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For Immigrant Trans Women, “Safe” Detention Doesn’t Exist

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) admitted to Vice that they had scrapped plans for a dedicated transgender unit in a Texas private detention center that opened shortly after Trump’s inauguration. ICE’s announcement forces activists into an impossible bind: choose between the fight for safer detention conditions for trans women now or fight against the inhumane system of detention altogether. 

The ICE spokesperson said that the change of plans was “due to an increased demand for detention bed space.” That’s one hell of a euphemism for the ramp-up of Trump’s deportation machine and 30% spike in arrests and detention of undocumented people in 2017.

The Obama-era recommendation to house transgender immigrants in separate units was intended to address the rampant sexual violence trans people — particularly trans women — experience in ICE detention and prison. Trans people are three times as likely as cis people to be incarcerated during their lives, and they are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison. Undocumented trans women — many of whom come to the U.S. seeking asylum from sexual violence — are routinely raped and abused in detention centers.

But regardless of the intent of this policy recommendation, then and now, ICE has ultimate discretion over the fate of trans women in immigration detention. The majority of trans women are held in men’s prisons or in solitary confinement (a form of torture), supposedly for their own safety.

Let’s be clear: Women should never be incarcerated in men’s spaces where they’ll face rampant sexual violence. Moving trans women out of men’s prisons may indeed reduce some risk of violence, but it’s far from a victory. What segregated facilities don’t fix — and what reporting on them as a progressive reform fails to acknowledge — is the major source of danger for trans people in immigration detention: the guards and the detention/prison system itself. Even in segregated LGBTQ-specific facilities, guards subject trans women to abusive strip searches and sexual harassment, and trans women are punished with punitive rules that enforce isolation. In prisons and detention centers, guards rape trans women with impunity and deliberately make them the targets of violence.

ICE has asked activists to make a cruel choice between fighting to lessen the horrors of detention in men’s facilities for trans women and fighting to end detention. But the two are inextricable — and ICE is to blame for all violence against trans women in detention. 

The solution is one that immigrant trans activists like Jennicet Gutiérrez have been demanding for years: release all people from detention. There is no just detention. There is no safe detention, for immigrant trans women or for any of the 440,000 people in detention in the U.S. An LGBTQ-friendly detention center is fundamentally impossible. There is no incremental reform that will stop transphobic sexual violence. The only solution is to free people.

Image via H Kapp Klote & Prisons Out of Pride

Jess is a first-gen college graduate and LGBTQ person living in Boston, MA. At Feministing, they write about the intersection of state and interpersonal violence, LGBTQ communities and radical activism. Jess can usually be found on public transportation or hanging out with their cat, MoMo.

Jess is a first-gen college graduate and LGBTQ person living in Boston, MA. Jess can usually be found on public transportation or hanging out with their cat, MoMo.

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