US activists call for ICE detention centres to release trans detainees

American queer rights groups are speaking out against the treatment of trans people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centres.

A group of women and children kept in cages

Activists in America are calling for ICE to free trans people from immigration detention centres due to practices of discrimination, violence and neglect.

Leading the way on this issue is the organisation Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (Familia: TQLM), who advocate for “the collective liberation of trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming Latinxs”.

Last week Familia: TQLM launched the campaign #FreeTiaEva, calling for the release of Eva Rosas from ICE custody. Eva is a 42 year-old transgender woman originally from Veracruz, Mexico, who has been held in an ICE detention centre in Georgia for almost two years. Eva has experienced sexual and physical assault in detention and has said “the discrimination by ICE officers doesn’t seem to end”. Eva has a family and community in Alabama, including her sister and niece who are calling for her release.


This campaign is a part of the broader #endtransdetention campaign run by Familia: TQLM. On 2 March this year, the organisation released a letter signed by 36 formerly detained transgender people addressed to President Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. The letter called for the release of all transgender people, as well as those with HIV and other medical conditions, from ICE detention.

The letter argued that while stats regarding transgender immigrants in custody are not publicly available, “there are too many stories of our community members facing harassment, violence, purposeful misgendering, homophobia and transphobia”. The letter highlighted that those who reported abuse were often placed in solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations have advocated against due to the severe mental suffering it can cause.

The accountability letter also focused on the trans people who have lost their lives in ICE custody. In 2007, Victoria Arellano, a transgender woman from Mexico, died in a men’s detention centre at just 23 years of age. Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras, died from HIV related complications in 2018. An independent autopsy suggested Roxsana was beaten in custody before her death, a claim that ICE have refuted. Just one year later in 2019, trans asylum seeker Johana “Jao” Medina Leon died in hospital directly after being released from ICE custody.

All three women were HIV positive and all three were allegedly denied access to medication at some point. According to the accountability letter “…their pleas for medical assistance were ignored. All of their deaths were preventable and ICE willfully neglected them”. The letter goes on to explain that the continued deaths of trans women in immigration custody make it clear to the signatories that “ICE will never be a safe place for their [our] communities.”


These deaths are not isolated incidences. A 2016 study by Human Rights Watch revealed that abuse and neglect of trans women in immigration custody was a system-wide problem. The report revealed that trans women were often denied access to medical treatment including hormone replacement therapy and HIV-related care. It also detailed reports of trans women who regularly endured sexual harassment, including abusive strip searches from male guards.

Many trans and queer migrants in ICE custody are already fleeing discrimination and abuse. Research has shown that LGBTQ+ people in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador face high levels of violence, and in recent years are fleeing home in significant numbers to seek asylum in the US. However, trans people going through the US immigration system are at times exposed to the same kind of transphobic violence from which they fled.

According to the #endtransdetention campaign, “Detaining our communities — who are often seeking safety from persecution in our home countries — is not the solution.”

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