Just before 1 p.m. on May 22, 2009, Johanna Vasquez was waiting for the bus in Houston. The afternoon was calm, and she was on her way to meet her boyfriend of the last several months when a police car pulled up. Though she had been doing nothing wrong, she feared she knew where the encounter would end.
Vasquez had been living undocumented in the United States for 11 years, but her immigration status was the last thing on her mind at that moment. She was a transgender woman, born Moris Vasquez Villanueva in Jucuarán, El Salvador, where she had been tormented throughout her youth for her identity. At 16, she was brutally gang-raped by seven men who called her “a sickening piece of trash.” Violence against transgender women is widespread in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, and she had come north in search of a life free of abuse and persecution.
Houston police charged her with tampering with a government record—a permanent resident card she had acquired through a friend, onto which she had pasted her own photograph. Trans women often deal with issues concerning I.D. cards because their real documents rarely match their appearance. So if they want to avoid scrutiny or rejection, they carry fake I.D.s. Vasquez had one with the name she preferred to be called. She pleaded guilty to the charge.
Though she had been taking hormones for seven years and had been living as a woman since leaving El Salvador, at Harris County Jail outside Houston she was placed in custody with men, which is common for transgender detainees. When she was transferred to another facility, guards laughed and mocked her on arrival. Then they shaved her head.
“From the moment they arrest you they already start treating you differently, as if you’re someone from another planet,” says Vasquez, now 34. “They start treating you badly. They don’t know how to treat you, like a man or a woman. That’s when you start suffering and being afraid.”
The Center for American Progress found, through a Freedom of Information Act request, dozens of incidents of physical and sexual abuse against LGBT individuals by other detainees in immigrant detention. So prison officials may have been acting in her interest when they told Vasquez they were placing her in “protective custody”—solitary confinement. But even in solitary, transgender detainees are at risk: An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found numerous instances of assault by guards against trans detainees. Vasquez spent 46 days in isolation.
The arrest and conviction had triggered a notice to local law enforcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for removing undocumented immigrants from the country and housing them as they make their way through the removal process, that it would be taking custody of Vasquez. So after 46 days, she was transferred to the IAH Secure Adult Detention Facility, an immigration detention facility in Livingston, Texas, about an hour north of Houston. Also known as the Polk County Adult Detention Center, IAH is an all-male outfit a stone’s throw from the Polk County jail, where officials occasionally rent out unoccupied beds to ICE.
Almost immediately, it became clear to Vasquez the hardships she had endured in solitary would be nothing compared with what she would experience at Polk. “I didn’t feel protected, just exposed,” she says. As she took her first steps into the prison, she says, one guard turned to another and said, “Oh, look, another faggot.” Guards forced her to expose her breasts. She was again placed in solitary confinement. After a week, guards transferred her to a cell she would share with three men. The first night, one of her cell mates complained he didn’t want to be housed with “someone like her.” Guards denied his request to be transferred, and the next night, he beat Vasquez bloody with a broomstick. She was then transferred back to solitary to await a hearing before a judge. Despite repeated requests to IAH, Polk, and ICE over the past month, none would comment on Vasquez’s experiences in detention.
Vasquez’s story is not unique. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that as many as 50,000 undocumented immigrants identify as transgender. Many flee abuse in their countries of origin, entering the U.S. with the hope of finding safety. Yet some continue to face discrimination and abuse; in some instances it occurs under the supervision of the U.S. government.
In July 2014, Marichuy Leal Gamino told officials she was raped in her cell by a male inmate at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, a private institution contracted by ICE to house undocumented immigrants. Gamino, a trans woman, had been detained in the men’s facility for more than a year, and after reporting her rape, prison officials placed her in solitary confinement for months until she was released in January of this year. Tanya Guzman-Martinez, a trans woman detained with men at the same facility as Gamino five years prior, says she suffered sexual abuse multiple times. Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a trans woman from Guatemala, was detained for six months in a men’s facility in Arizona, where she reports physical and sexual abuse from inmates and harassment from guards. She was released just a few weeks ago, after a national advocacy campaign led by Arizona-based LGBT immigration group Mariposas Sin Fronteras brought attention to her case.
Experts say attention to the plight of trans detainees is on the rise, though whether anything substantial will be done about it remains to be seen. Earlier in May, Hillary Clinton responded to a question during a campaign stop in Nevada about abuse of transgender immigrants in detention. “I don't think we should put children and vulnerable people into big detention facilities because I think…that their physical and mental health are at risk,” Clinton said. Though advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach, to hear a prominent politician be so forthright about these issues is a welcome change, they say.
It’s a problem the government has been aware of for a while. More than half of complaints by LGBT detainees made or referred to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General over a five-year period detailed sexual or physical abuse, according to documents obtained by the Center for American Progress. All told, LGBT people are 15 times more likely than the general prison population to be sexually assaulted, according to a report by Just Detention International, a nonprofit that seeks to end sexual abuse in prisons, and experts believe a similar situation exists in detention. Vasquez lodged no official complaints—she didn’t realize she could complain, and given her experience, she had little faith it would go anywhere if she did.
After several more weeks of solitary confinement, Polk officials explained to Vasquez that she had a choice. Though she had missed the one-year deadline to file for asylum, she could wait for her immigration case to wind its way through the system and perhaps qualify for other types of protection, which could take years, or be deported.
Sending someone who qualifies for asylum back to a situation where they face serious harm is a violation of international law and federal law.
Clara Long, Human Rights Watch
Asylum guarantees rights and protections that other immigrants who entered the country illegally are not eligible for. Homosexuality is illegal in more than 75 countries; the U.S. began granting asylum to LGBT individuals who faced persecution at home in 1994. Immigrants granted asylum are eligible to work, can obtain a green card, and eventually may become citizens. Spouses and children are eligible for the same protections. But experts say it is unrealistic to expect people who have suffered abuse at the hands of officials in their countries of origin—which is a big reason people apply for asylum protection—to recount intensely personal and traumatic experiences to an immigration official within a year, assuming they are even aware such a deadline exists.
"The one-year bar is really problematic for trans people," says Olga Tomchin, a former Soros Justice Fellow at San Francisco’s Transgender Law Center and a leading expert on transgender issues in the immigration system. “A lot of people when they first flee into the U.S., fleeing violence and persecution, their immediate needs are to survive.” If one has experienced abuse at the hands of detention officials in America, she continued, "it’s not intuitive that you would then say to the exact same government agent, ‘Oh, actually, protect me—I’m trans.’ ”
Missing the one-year deadline prevents people who would otherwise be eligible for asylum from qualifying. A report by the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Human Rights First found that 15 percent of asylum applications—53,400 people—were rejected for having missed the deadline. There’s no telling how many who might have been eligible didn’t bother to apply.
Vasquez, for one, was unaware she could qualify for legal protections. When she first crossed the border into the United States at Laredo, Texas, she knew no one. She continued to Austin and lived with a Mexican family who took her in when they found out she was alone. She worked as a house painter for a few years before moving in with a friend of her mother’s in New York City. She worked at the factory he ran before he kicked her out for refusing his sexual advances. She was homeless off and on for almost two years after she arrived, and was a commercial sex worker for a stretch because employers wouldn’t hire trans women. “For me it was really hard: First, because I didn’t know anyone, and second, because I never hid my sexuality.… I was scared,” she says.