At a recent Democratic National Committee fundraising dinner in New York, President Obama recognized June as national LGBT pride month and heralded the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act. Outside the gathering, protestors rallied to demand an end to LGBTQ immigrant detention and deportation. The demonstration and similar actions organized this year ruptured the single-issue agenda set forth by leading LGBT organizations like HRC. These organizations seek to expand institutions like marriage and the military, and fail to recognize that immigration, violence, and economic justice are integral to queer politics. Queer, an identity that connotes possibility, displacement, reassessment, and innovation, is not unlike the lived experiences of immigrants. As pride month comes to a close in the US, marked by depoliticized parades of corporate sponsorship and Stonewall worship stripped of its radical possibilities, it is estimated that thousands of LGBTQ-identified immigrants are currently held in mandatory detention at over 250 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) related facilities across the country. $2 billion a year is appropriated to fund immigrant detentions. The overwhelming majority of these facilities, some of which are prisons, are operated not by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, but by subcontracted private entities who profit from immigrants' desire for freedom.
Trans and Queer Immigrants proclaim "Liberation, Not Deportation"
The majority of detainees are indiscriminately held for non-criminal, civil, immigration-related proceedings and pose no threat to public safety or national security. Despite this, freedom of movement is severely restricted and conditions inside detention facilities border on inhumane. Many detainees are asylum seekers who experienced violent oppression in their home countries and now face the double oppression of for-profit incarceration. The amount of LGBTQ asylum seekers has tripled since the early 2000s. LGBTQ detainees are uniquely vulnerable in detention and are subjected to widespread harassment and assaults from guards and the general population of the facility. A searing 2013 government audit implicated the DHS for failing to provide safeguards against sexual assaults in immigration detention facilities. LGBTQ detainees are more likely to experience assault than their heterosexual counterparts. The detention apparatus has been sluggish to implement reforms outlined in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), missing a September 2013 deadline set by Congress. There has been reluctance on the part of private corporations that operate detention centers, as the reforms outlined in PREA aren't yet legally binding to facilities outside the Bureau of Prisons.
Transgender detainees often go without access to vital medical care, such as access to medication and hormone therapy. Detention facilities are not trans-affirming and engage in a rigid enforcement of gender binaries. Transgender detainees are subjected to humiliating anatomical assessments of their bodies and housed according to genitalia and not their professed gender identity. Transgender women are often told to "act male" or "man up" by guards. Detainees that formally complain about abuses are often placed in "administrative segregation," a state of housing not unlike the dreaded "solitary confinement" of prisons, where detainees face long periods of isolation and sensory deprivation ("23-hour" cells that only permit 1 hour of recreation per day). This is currently the primary transgender harm reduction strategy implemented by detention facilities, and such segregation has been reported to cause significant mental duress and, in some cases, suicide attempts.
85% of immigrant detainees lack legal counsel and are not legally provided counsel during removal proceedings if they are unable to afford it. This makes it extremely difficult for detainees to overcome institutional barriers as they fight deportation or prove asylum cases. There is also the case of institutional meddling, particularly in situations where the detainee is HIV-positive. HIV-positive detainees experience difficulty acquiring access to medication and suffer increased harassment. Even though the two-decade HIV Ban on travel and immigration conceived by the Reagan administration was struck down in early 2010, detainees who have disclosed or whose serostatus is assumed positive by administrative officials are at risk of being deemed a burden to the state and are more likely to face deportation. This is of particular concern to HIV-positive detainees who have engaged in sex work. It has also been reported that immigration officials elevate sex work-related offenses of asylum seekers as "serious crimes" or crimes of serious "moral turpitude" in order to deny asylum, an abhorrent practice that violates the principle of nonrefoulment, where the government is barred from returning someone to a country if there is a high risk of violence and persecution.
There currently exists a Congressional quota for 34,000 detainee beds. Despite pledges of immigration reform, the Obama administration plans to increase its strategy of detention and deportation and further the militarization of US borders. Detention is a criminalizing system that compromises basic human rights. It is high time to pursue community-based, proportional alternatives that eliminate detention from the immigration enforcement apparatus. And in the spirit of queering immigration, it is time for mainstream LGBT organizations to recognize immigrant justice as an area of intersectional importance.
Queering Immigration from Southerners on New Ground (SONG) on Vimeo.
Below is a partial list of organizations committed to establishing alternatives to immigrant detention and deportation:
-> Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (currently the only alternative-to-detention organization that provides direct services and resources specifically for LGBTQ and HIV-positive detainees in the US)
-> Immigration Equality
-> Detention Watch Network
Jason Huettner is Blogs Editor for Warscapes Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhuettner