Braving 20-degree temperatures and snow, about 20 activists held a rally in front of a New York immigration office Thursday in support of a transgender detainee being held in an all-male facility in Arizona.
The immigrant-rights and LGBT activists were part of a nationwide effort calling for the release of Nicoll Hernández-Polanco.
Hernández-Polanco says she fled Guatemala to seek asylum in the U.S. While she waits for a judge to hear her case, she’s being held at the Florence Detention Center in Arizona in a room with more than a dozen men, her advocates say. They also say Hernández-Polanco has faced emotional and physical assaults since she entered detention in October 2014.
“A lot of people that came to the protest are immigrants. They know what detention is like and they know the type of harassment transgender women face from other detainees and the prison guards themselves,” said Bahar Akyurtlu, from the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, an LGBT immigrant-rights group that helped organize the protest in New York.
Akyurtlu said she was happy with the turnout, even though three times as many people had RSVP’ed to attend. She said the storm deterred many people from showing up. Three to seven inches of snow were expected to fall on the city before lunch time.
The protest in New York capped a week of demonstrations held in Arizona, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. The activists say they want the Obama administration to know that “detention harms LGBTQ people.”
And they’re using Hernández-Polanco’s case to highlight the conditions transgender women face in detention.
Hernández-Polanco is being held in a large room filled with bunk beds, where she has to sleep and shower next to men. Her advocates say she’s been sexually assaulted by a male detainee and has been groped multiple times. They also claim a prison guard groped her breast; another guard pulled her hair; and a cook repeatedly referred to her as “the woman with balls.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials did not respond specifically to the allegations made by Hernández-Polanco’s advocates but said the agency takes allegations of such mistreatment very seriously.
“The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigates all allegations of sexual abuse or other misconduct and takes appropriate action,” reads a statement sent to Fusion.
The Florence Detention Center where Hernández-Polanco is being held is an ICE-owned and operated facility in compliance with the 2011 Performance Based Detention Standard, which includes “important enhanced protections and standards for sexual abuse and assault prevention.”
ICE’s own operation standards say placement of transgender detainees should not be based “solely on the identity documents or physical anatomy of the detainee.” The standards encourage staff to consider detainees’ own gender identity.
But that’s not the case.
On any given night, some 75 transgender prisoners are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according a 2014 Fusion investigation. A significant portion are women who have requested asylum, and they’re all held alongside male detainees.
Hernández-Polanco attempted to cross into the U.S. twice when she was 17 and was deported immediately, according to her advocates. She has never lived in or committed a crime in the U.S., but advocates say those two prior deportations are making it tougher for her to be released from detention while she awaits her asylum hearing.
Citing privacy concerns ICE would not comment on any of Hernández-Polanco’s history.
Hernández-Polanco is part of a growing number of asylum seekers from Guatemala that have skyrocketed in the past six years.
In 2008 there were 458 asylum claims; in 2013 there were 5,573, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
It’s unclear how many of those asylum seekers are transgender, but advocates have documented “violent prejudice” and even murder against transgender people. The LGBT community also lacks support from the police and government, according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission.
“If ICE can’t ensure the safety of trans people they shouldn’t detain them and should find alternatives for all LGBT people,” said Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, a community organizer with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, a group that advocates for LGBTQ people held in prison.
In December 2014, more than 100 LGBT and immigration groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to release transgender and LGBTQ people being held in immigration detention.
“The situation for transgender women in particular, who are held in all-male ICE detention facilities, is a humanitarian catastrophe of sexual violence and solitary confinement that must end,” read the letter.
Advocates say Hernández-Polanco is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the system. She’s reportedly committed no crimes—she went to a U.S entry point and requested asylum. And until she sees a judge she remains in detention.
“Nicoll is representing the struggle that transgender women face, when we talk about Nicole it’s about her specifically but we’re talking about the conditions that trans women are facing,” said Ochoa, who’s based in Arizona and has been in daily contact with Ochoa.
“Her example is just one of many,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa said his group has been in touch with two other transgender women who are being held at the same facility as Hernández-Polanco.