U.S. immigration officials on Monday announced transgender detainees will for the first time be able to be housed in detention facilities that match their gender identity.
The update is part of an 18-page guide unveiled today that details how U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and contractors should interact with transgender immigrants in custody.
"We believe this guidance is the most comprehensive for transgender individuals in any custodial entity," Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, the deputy assistant director for custody programs for ICE, told Fusion in a telephone interview Monday.
The announcement comes less than a week after an undocumented transgender woman named Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama’s speech at a White House pride event.
“President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention,” Gutiérrez told the president.
ICE officials said today’s announcement was not a result of public pressure from advocates and that the new memo is a continuation of policies to keep transgender inmates safe that were released as early as 2009. The guidance is the result of a 6-month working group that included input from former and current transgender detainees, according to ICE.
The guidance will also be accompanied with training that will help officers better understand how to respectfully ask an inmate about their gender identity and their unique needs during intake processing.
The catch? One of the most common critiques of immigration authorities is that they don’t follow their own policies. Another common complaint from advocates is that policy changes take years to go into effect because of the agency’s patchwork of contract facilities. Before Monday’s announcement, ICE released a set of progressive policies in their 2011 detention standards meant to protect transgender detainees.
ICE officials said only 62 percent of the current detainee population is covered by the 2011 detention standards.
The agency could not provide an official number of transgender detainees currently in custody but said it would update its computer intake systems before the end of the year to better track the transgender population.
A 2014 Fusion investigation found some 75 transgender detainees are held by ICE every night, less than one percent of the estimated 34,000 people held in detention. Yet trans detainees made up 1 out of 5 confirmed instances of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities.Some advocates say the reforms don’t go far enough and have pushed immigration authorities to release all transgender detainees who are awaiting immigration trials.
“This guidance does not change the fundamental issue that Jennicet Gutiérrez so bravely brought to President Obama last week: detention and deportation of transgender people must end,” said Kris Hayashi, director of the Transgender Law Center, a transgender civil rights organization based in San Francisco.
“The guidelines released by ICE don’t go far enough,” said Cristina Jimenez, the managing director of the immigrant rights group United We Dream, in a statement.
“There is more that ICE can and must do to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer immigrants are safe,” said Jimenez.
ICE officials pointed out there are more transgender individuals that are outside on release mechanisms than in custody. Those release mechanism include posting bond, order of supervision, recognizance or alternative detention programs.
“It would be an improvement, certainly, to not be housed with men anymore, but it's still not ideal. It’s still detention,” said Barbra Perez, a transgender woman who said she faced constant harassment while detained in an all-male facility last year.
“I'm coming from a place of pessimism because I lived through it. It looks pretty on paper I'm sure, but I have doubts that it will actually happen.”
Lorenzen-Strait, who is also the newly appointed National LGBTQI Coordinator, said the guidance announced today will be “actionable from day one.”
The memo is published in its entirety below.
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.
Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.