about it," she said. "It all seemed so backwards to me."

Dulce had little interaction with her fellow detainees, but some conversations she did have scared her, as she recounted to the court last year. “I have not felt safe here and several detainees have made harassing comments,” she wrote. “When New York State passed gay marriage in July [2011], we were watching the TV coverage and one of the detainees said that he wanted to be like Franco and make them all ‘disappear.’ He was telling me he wanted to kill all the gay people, including me. I try to ignore these comments and keep the peace but sometimes I feel unsafe and scared here.”

The officer handling Dulce's case seemed perpetually confused about her particular circumstances, according to Davis. “Over the course of my representation, he had very little patience,” Davis said of the ICE officer and his handling of Dulce’s requests, which included hormone therapy and a chaplain visit after Dulce learned that her mother had died (both were denied). "He even hung up on me once when I challenged his decision to continue to detain her after the immigration court granted her relief.”

The legal relief that eventually got Dulce out of ICE detention is known as "withholding of removal," and allows an individual to remain in the country, to obtain a work permit, and to pursue an education, which Dulce is now doing. But Ruby Corado, who has helped Dulce find a place to live in Washington since she was released, likens the impermanent legal classification to "life support."

"It can be taken away very easily," Corado said. "Immigration can just pull the plug on you and deport you anytime they want to. There's really no protection."

Absent safe facilities for transgender individuals, advocates have called for alternatives to detention in appropriate cases. Research shows that putting trans detainees on ankle bracelet monitoring results in significant savings for the government — $14 per day compared to $100 or more a day for the cost of detention, according to Homeland Security's own figures.

"Nobody should be subjected to these kinds of abuses, and people need to hear these stories," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality. "I think there has been an increasing meanness in our country toward people who are undocumented. Unfortunately, that's certainly had an effect on the progress we have and haven't made in securing better treatment in detention."

Because of Corado’s efforts, Kripcia has since been released but has not yet been granted withholding of removal. She now volunteers with Corado’s organization and awaits a court decision on whether she can remain in the country.


Andrew Harmon is the Washington Correspondent for The Advocate. Twitter: @andrew_harmon

For more information on this issue, see below the short documentary Transgression, produced by Daniel Rotman, Morgan Hargrave, Toni Marzal, and TJ Barber.

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