Immigrant Trans Women Can Now Be Detained in Women’s Facilities, But the Fight Isn’t Over Yet

This past week there have been two stories that have dominated the LGBTQ newsfeeds — the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and the shushing and attempted silencing of trans Latina activist Jennicet Gutiérrez as she called out President Obama for the absolutely horrifying treatment of trans immigrants in US detention centers. While we all celebrated the marriage victory, and rightfully so, many people, including people who are members of the LGBTQ community or allies, were also trying to shame Gutiérrez and push the extremely important issue that she brought up to the back of the room. The story won’t go away, however, and now there’s a new development. US Immigration officials released a memo detailing their plans to improve their placement and treatment of trans immigrants in their detention centers.

Jennicet Gutiérrez at the White House via REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Jennicet Gutiérrez at the White House via REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Although she was initially painted as just another heckler, shouting angrily at the president, Gutiérrez was trying to bring attention to a deadly-serious issue that affects many trans women of color, but doesn’t get anywhere near the media attention that other issues like same-sex marriage, so-called bathroom bills or even trans-women-exclusionary musical festivals get. Last Wednesday, Gutiérrez, a founding member of the LGBTQ Latin@ rights organization FAMILIA: TQLM shouted, “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention” and “I’m a trans woman, I am tired of the violence we’re facing” as the rest of the crowd at the White House LGBT reception boo’d her and cheered when the president said “Not in my house” and Gutiérrez was taken out of the building.

On Monday, less than a week after the “heckling,” US Immigration officials announced that trans detainees will now be able to be housed in detention facilities that match their gender identity. This should go without saying, but detaining trans women with men is never a good idea. According to a recent investigation by Fusion, ICE detains about 75 trans immigrants each night, with 90% of those immigrants being trans women. They also found that transgender immigrants make up only about one out of every 500 ICE detainees, but account for one out of five sexual abuse cases while in detention.

Gutiérrez during a protest against the detention of LGBTQ immigrants via

Gutiérrez during a protest against the detention of LGBTQ immigrants via Facebook

While this announcement sounds like it’s solving a huge problem, there are still many issues. ICE detention centers aren’t safe for many reasons that these new recommendations don’t address. Several groups advocating for the rights of trans immigrants, including Familia: TQLM, Transgender Law Center, GetEQUAL and Southerners On New Ground (all organizations you can check out to find out more about how you can help trans and other LGBTQ detainees) released a statement with the #Not1More campaign about this announcement, saying that no one should expect this announcement to solve the problems of trans detainees.

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. Transgender immigrants and other vulnerable populations, including mothers with their children and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) detainees, should be released from detention.

They continued to talk about US Immigration’s spotty history of actually following through on these kind of policy changes, saying that their “experience with guidance documents such as these is that their implementation is inconsistent and with little oversight or accountability.” The #Not1More campaign also has concerns that inhumane practices including “administrative segregation, ‘protective custody,’ and isolated pods” are still allowed and will continue to be used, leading to more abuse of detainees. Additionally, Isa Noyola at the Transgender Law Center told me that “ICE already has many policies in place that should already create ‘safe’ conditions inside detention centers like PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) that they have a difficult time implementing and enforcing” and that she sees “this announcement as minimal.”

“The amount of harm they have inflicted on our communities greatly outweighs these recs,” Noyola said. “TLC and many other LGBT immigrant rights organizations are continuing to push the demands of #Not1More deportation and for our LGBTQ immigrants to be released from detention and solitary confinement.”

Noyola says that there’s still a lot of work to be done. “On the ground immigrant rights organizers and the transgender community are building together and connecting the threads of our struggle with many unifying points. We have many more battles to win.”


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Mey is a bisxual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. Her areas of expertise include comic books, witches, trans issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a twitter that she uses a lot and a tumblr that she only uses occasionally.

Mey has written 440 articles for us.

13 Comments

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    Thanks for writing this Mey!! I just read the memo, and there’s still so much that needs to be said for the situation to change in a meaningful way for trans women detainees. While the memo says that trans women can be detained in women’s facilities, it definitely does not say that they should. (Though ideally no one would be subjected to the terrifying limbo prisons that are ICE detention centers at all.)

    It’s also worth noting that a good chunk of this report is composed of questions that are supposed to be asked of self-identified trans people during intake about their preferences for placement, safety and health issues. This is potentially very important, but also I wonder, if there’s no guarantee of follow-through on these preferences and saftey issues by the detention center staff, if there’s potential for that information to ultimately be used against detainees in some way.

    In conclusion, I echo everyone else’s extreme skepticism about this memo. I do really hope that this can change the material conditions for trans women in detention centers. And I hope that detention for LGBTQI immigrants, and everyone else, stops sooner rather than later. And I am grateful for Jennicet Gutierrez and everyone else pushing to make this a national conversation.

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      “While the memo says that trans women can be detained in women’s facilities, it definitely does not say that they should.”

      This statement says it all. This is thrown together PR in an attempt to counter some of the bad press the President and his INS/ICE crew have got in progressive media (they must be so pissed the SCOTUS decision on marriage wasn’t “enough”). Guidelines and even “shoulds” mean next to nothing. They need mandates. And this issue is not just about in which facility trans women are placed (although that’s important) it’s about much broader issues of abuse, corruption and intimidation by the INS/ICE. Organizations like the HRC give a damn about immigrant rights much less trans women immigrants’ rights.

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    The funniest thing to me about the unfolding of this whole affair is that it goes to show exactly why Jennicet Gutiérrez was in the right all along. While her “interrupting the president” was decried as impolite and short-sighted in article after article (many written by cis lgbq folk) invoking respectability politics, she still got national attention on this issue. And the US Immigration officials were induced to make a statement on the topic, and perhaps even change policy (even if it is in an insufficient way).

    She spoke truth to power, and it fucking worked. we still have a long way to go, but I’m actually kind of excited about this as a step in the right direction and as a middle finger to respectability politics in general.

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          Trans people do get “special rules” applied to us… women have to go into men’s facilities where they get raped and assaulted… which, btw, this “guideline” doesn’t change. That’s a special rule.

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          A greater level of institutional violence done to people excuses more subversive actions to stop that violence. It isn’t special rules because someone belongs to group X, it is just basic consideration of the circumstances that people are in and what their options are.

          Government institutions keep sexually assaulting people, disproportionately immigrant trans women, and polite methods (petitions and letter campaigns) were not doing anything to stop it.

          The amount of not-listening the government has done 100% justifies disrespectfully heckling it.

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      @jessiebanana from an afab black person to another can i ask how you feel abt Bree Newsome’s taking doen the flag? because a lot of people would find that to be disrespectful, just at you find Gutiérrez’s actions. and honestly, what Newsome did was illegal–Gutiérrez was fully within her rights to speak up about the atrocities trans women face in detention centers. i think if we stand up for one woman’s powerful act of civil disobedience in the name of what is right, we need to stand up for all women. especially our trans sisters whose voices are ignored all the time. i’m sure countless letters have been written, I’m sure she has gone through all the “appropriate” ways of trying to get the president’s attention. but when you’re already marginalized and no one wants to listen to you, you have to make them. it’s like the saying that well behaved women never make history… she had to do what she had to do to be heard for all the women who were being harmed by policies Obama condoned.

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    The day I saw this I was really ashamed of those members of the community shushing Jennicet Gutiérrez.

    One of the things I fear most is the one thing that seems to happened to almost every group fighting for something: when you get some of your goals, you forget the rest and become part of the status-quo. And when somebody, like Jennicet, remembers that the fight it’s not over, you get the “we won, how dare you?” and the “she doesn’t speak for us”. Yes, it true, this administration gave you some important things, but we’re not over.

    That day Jennicet showed more ovaries and more balls than any women and men present in the White House and I don’t give a shit if Obama thinks that The White House it’s his House.

    Btw, it’s not your House, it belongs to the American people, including you, but you are not the owner.

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