U.S. immigration officials are opening a new detention facility in Texas that will include a unit specifically created for transgender individuals.
“The facility is expected to house about 700 detainees, including a separate 36-bed unit for transgender individuals,” said Carl Rusnok, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.)
ICE says the Prairieland Detention Center will open in November in Alvarado, Texas, and will operate with the agency’s most advanced care guidelines for transgender detainees. Each detainee will have an individualized detention plan “covering items such as searches, clothing options, hygiene practices, medical care, and housing assignments,” Rusnok said.
Immigrant rights advocates have urged ICE to release LGBT detainees, especially transgender women, because they are more vulnerable to physical and sexual assaults while in custody. The new facility addresses a number of issues to better protect trans women, but immigrant rights leaders say any new detention center is a step in the wrong direction. The advocates want ICE to instead work more closely with community groups that could house trans women.
“[ICE] is talking about the new detention center as if they are providing as a service to the community, and they’re not,” said Isa Noyola, the director of programs at the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center.
ICE officials estimate that there are approximately 65 transgender women in their custody on any given night.
The new facility will be operated and managed by Emerald Correctional Management, a private prison corporation that acknowledges on its website it is “ not the biggest” company in the private prison industry. The company, which manages a total of six facilities, distinguishes itself by saying it doesn’t “warehouse detainees” and that it’s changing the culture of privatization.
A Fusion investigation found that although only about 1 in 500 detainees are transgender, 1 in 5 victims of confirmed sexual assault in immigration detention were transgender in recent years. Many of the transgender individuals in detention are women who presented themselves as U.S. ports of entry to request asylum—women who have never committed a crime—and are detained until a judge can decide on their cases.
“These [detention] beds come with violence and unwarranted transphobic interactions with line staff and other folks in the facility,” Noyola said in a telephone interview with Fusion on Sunday.
A year ago in June 2015, 35 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson urging him to end the detention of LGBT undocumented immigrants.
“These individuals are extremely vulnerable to abuse, including sexual assault, while in custody, in particular, transgender women housed in men’s detention facilities,” read the open letter addressed to Secretary Johnson.
The new detention center in Alvarado is located in a relatively small town of 4,000 residents about 40 miles southeast of Dallas. State officials say the estimated $42 million detention center project will generate more than 100 new jobs in Johnson County, according to the local paper Cleburne Times-Review.
Lawyers and advocates for transgender women say they’re concerned immigration attorneys may hesitate to take cases with clients in such a rural area.
“It’s trickier and more complicated for lawyers and advocates to gain access and get notices of folks being released,” said Noyola, of the Transgender Law Center.
Another significant concern for advocates is a fear of what happens to these transgender women when they’re released in Alvarado, Texas.
No one knows how the local Alvarado community will respond to news of transgender detainees being detained in their city. But many of the elected officials in the city of Alvarado and in Johnson County pride themselves in their conservative values. More than 25,000 of the county’s votes went to Republican candidates in the latest election, with the majority of votes going to Ted Cruz, the former presidential hopeful who believes allowing young transgender girls to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity is “lunacy.” (Fewer than 4,000 votes in the county for the Democratic candidates, who support more civil rights for transgender individuals.)
ICE officials say they will work with local LGBT organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area “to secure needed assistance and resources from local legal service providers and groups who are able to provide additional programming for transgender detainees.”
According to one lawyer, immigration judges in the area seem to be less favorable to LGBT immigrants.
“ICE has shown over and over again that they’re incapable of detaining trans people with even minimal levels of dignity or safety,” said Olga Tomchin, a staff attorney at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an immigrant rights group.
“Rather than purposefully shipping trans immigrants to the [The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals] with some of the weakest asylum protections in the country, ICE must stop subjecting them to more violence and abuse,” Tomchin said.
In July 2015, ICE officials announced that a detention center in California would open a pod in a women’s facility that would accept transgender detainees. A few months later in December, ICE announced it was dropping those plans.
Currently ICE has one other facility with staff prepared to work with transgender women, but that facility will soon close. After a public pressure campaign that included a hunger strike, the city council of Santa Ana, California voted to not renew a contract that provided beds in the city jail to ICE. The ICE facility in the Santa Ana city jail is scheduled to close June 30, 2020.