Less than a week after Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented transgender Latina, interrupted President Obama at the White House during a Pride Month celebration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a new memorandum regarding the care of transgender women in immigration detention.
In the memo made public Monday, officials issued guidance for ICE personnel about respecting transgender individual's gender identity, directing staff to house transgender immigrants in sex-segregated housing that corresponds with the person's gender identity. That's a shift from long-standing ICE (and general prison) policy, which often sees transgender women housed with men, where they face a starkly elevated risk of sexual assault and harassment.
ICE's memo offered guidance on how to determine a detainee's gender identity, then subsequently house the individual in housing with other women or men, depending on the immigrant's gender identity. The memo indicates that ICE employees will be provided a script with questions to ask individuals whose gender expression may "appear to indicate a gender different from the sex listed on the detainee's identity documentation." Data systems will also be updated to allow officers to record or update a person's gender identity.
The Department of Homeland Security noted that the new memo follows a report from an agency working group that examined these issues over the course of six months with "subject matter experts, [who] sought input from transgender individuals, and visited various non-federal facilities across the country to observe best practices."
Only a day after Gutiérrez interrupted the president, the Washington Blade asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest if the president was aware of the issue Gutiérrez sought to illuminate, but Earnest said he didn't know if the president was aware of the issue of transgender immigrants being mistreated in detention. This past week, 35 members of Congress sent a letter to the head of Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, calling for an end to LGBT detention.
The #Not1More campaign and member groups Familia:Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Transgender Law Center, GetEQUAL and Southerns on New Ground, all of which oppose the Obama administration's approach to immigration, released a statement in reaction to this new memo. "A guidance document cannot be expected to change the fact that DHS and ICE have consistently failed at maintaining a minimum of safety and dignity for transgender immigrants," the advocates stated.
The activists claim the guidance "still allows for practices that have been denounced as inhumane — including administrative segregation, 'protective custody,' and isolated pods — as adequate forms of housing for transgender individuals. Every one of these practices has failed to protect transgender immigrants, particularly women, from rape, sexual and physical abuse and dangerous living conditions in detention."
United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation, also released a statement. "The guidelines released by ICE don't go far enough," said Cristina Jimenez, the group's managing director, in the statement.
"DHS is incapable of protecting LGBTQ immigrants, who experience sexual assault and rape at much higher levels while in detention," added Carlos Padilla (pictured left), the coordinator for United We Dream's Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project. "Studies have shown that ICE has routinely detained LGBTQ immigrants who it knows are at great risk and should not be behind bars."