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LGBT Detainees at Increased Risk for Abuse and Mistreatment

Christy Carnegie Fujio, JD, MA, and Sari Long on August 2, 2011

When Alejandro Cortez-Reyna, a transgender immigration detainee in California, questioned why recreation time for LGBT noncitizens was reduced to less than two hours, the guard responded, "Because you need to learn not to be a faggot."

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Several egregious examples of abuse of LGBT detainees, including sexual and physical assault, prolonged isolation, and withholding of medical care, have been documented in two reports this year. The ACLU recently documented extensive abuse of immigration detainees in Arizona, including examples of specific and targeted abuse of LGBT individuals. And in April, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) filed 13 complaints of abuse of LGBT detainees with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General. 

These and other accounts paint an extreme and horrific picture of the impact that US immigration detention system has on LGBT detainees. Ironically, many are detained awaiting decisions on their applications for asylum based on persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

NIJC’s report describes instances of homophobic abuse directed at LGBT detainees. At Theo Lacy, a prison in Orange County, California, guards harassed a transgender, HIV-positive individual with anti-gay epithets and jokes about her dying of AIDS. The report further alleges that guards withheld HIV medication from HIV-positive noncitizens and forced an HIV-positive detainee to have blood painfully drawn from the veins in the back of his hands so they did not have to unshackle him, despite protests from the physician.

For LGBT detainees like Cortez-Reyna, many of whom are seeking asylum for persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, abuse during detention is all too common. As the immigration detention web continues to expand, ensnaring more people who are held indefinitely while their cases are pending, the plight of LGBT detainees is worsening. DHS needs to reform the way detainees are housed, ensure that detention periods are as short as possible, and provide special protection to the vulnerable LGBT population. Until then, stories like Cortez-Reyna’s will multiply, and safe haven in the US from persecution will only be an unrealized dream.

Places: United States