Two days before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in every state of the union, President Obama gathered LGBT advocates and allies from around the country at the White House to celebrate advancements in LGBT rights that were unimaginable only a decade ago.
As the President was about to recap his administration’s numerous accomplishments over the past six and a half years—from ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the recent elimination of discriminatory bans on gender transition care from federal employee health insurance plans—he was interrupted by a woman in the audience’s urgent request for his attention. The woman, Jennicet Gutiérrez, wanted to draw his attention to one of the darkest marks on his presidency: the abhorrent treatment of LGBT immigrants—particularly transgender women—in the more than 200 immigration detention facilities across the nation.
On June 19th, DHS issued new guidance on detention decisions for transgender immigrants that was made public on June 29th. For the first time, in limited circumstances, transgender women will be allowed to be detained in women’s facilities. Unfortunately, the guidance ignores the fact that they often should not be detained in the first place.
Here are 5 reasons why Jennicet’s protest still needs to be heard:
1) LGBT people in confinement face extremely high rates of abuse. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found nearly 40 percent of transgender inmates in prisons and local jails were sexually assaulted. We don’t have comprehensive data for immigration detention, but a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) returned nearly 200 reported incidents of abuse against LGBT immigrants in detention. Moreover, the Government Accountability Office found that 20 percent of substantiated sexual assaults in immigration detention were against transgender people. Prior to DHS’s new guidance, transgender women in immigration detention were routinely detained with men, or given the option of either being transferred to a segregated pod for gay and transgender immigrants in California or kept in protective solitary confinement.
2) Many LGBT immigrants are arbitrarily detained. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes the particular vulnerability of LGBT people in detention. However, a FOIA submitted by CAP revealed that DHS consistently detains LGBT people who should be released. Seventy percent of LGBT immigrants who said they feared harm in detention because of their sexual orientation or gender identity could have been released under DHS’s automated intake system, but DHS instead chose detention in 68 percent of those cases. Rather, they should be released on parole or placed in alternatives to detention pending the outcome of their cases.
3) Not being detained is critical for the safety of LGBT immigrants. Studies show that the factors with the greatest influence on case outcome are representation by counsel and not being detained. A CAP report found that, even with excellent legal representation, LGBT people in detention are more than 10 percent less likely to win asylum. For LGBT asylum seekers, being in detention can mean the difference between life and death.
4) In the rare instances bail is set, it is impossibly high. CAP found that while only 30 percent of LGBT immigrants in detention were subject to mandatory detention, 64 percent of LGBT immigrants in detention are detained without the possibility of bond—only 11 percent are eligible for bond. That 11 percent face a statutory minimum $1,500 bond, but more commonly the bond is set much higher, as high as $15,000. For LGBT people seeking protection in the US, who often used all the resources they had just to get here, or were living here without access to lawful employment, these amounts are nearly impossible to pay.
5) Immigrants provide guaranteed profits for private prisons. In addition to a Congressional quota requiring that DHS maintain the capacity to detain 34,000 immigrants every day, a report by Detention Watch Network found DHS is contractually obligated to guarantee for-profit private prisons that a minimum of 9,422 beds will be filled each day. At an average daily cost of $164 per bed, these quotas guarantee for-profit prisons a lot of money, over $1.5 million every day. These quotas and sky-high profits disincentivize release, even of vulnerable populations like LGBT immigrants who should not have been detained in the first place.
The day before the White House Pride event, 35 members of Congress sent a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson expressing concern over the treatment of LGBT immigrants in detention and urging an end to the practice.
Ms. Gutiérrez’s protest was a reminder that—while we celebrate how far the country has come in recognizing the rights of LGBT people—our work is far from over. We must continue fighting for the equal treatment, safety, and dignity of all LGBT people.