The Feministing Five: #FreeMarichuy’s Olga Tomchin



Marichuy Leal Gamino, 23, has been detained at the for-profit ICE center in Eloy, Arizona for over a year. A trans woman forced into a men’s facility, she has faced sexual harassment and threats from men. Despite her efforts to report these threats to the facility guards, she has no received protection and was recently raped by her cellmate.

After reporting her assault, Marichuy was pressured into signing a document saying that the assault was “consensual.” After reaching out to external organizing groups like the Transgender Law Center, Arcoíris Liberation Team, and the Puente Movement, she was involuntarily placed into solitary confinement.

#FreeMarichuy has assembled a coalition of over 70 LGBTQ and immigration rights activists to, among other continuing actions, write a petition demanding Marichuy’s freedom.

We spoke with Olga Tomchin, who is the Soros Justice Fellow with the Transgender Law Center whose work focuses on transgender rights within immigration detention systems. She filled us in on Marichuy’s current status and how our readers can support her.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with #FreeMarichuy’s Olga Tomchin!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Could you provide some background on Marichuy’s current status in the Eloy Detention Center? 

Olga Tomchin: Marichuy is a young transgender woman who is being detained by ICE at the Eloy Detention facility in Arizona. It’s a private, for-profit run immigration detention facility. She, like many trans women, has been housed with men. She was complaining for weeks to the ICE guard about how her cellmate has been harassing her and threatening her, and the guards just told her to “deal with it” — their exact quote.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, she ended being beaten and raped by her cellmate. When she tried to complain to the guards and report it immediately, one of the guards tried to pressure her into saying that the rape was consensual. Then, luckily, she has been in very close contact with organizers on the ground, the Arcoiris Liberation Team, who contacted me immediately because my work is around trans folks and immigration detention. After we contacted ICE headquarters about it and let them know that it was completely unacceptable what was happening, Marichuy ended up being put in solitary confinement for two days against her will.

Solitary confinement is torture. It is psychological torture and especially when you have a history of trauma and have recently experienced trauma, being stuck in a tiny cage all by yourself is just further victimization. So as a result of this horrible series of events and the fact that this happens over and over again to transgender women who are detained by ICE, a large coalition of LGBTQ organizations and immigration reform activists has called on ICE to release her immediately.

SB: Marichuy’s search for justice is just yet another example of how trans rights intersect with other areas of oppression, as with #JusticeforJane. Could you share more about your insights on this intersectional approach? 

OT: Immigration detention and the deportation machine in general are really horrible for everyone, but they impact transgender people, particularly transgender women, in horrific and disproportionate ways. So trans women of color bare the brunt of biased policing, they bare the brunt of Secure Communities and other policies that link local law enforcement with immigration detention system. They also, when detained, are housed with the general male population, which carries exactly these kinds of risks of sexual assault and violence, or they are put in solitary confinement, which is torture. Oftentimes transgender women experience violence and sexual violence from guards.

Very much so, I believe that you cannot do anti-immigration detention work without protecting and centering the experiences of trans people. And much in the same way, because the immigration detention system in addition to the general incarceration system is the site of the most state violence against trans people, US government state violence, I don’t really think you can do trans work that centers experiences the most marginalized of the trans community without doing immigration and detention work. So I’ve been really heartened with the experiences of working on this campaign, #FreeMarichuy: we’ve had more than 70 organizations — LGBT and immigration — join in a very unified call to free her, calling on ICE for her immediate release.

I’ve been very pleased to see how people have understood how this intersection of transphobia and racism and xenophobia and the prison industrial complex creates these situations where trans women are so vulnerable to rape on the government’s watch and in conditions that the government facilitates. It’s been encouraging to see how these organizations have come together. The main organizations working on #FreeMarichuy are the Transgender Law Center which is a national law center, Puente Movement, which is a local Arizona immigration rights organization, the National Day Labor Organizing Network, Arcoíris Liberation Team which is a very grassroots organizing space, and under shared leadership, we’ve managed to bring in lots of other groups.

SB: Can you provide more information about Marichuy so we can get a better sense of her personality? 

OT: Marichuy comes from an extremely supportive and loving family. All of her family is in the United States, she has no one in Mexico — the place where they are trying to deport her. We had a meeting on Wednesday with the main groups involved in the campaign and with her family and friends, and eleven members of her family and friends showed up. The meeting was in Phoenix, which is about an hour from where they live, and they all showed up. Her family comes and visits her every weekend and she is a very loved member. They visit her every weekend.

This experience has caused a lot of her stress and pain for them, because imagine if your daughter or your sister ends up stuck in this horrible cage where she is under a threat. Then, she actually experiences this violence and there is nothing you can do to protect her or help her heal after this horrible situation. Still, her family’s involvement has been one of the most inspiring parts of this campaign.

From what her family has said, Marichuy is very outgoing and fun-loving. she wants to be a cosmetologist; she hopes she can go back to school. She loves dancing and singing — she is a very fun person. It is particularly distressing to them to see how depressed she is about being stuck in detention, about being raped again. It’s difficult because it looks like she has two choices — expose yourself to being raped again or be in solitary confinement and be tortured.

SB: What are the specific asks for the petition and how can folks support her? 

OT: Our asks for the community are to sign the petition and to call ICE (we have listed numbers) and explain to them that this is not okay. We will not allow ICE to purposefully create these situations where trans women are assaulted, and then to do nothing about and continue to lock them up. Our main ask is for her release period. ICE has shown over and over again that they are not capable of keeping trans women safe even with minimal levels of dignity and thus, if they can’t do that, they can detain. ICE can’t detain trans women and they certainly can’t detain them with men.

The thing is, ICE has an explicit policy — written down policy — from 2011 that says that they are supposed to take trans peoples’ identities and feeling of safety into account in housing, and because of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is law, they have regulation that says they are not supposed to detain trans women with men against their will — but they never follow that. They admit that they never follow that.

It’s really astounding to us that you can have these good policies, but if a rogue agency refuses to follow its own rules, this is how these situations happen. So if ICE can’t follow its own rules, they can’t be trusted to detain her any longer.

SB: How can our readers keep updated on what’s happening to Marichuy? 

OT: They can do that by following the Transgender Law Center on Facebook, they can follow the Puente Movement. If they sign the petition, they’ll get updates.

Suzy 1 

Suzanna Bobadilla runs the Feministing Five series and asks readers who you would want to hear from next. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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