Detaining Trans Women in Private Facility Won’t Keep Them Safe, Advocates Say

Immigrants’ rights activists are urging President Obama to protect transgender women by keeping them out of the remote facility.
California's Adelanto Detention Facility is being expanded to house more immigrant detainees. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Aug 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When attorney Keren Zwick drove two and a half hours northeast of Los Angeles through the California desert in April to visit an immigrant client in detention, she found the entire Adelanto Detention Facility under construction. Zwick, who works as managing attorney for a Chicago-based advocacy group, the National Immigrant Justice Center, had heard rumors in the immigration community that Immigration and Customs Enforcement might be expanding the detention center. When she casually asked a worker why it was under construction, he confirmed what no one in the advocacy community wanted to hear: The expansion was intended to accommodate the transfer of several detainee populations, one of which would be transgender women.

Adelanto Detention Facility is run by GEO Group, the second-largest private corrections and detention company in the U.S. The company has been the target of hundreds of lawsuits, which allege GEO Group is responsible for neglecting and abusing inmates and detainees, denying medical care, and discrimination. This is one reason advocates are concerned about the possibility of transferring a large number of transgender women—a uniquely vulnerable subgroup—to Adelanto. The remote location is another concern.

“Facilities like Adelanto are so geographically isolated that women have no access to counsel, friends, and family, and virtually no oversight,” Aaron Morris, legal director of advocacy organization Immigration Equality, told TakePart.

Transgender women suffer sexual assault while detained at nine to 10 times the rate of all detained people, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Transgender detainees comprise a small segment of the detained immigrant population but make up one in five confirmed cases of sexual abuse in ICE custody. This heightened vulnerability makes detention for transgender women particularly dangerous and sometimes deadly.

Zwick and Morris work at two of the more than 100 organizations that sent a letter to President Obama this week urging him to stop the potential transfer of transgender women in detention to Adelanto. Noting GEO Group’s “history of severe abuses committed against detained transgender women, and staff’s medical and sexual assault abuses, Adelanto Detention Facility is not a safe place for transgender women,” the immigrants’ rights groups wrote.

“I think that’s premature,” Virginia Kice, public affairs officer for ICE, said to TakePart about the letter. “These transgender detainees continue to be housed at our contract facility in Santa Ana.”

In a formal statement from ICE that followed TakePart’s phone call to Kice, ICE stated that while “the agency is routinely evaluating housing options for those in custody…ICE has not made any announcement definitively identifying Adelanto as a new facility to house transgender detainees.” Morris wasn’t surprised to hear that ICE denied formal plans to transfer the women from Santa Ana, where a county-run detention center houses the largest number of transgender detainees in the country. GEO Group declined a request for comment on the expansion of Adelanto and the allegations against it, deferring to ICE.

“It is a strange and expensive thing to prepare for space intended for transgender women if they’re not planning to [transfer them],” Morris said. “As an advocacy community, we wanted to get out in front of that.”

The rumors of a looming transfer have been swirling since the spring, prior to Zwick’s visit. They started around the same time that advocates began to hear that ICE was creating a policy to directly address the needs of transgender detainees. That policy took the form of a memorandum released June 19. The memo established that “discrimination or harassment of any kind based on a detainee’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is strictly prohibited.” It also instructed ICE employees that they may house transgender detainees based on their biological sex or gender identity, but it doesn’t require them to house immigrants based on their gender identity—another point of contention for advocates. It also established special training for some employees to act as LGBT “field liaisons.”

While the memo was an important step toward acknowledging the needs of transgender people in detention, Morris said it didn’t go far enough, and private facilities like Adelanto aren’t required to follow its guidance.

“This isn’t just about Adelanto specifically. It’s about the way the government is going about treating vulnerable asylum seekers,” Zwick said. “This isn’t how we as a country should be treating anybody, but especially people who have come to us to seek protection.”