As Pride Month Concludes, Consider LGBTQ+ Immigrants Suffering in U.S. Custody | The Center for Victims of Torture

As Pride Month Concludes, Consider LGBTQ+ Immigrants Suffering in U.S. Custody

Friday, June 28, 2019

Andrea Cárcamo-Cavazos is CVT senior policy counsel.

Pride month kicked off tragically this year with the death of Joanna Medina, a trans woman from El Salvador who died after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refused to provide medical attention despite her repeated requests. I was horrified, but not surprised. I’ve witnessed firsthand the evil outcomes of policies that permit jailing individuals who seek protection, including LGBTQ+ immigrants and asylum seekers like Joanna.

I’m a U.S. immigration attorney, and in May I volunteered to represent asylum seekers detained at the southern border. On my first day at the El Paso Processing Center I teamed up with my colleague Susan Neuberg. Together we walked through two imposing steel doors, which an ICE officer promptly shut behind us. We found ourselves in a room, vacant except for two benches and two doors without handles, and it occurred to me that we couldn’t leave the room on our own. I panicked, failing then to understand how much worse it must feel for a detainee whose stay is indefinite. Suddenly, a man in a blue jumpsuit walked in.

Susan and I informed the man, a detainee from Honduras, that we would help him prepare for his credible fear interview, a type of screening asylum seekers need to pass before applying for asylum. To begin, we asked him why he’d fled Honduras. Instead of starting by telling us that he’d been persecuted, he told us the story of how his parents met. He told us he was the product of  his parents’ love for each other.

As the man continued, I began to understand. He mentioned his tendency throughout childhood to choose female playmates, and the insults he constantly received from his family and community for not being “macho” enough. He stopped going to school because people teased him, and couldn’t go to the police because they participated in the harassment. After he revealed that members of his own family had tried to kill him, he said, “I did not choose to be born this way,” and pulled at his jumpsuit, as if trying to tear something away from his body. I quickly asked another question to keep from crying. Silently, I wondered how the United States could justify keeping this man, and others in similar circumstances, behind bars.

As we talked, the man’s demeanor slowly changed from defensive to anxious. He told us he felt afraid in detention. He said he couldn’t be himself because he was gay, and would face discrimination from the other detainees. After consulting with Las Americas, the non-profit organization that hosted us, Susan and I learned that informing ICE officers about the man’s apprehension could result in him being thrown into solitary confinement. In fact, a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower recently uncovered that ICE forces immigrant detainees to endure “extended periods of isolation for reasons that have nothing to do with violating any rules,” including when they openly identify as gay. As senior policy counsel for the Center for Victims of Torture, I know that solitary confinement is often a front for torture. Isolation denies a detainee contact with other human beings, a form of sensory deprivation that can have profound and long-lasting psychological consequences, including severe anxiety and hallucinations.

Solitary confinement is just one of many unacceptable immigration detention practices the U.S. allows, such as paying detainees one dollar for a full day’s work. Instead of fixing or calling attention to these practices, many of our lawmakers continue to support funding ICE while maintaining little oversight. Individuals running away from harm are detained as criminals, and Americans are paying for it. The fiscally and morally responsible thing to do is simple: Stop funding the detention machine and allocate those funds to detention alternatives, like ATD (alternatives to detention) programs, that cost taxpayers up to ten times less. As we celebrate the lives of LGBTQ+ immigrants during Pride and Immigrant Heritage month, we must also demand that lawmakers commemorate lives lost by choosing to face a humanitarian crisis with humanitarian solutions.   

Susan and I left El Paso after a week. At our suggestion, the man met with a social worker and was able to avoid solitary confinement. Others may not be so lucky.  

Watch Andrea's video logs from the U.S. southern border here.


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