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WASHINGTON, Nov 27 2013 (IPS) - Gay and transsexual immigrants who enter the U.S. detention system face high levels of sexual abuse, new research warns, at times leading them to decide to return to their home countries rather than stay to fight a legal battle.
Advocates say that, although sexual assault and violence are widespread in all types of prisons, LGBT immigrants are particularly vulnerable.
“One of my clients, a transgender Mexican woman detained in a facility in New Jersey, after months of mistreatment actually ended up accepting her deportation, rather than endure her situation,” Clement Lee, a detention staff attorney at Immigration Equality, an advocacy group representing LGBT immigrants in court, told IPS.
“I told her, ‘I can win your case, but it will take several months,’ but because she was poor she could not pay to get out of detention. In the facility, people were calling her ‘maricon’, Spanish for faggot, and she seriously feared for her physical safety.”
Clement notes that his clients often come from countries that are dangerous for them. He cites instances in which transgender individuals would be raped and assailed “for violating gender norms”, or instances in which some of his gay clients have been subjected to “conversion therapies” under which community and family members attempt to change their sexual orientation.
Jamaica is the country from which most of his clients have fled, “which is surprising,” he says, “given that country’s image as a beach paradise.”
According to other immigration activists closely involved in LGBT cases, instances of LGBT immigrants who prefer being deported rather than endure abuse in U.S. detention facilities are quite common.
Karen Zwick, a managing attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Centre (NIJC), says that the decision to accept deportation may not be a rational one, because these immigrants may be underestimating the risks they would face going back to their home countries.
“They can’t see beyond the terrible situation they’re in,” she told IPS.
According to a new report, released this week by the Centre for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank here, as many as 34,000 immigrants are detained each day by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in over 250 detention facilities across the country.
According to the study, which is based on evidence gathered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, detained LGBT immigrants are far more vulnerable to abuse than other immigrants.
“What we tried to do with this report is to paint a clearer picture of what is going on inside these detention centres,” Sharita Gruberg, a policy analyst at CAP and the author of the report, told IPS. “And what we’ve found is that, in some centres, guards were still using homophobic language against LGBT detainees.”
But LGBT detainees say they face far worse problems than abusive language, reporting instead physical and sexual abuse by both fellow detainees and guards.
15 times more vulnerable
Because of internal regulations, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not keep data on sexual orientation or gender identity of detainees. But the information obtained through the FOIA request suggests that LGBT detainees are “15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population”.
ICE, the agency in charge of immigration detention facilities across the United States, has also been at the centre of an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an official watchdog, into the agency’s sexual abuse allegations.
According to a GAO report released Nov. 20, nearly 40 percent of total allegations were never acted upon “because ICE field office officials did not report them to … headquarters.”
“ICE takes the health, safety and welfare of those in our care very seriously,” an ICE official, who commented on the condition of anonymity, told IPS by e-mail. “The agency is continually working to ensure these reforms are consistently implemented at all facilities that house ICE detainees.”
The official also noted that in 2009 the agency initiated “fundamental detention reforms, including the development of new detention standards to protect vulnerable detainees.”
Yet advocates suggest an underlying problem with the way the U.S. immigration system functions.
“We know that the immigration detention system has extended vastly over the last 20 years, as we spend billions of dollars on immigration detention every year,” Harper Jean Tobin, the director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, an advocacy group here, told IPS.
Tobin refers to the congressionally mandated requirement that ICE detain 34,000 immigrants at all times, also known as the “bed mandate”. According to the NIJC, this mandate “prevents ICE officers from exercising discretion and expanding more efficient alternatives to detention … that would allow individuals who pose no risk to public safety to be released back to their families.”
In the past, U.S. legislators have touched upon the issues surrounding mistreatment of detainees in immigration facilities. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to protect individuals against sexual abuse in confinement settings, including in immigrant detention centres.
But according to the new Centre for American Progress findings, PREA may have only partially addressed the issue of sexual abuse in detention facilities. It points out that ICE created its own standards on sexual assault in detention facilities, which are less comprehensive than those mandated by the Department of Justice in 2012.
Last June, Rep. Trey Growdy of South Carolina, the chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, introduced the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (SAFE), which was later approved by the Judiciary Committee. Yet critics note that, if approved, this bill would not only do “nothing to resolve the legal status of 11 million undocumented immigrants” but would also “create an environment of rampant racial profiling and unconstitutional detentions.”
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