Immigration officials last month closed the nation’s only detention center dedicated to detaining gay, bisexual, and transgender detainees, relocating at least nine trans women to a small rural village in New Mexico.
On May 24, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officially ended their contract with the Santa Ana City Jail, which housed the facility for gay, bisexual, and transgender (GBT) detainees. Multiple studies have found GBT detainees are part of a vulnerable population that are more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse in detention.
The city of Santa Ana, California, partnered with the federal government to operate the first and only ICE facility with a pod dedicated exclusively to GBT detainees. ICE formally established the GBT Pod in April 2012, and since then immigrant rights advocates in Southern California were able to build a thriving network of resources and visitation programs that kept up with detainees.
At the same time, immigrant rights groups were so organized and effective that over the years they were able to push the city council to restrict ICE contracts and ultimately created an environment where it was no longer viable for ICE to keep the detention facility open—including the first of its kind GBT Pod.
Now, ICE is housing transgender detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately run contract facility in Milan, New Mexico, a village 80 miles west of Albuquerque with a population of approximately 3,200 people.
“This detention center is out in the middle of nowhere,” Yessica Gonzalez, an immigrant rights activist with the Immigrant Youth Coalition, told Fusion. Gonzalez—who is undocumented and identifies with gender-neutral pronouns they and them—drove 15 hours with three other advocates from LA to Milan to visit the trans women who were relocated from Santa Ana to Cibola and identify resources to support trans detainees while they are in detention and once they are released.
Immigrant rights activists say closing the Santa Ana ICE facility was a victory that signaled to other communities that local grassroots organizing could effectively kick ICE contracts out of town, even under Trump. But now, the activists also acknowledge they are scrambling to identify resources for the trans detainees in New Mexico, where the network of LGBTQ and immigrant rights groups just doesn’t even begin to compare with the number of groups in Southern California.
Milan, New Mexico, has a post office, some restaurants, and a Dollar Tree. There’s one elementary school, and once students reach middle and high school, they have to travel to the neighboring town. Facebook lists the detention center as the most visited landmark in the village.
The Cibola County Correctional Center is now also the only detention center in the country with a unit for current and future transgender detainees. Trans detainees have to identify themselves to ICE staff and request a transfer to the transgender pod.
Other detention centers sometimes have unofficial ad-hoc pods for trans detainees or trans women are detained with the male population. In some cases, trans detainees are held in solitary confinement. A pod for transgender detainees was scheduled to open at the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, in November 2016 but the unit “remains unavailable at this time,” an ICE spokesperson told Fusion.
ICE officials said there are currently nine transgender women who have been transferred to Cibola, a facility with the capacity to detain 1,129 males. The agency spokesperson said that to ensure the safety of the trans women, “these ICE detainees are housed in a separate area from the facility’s general population.”
Gonzalez, who has been in contact with some of the trans women since they were detained in Santa Ana, said they were pleasantly surprised when they realized their visits weren’t through a glass partition, like at the Santa Ana facility. “That took the humanity away from people,” Gonzalez said.
At the Cibola County Correctional Center, Gonzalez was allowed to hug the detainees and sit with them at a table. But Gonzalez was quick to point out that “a jail is still a jail no matter where it’s at.”
The Cibola County Correctional Center is currently operated by CoreCivic, the largest private corrections company in the country. Before it became an ICE detention center, the facility operated for 16 years as a prison that detained federal inmates for the Bureau of Prisons.
“The goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security, and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities,” wrote then Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the August 2016 memo that directed staff to not renew private prison contracts or at the very least “substantially reduce its scope.”
But a few months later, ICE announced the federal agency would re-open the Cibola County Correctional Center as an ICE facility. BOP removed the last inmate from the facility on October 1, 2016, and by the end of the month, ICE was in contract negotiations to take over the prison, according to The Nation.
Soon after the facility closed as a BOP prison, it was re-opened as a men’s ICE detention center, which includes a special section for transgender detainees.
A 2014 Fusion investigation found some 75 transgender detainees are held by ICE every night across the country. That’s less than one percent of the estimated 40,000 people held in detention each night, yet trans detainees made up one out of five confirmed instances of reported sexual assault in immigration detention facilities.
ICE officials believe they have one of the largest populations in the world of transgender people in confinement. Many of the trans detainees in custody are people who presented themselves at a U.S. port of entry and requested asylum. Most of these individuals have to wait for their asylum decision behind bars.
The asylum process can be long and grueling for any detainee. Earlier this month, a Mexican journalist who came to the U.S. seeking political asylum after receiving repeated death threats in his hometown gave up his claim. After three months of being locked up, the 26-year-old withdrew his request and returned to Mexico.
“The psychological and emotional support that trans women received in Santa Ana is going to be missed terribly,” Tania Linares Garcia, a staff attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative, told Fusion.
Linares Garcia said visitation programs are vital for detainees and asylum seekers because it gives them hope, especially those who may not have any family in the U.S.
“I’ve had experiences with clients in more remote locations who just give up completely viable claims simply because they lose hope,” Linares Garcia said in a telephone interview. “You can imagine how the length of detention and the uncertainty of how much longer they are going to be detained weighs very heavily on them.”
Linares Garcia said she also plans to travel to New Mexico to start building a network of immigration attorneys who are willing to take on pro bono cases.
“It was never really a concern for us to find a pro bono attorney in Santa Ana or the LA area,” said Linares Garcia, who now has to identify attorneys in New Mexico where the immigration law and LGBTQ service provider community is relatively small.
But Linares Garcia is hopeful. She said her organization has had to build networks from the ground up before.
Isa Noyola, director of programs at the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California, said it’s time advocates and the legal community think outside the box.
“This is presenting challenges, and it requires folks to come together and support each other to figure out ways to expand the conversation about what it means to work in remote areas,” said Noyola, who was part of the protests calling for the shutdown of the Santa Ana facility. In 2014, Noyola chained herself to a handful of other activists and blocked an intersection in downtown Santa Ana.
“As detention continues to grow and pop in rural areas, communities will have to start building these networks,” said Noyola.
Note: this article originally said Milan was 80 miles east of Albuquerque. It is, in fact, 80 miles west.