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The important reason Elizabeth Warren is demanding special treatment for transgender asylum seekers

Emma Powys Maurice October 22, 2019

LGBT+ leaders launch a hunger strike in Santa Ana demanding an end to ICE jail contracts. They say transgender women face abuse while in detention (Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register/Getty)

Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has called on the Trump administration to protect transgender asylum seekers, who allegedly suffer “rampant” abuse while in detention.

Along with her fellow senator Tammy Baldwin, the first out LGBT+ person elected to the US Senate, Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter urging the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to “immediately reverse policies” that harm transgender migrants seeking refuge in the US.

The senators state that the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is particularly harmful to trans asylum seekers as it forces them to remain in countries where their gender identity puts them at risk.

They said the administration must allow trans asylum seekers entry into the US, warning of the danger in “placing their health and safety at risk while they wait – potentially for years – for their asylum claims to be processed”.

In one case cited by Warren and Baldwin, a transgender woman’s “finger was cut off by a cartel” while her application was intentionally delayed.


Hundreds of activists and immigration advocates took to the streets in New York City to demand an end to Salesforce and Amazon profiteering from immigrants detention camps (Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty)

Warren and Baldwin also drew attention to recent reports of “abuse and neglect of transgender migrants and asylum seekers”, both at the border and in US custody.

“While in detention, transgender migrants and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse,” the letter reads.

“The United States should protect individuals fleeing persecution and targeted violence, including persecution based on gender identity or expression — not subject them to further harm.”

ICE estimates that at least 111 transgender people are currently being held in US detention centres. Several trans women have reported the “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse” they commonly experience there.

Some trans women have accused ICE of housing them in barracks with heterosexual men where officers ordered them: “Walk like a man! You better sit like a man!”

They told of being forced to bathe and sleep in units with men who sexually harassed and threatened them. These men would intrude on them while they were in the shower, leering at them and offering to “help” them bathe. The women claim they were thrown into solitary if they complained.

In June this year, a trans asylum seeker named Johana Medina Leon died from dehydration and HIV-related complications after spending six weeks detained by ICE.

Another trans woman named Alejandra Barrera was refused treatment for a progressive medical condition, which if left untreated could cause severe complications or even death.

Alejandra Barrera, a trans asylum seeker (Facebook/[email protected] Coalition)

After a sustained advocacy campaign by her attorney and several non-profit organisations, she was finally released after 20 months – the longest period of detainment for a trans person ever at the facility.

Activists claim her experience is representative of the widespread mistreatment of all trans women in ICE custody.

Warren and Baldwin have requested a meeting with ICE and DHS “to update our offices on your efforts to address the harm to transgender migrants” before October 30.

More: Elizabeth Warren, ICE detention centre, Tammy Baldwin, trans asylum seekers

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