ICE Seeming to Have a Hard Time Housing Trans Detainees

Advocates for LGBT immigrants are again trying to bring attention to a case of a transgender woman being mistreated in immigration detention.

After an alleged rape of a transgender woman at an immigrant detention facility in Eloy last year, advocates are rallying behind another trans woman who's claiming to have faced abuse at a lockup in Florence. The common thought among these advocates is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is struggling to deal with safely housing these people.

"They're totally incapable of detaining trans people," Olga Tomchin of the Transgender Law Center tells New Times.

Just last week, several groups banded together to take to the streets of Phoenix in protest, calling for the release of Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco.

Nicoll, from Guatemala, came to the United States in October seeking asylum from violence in her home country. Here's what she's said has happened to her while housed in an all-male unit, according to a petition for her release:

In her first month in detention, Nicoll was patted down 6-8 times a day by male guards, who Nicoll reported would grope her breasts and buttocks, make offensive sexual comments and gestures, and sometimes pull her hair. In addition to physically harassing Nicoll, ICE staff routinely verbally abuse her. She has been called "stupid," and "the woman with balls" in front of other detained immigrants.

Nicoll has also suffered abuse at the hands of her fellow detained immigrants. In early December, Nicoll filed an official complaint after another detained immigrant sexually assaulted her. A different man detained with her threatened to put her in a hole, and one told her that her throat would be slit in his country. Now, the harassment and overt hostility have become so severe that Nicoll is afraid to leave her sleeping quarters and go anywhere else in the facility.

"She's not emotionally doing that well," Tomchin tells us. "Every single day she's scared there's going to be a new person who's going to hurt her or going to harass her."

More than 100 LGBT organizations nationwide have signed on to a letter to President Obama asking that LGBT people not be kept detained by ICE while they fight their immigration cases.

ICE responded to this with a written statement, saying in part, "ICE has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment very seriously."

ICE also told us the agency has "issued formal guidance to address the care and housing of vulnerable and special needs detainees," and that the agency's 2009 Detention Reform Initiative specifically addressed several improvements for LGBT detainees.

Some feel that's being ignored. Take Marichuy Gamino, the trans woman who says she was raped at the immigration facility in Eloy last year.

Gamino tells New Times she reported earlier harassment by her cellmate, but was told by ICE officers that there were no cells open to move her to, but after the assault, they managed to find one in a segregation unit.

"They don't take action until something happens," she says.

Still in segregation, Gamino says she couldn't see anyone, or take calls. She was separated from the friends she had in there. Luckily for her, she was able to post bond, and eventually was released.

"I'm still waiting for some response" in the sexual-assault case, she says.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley