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Immigration Detention Quota Puts LGBT Immigrants, Asylum Seekers at Risk for Abuse

First Posted: Jun 03, 2014 03:55 PM EDT
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A detention quota mandated by Congress is placing LGBT undocumented immigrants directly in harm's way, according to a report from the Center for American ProgressNot only does the Congressional quota require the Department of Homeland Security to maintain bed space to jail 34,000 immigrants each day, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 billion every year, the policy puts LGBT undocumented immigrants at a risk of sexual assault that is 15 times higher than that of their heterosexual counterparts.

Not only are LGBT detainees at a greater risk of sexual assault, but 30 percent of individuals currently detained by DHS, many of whom are LGBT, would be free if not for the quota. Previously, only those suspected of committing crimes such as controlled-substance violations and prostitution were typically held in detention. Freeing that 30 percent would save taxpayers at least $600 million per year, and prevent the imprisonment of tens of thousands. It would also save thousands from potential sexual and physical abuse and denial of medical care.

LGBT immigrants have fled from more than 70 countries that criminalize same-sex relationships, such as Uganda, Nigeria, and India, arriving in the United States seeking asylum to escape precarious lives that are threatened with abuse and death. And, while the United States recognizes persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds for asylum, the process of gaining asylum is strenuous and difficult. Many LGBT undocumented immigrants have no legal representation, and have access to only limited resources to support their claims. While waiting for assistance, LGBT undocumented immigrants are subjected to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE's) bed quota, forcing them to subsist in prison-like environments, where they encounter sexual assault, denial of medical care, prolonged use of solitary confinement, verbal and physical abuse, and even death. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Center for American Progress found 200 reported incidents of abuse against LGBT immigrants in detention facilities since 2008.

LGBT status is considered a special vulnerability in custody determinations, so under ICE's automated Risk Classification Assessment tool — which determines whether an individual should be detained, released, or placed into detention alternatives — LGBT immigrants should be released or placed in less restrictive alternatives to detention whenever possible. But, they aren't; the detention bed quotas keep both LGBT and non-LGBT immigrants caged within the centers. And, because LGBT immigrants live "at the intersection of two marginalized communities and face multiple forms of profiling," they are more likely to encounter law enforcement, and fall victim to entrapment: condom possession used as evidence of prostitution, HIV criminalization, or "walking while trans." The targeting ensnares LGBT immigrants whether they are guilty of a crime or not.

"Wilfrido "Perla" Lopez-Roque, an HIV-positive transgender woman at the Santa Ana Jail in Santa Ana, California, came to the United States more than 25 years ago to flee incidents of brutal sexual violence in Mexico but was caught by ICE last year at a roadside checkpoint in San Diego County," said Sharita Gruberg, Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. "Lopez-Roque petitioned for asylum, claiming that if she were deported to Mexico she would be killed because of her gender identity."

Lopez-Roque had three convictions for prostitution, charges made more serious due to her HIV status. After spending more than a year in jail, and suffering verbal abuse and improper medical care as a transgender person, she was released. Lopez-Roque was an exception, however, and fortunate to have had representation. LGBT undocumented immigrants in detention centers without access to an attorney have only a 3 percent chance of being granted any form of relief.

The average detention stay is one month, but for those fighting deportation cases, it is much longer. Asylum seekers average 102 days in detention, and those who are eventually deemed eligible to remain in the U.S. spend 334 days in the dangerous environments.

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