Lawmakers Will Demand ICE Release All Trans Detainees in Landmark Letter

“ICE is legally obligated to immediately release all transgender individuals currently in its custody.”

In an unprecedented move, 45 Democrats from the U.S. Congress are preparing to demand the immediate release of all transgender people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.

Last week, Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley began circulating a sign-on letter to colleagues that accuses the agency violating its own guidance by using solitary confinement for “so-called protective purposes” for transgender people, putting them at risk for assault by ICE guards.

Quigley’s letter, first reported by The Hill, is the most substantial action lawmakers have taken to date on behalf of transgender people in ICE custody.

The letter is addressed to acting ICE director Matthew Albence and Department of Homeland Security acting secretary Chad Wolf and accuses ICE of failing to comply with a 2015 memo titled “Further Guidance Regarding the Care of Transgender Detainees.” The memo mandates that trans detainees cannot be placed in solitary for their safety unless no other options exist. It also requires that trans detainees be consulted about where they feel safest in terms of housing placement.

“Trans men and women experience a higher threat of sexual violence and are too frequently placed in solitary confinement,” said Quigley in a statement. “If ICE cannot provide appropriate and humane accommodations for these migrants, they must release them from detention. No one else should have to lose their lives because of ICE’s cruel mismanagement.”

Quigley’s letter notes that the 2020 budget report requires ICE to place trans people in facilities able to meet their needs, as per the 2015 memo.

“It is our understanding that no existing ICE detention contract has been formally modified per the 2015 memo,” the drafted letter states. “As such, ICE is legally obligated to immediately release all transgender individuals currently in its custody.”

The document cites research from the Center for American Progress, which found that LGBTQ migrants are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in detention than their peers.

The letter comes in the wake of two transgender detainees deaths in two years. Honduran migrant Roxsana Hernández’s death in May 2018 shook the nation after an independent autopsy suggested she was beaten in custody. Later, it was revealed that ICE officials deleted surveillance footage of her last days in custody. Then last June, 25-year-old Johana Medina León died the day she was paroled from custody.

Following León’s death, LGBTQ organization Trans Queer Pueblo released a letter signed by 29 transgender women detained at ICE’s transgender pod Cibola, who begged officials to investigate the facility.

“Several of us are also not receiving needed medications,” they wrote. “Some officials mistreat us daily, verbally, and psychologically assaulting us.”

Quigley’s letter demands that ICE present a detailed plan for bringing its facility into compliance with the memo by January 27. It also seeks semi-monthly reporting from the agency on how it will abide by the regulations.

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.