A trans woman detained by Ice for two years is fighting for freedom: ‘I’ve been forgotten’

Joe Biden has positioned himself as the strongest presidential champion of transgender people in US history.

He has supported trans rights in schools, the military, federal prisons and healthcare, and he directly affirmed trans people in his first joint address to Congress, 说, “I want you to know your president has your back.”

But so far his administration has rejected calls to protect one of the most vulnerable groups of trans people: migrants who are stuck in US immigration detention where, reports show, they have faced severe abuse, discrimination and medical neglect.

“I am a human being. I’m just asking for an opportunity to stay in the United States and to be free and be safe,” said Maura Martinez, a 41-year-old trans woman from Nicaragua, in a recent call from inside a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) jail in San Diego. She has been held in Ice detention for more than two years.

The hardships of trans people in Ice jails have been well documented since the Obama administration. Trans women are often housed with men, and vice versa. 一种 2013 US government report found that nearly one in four substantiated cases of sexual assault in Ice detention involved a trans victim, with multiple cases of of trans women abused by guards.

Data has also shown that trans detainees are routinely placed in solitary confinement, allegedly for their own protection, sometimes for weeks or months on end. One report found that trans detainees were held in Ice for 99 days on average, twice as long as the overall average length of detention. In recent years, two trans women who had HIV and were seeking asylum in the US died after they were, according to legal complaints, denied medical care.

Human rights activists have been fighting for years to end the detention of the small group of trans migrants who remain jailed, arguing that Ice has proven incapable of keeping them safe.

It is unclear how many trans people are currently in immigration custody. Ice reported that there were 31 self-identified trans detainees last fall, but those numbers have likely since changed and advocates caution that Ice’s data is an undercount since some trans people are afraid to out themselves. (Ice did not respond to a request for data.)

Although Biden has called for expanded international protections for LGBTQ+ people and the administration also recently met with End Trans Detention campaign advocates, the president has not shifted his policies on the detention of trans migrants.

“If he really wants to be a champion for LGBTQ+ people worldwide, he can start at home,” said Emilio Vicente, an advocate with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.

The consequences of Biden’s stance are illustrated by the case of Martinez, who said that inside the Ice jail, she has faced persistent harassment and abuse – a painful repeat of the discrimination she fled when she first came to the US.

Martinez was born in 1979 in Managua, Nicaragua, and was sent to live with relatives in Guerrero, Mexico, when she was around two years old and her parents were going through divorce. She felt abandoned growing up, she wrote in an affidavit for an immigration judge, and was unsure if the grandparents and cousins who she was living with were even her relatives. There was a bar and pool house on the property, she wrote, and she lived in fear of drunk patrons.

Martinez was feminine from a young age and loved playing with dolls and wearing her grandma’s aprons and dresses, 她说. 因此, she faced taunting and bullying at school, and starting at age five, she said she suffered persistent physical and sexual abuse from multiple relatives.

“I was mistreated as a kid because of who I am,” she told the Guardian in Spanish in an interview translated by her lawyer.

As a young teenager, she knew she was a girl, 她说, but she was afraid to come out, having heard stories about the murders of trans women in Mexico. Her family was also having major financial problems, and she recalled struggling to find food for herself.

Around age 15, an uncle took her to the US.

“I came to the US to make my dreams come true, to be able to live free, to have a voice,” said Martinez.

She spent the rest of her teenage years in San Diego. She found groups that supported trans people and was able to access affirming healthcare and mental health treatment, for the first time understanding the impact of her childhood traumas. Martinez, who became a lawful permanent resident, worked a number of jobs over the years in the food service industry and as a janitor.

“I’ve always tried to work, but sometimes it’s difficult because of how we’re treated as trans women,” said Martinez. Around 2015, she left a job where she said she had faced discrimination. She lost her housing and was living on the streets and had multiple run-ins with the law, including a trespassing case. Her experiences parallel those of many trans people in America, especially women of color, who are often shut out of the workforce and then wind up unhoused and subject to violence and criminalization.

She also lost contact with her family, who at one point thought she had died.

In summer of 2017 in San Diego, she was looking through a trash can for food or something to cover herself in the cold when a man started yelling at her and threatened her with his dog, she later testified. She said she tried to run away, and in fear threw rocks in his direction, which did not hit him.

Martinez was subsequently arrested and prosecuted for “assault with a deadly weapon” (the rock). A San Diego prosecutor’s spokesperson said it was a “large cement rock”, adding, “We filed the appropriate charges in the case based on the facts and the evidence.”

“She was homeless, and she was trying to defend herself against someone who was threatening to harm her, and instead of getting the help she needed, she was convicted,” said Tania Linares Garcia, Martinez’s attorney.

Martinez accepted a plea deal and was released on probation, but was later taken to prison after failing to report to her probation officer.

On the day of her scheduled release from state prison in April 2019, guards handed Martinez over to Ice – and soon after, started deportation proceedings based on her conviction.

Confronted with reports about abuse, Ice has created separate units for trans detainees, advocates say those “pods” have been rife with problems, 也, and that the efforts at reforming conditions have not stopped the violence.

“We’ve been warning for so long that these detention systems are cruel and inhumane,” said Isa Noyola, deputy director of advocacy group Mijente, who met with the Obama administration in 2016 to push for an end to the detention of trans people. Present at that meeting was Alejandro Mayorkas, then a deputy secretary for homeland security, and now the head of DHS under Biden. “We can’t continue to fail. We’ve already had too much bloodshed.”

Martinez, who has now been in Ice jail for 778 天, is housed at Otay Mesa, a detention center that has been repeatedly accused of medical neglect and the site of the first Covid death of an Ice detainee last year.

“I felt like I had no rights from the moment I got to the detention center … It’s like reliving all of the trauma that I suffered as a child, with the way people harass me and make fun of me.”

在六月 2019, Martinez said she and another trans woman were beaten by male detainees – and then placed in segregation for two weeks, allegedly for their own safety: “That was not the type of protection I needed, and I felt really scared.”

She dreads waking up every day, Martinez said during one call with the Guardian, which was cut off after ten minutes so guards could transfer her to a new unit. “I feel like I’m always being watched, and I can’t talk to anyone.”

Martinez said she had been in detention so long that she had lost contact with anyone outside of the facility, and rarely had money to buy commissary food items. “The few friends I had are no longer answering my calls.”

In the new unit where she was recently transferred, she said she ended up in a cell by herself, which has escalated her anxieties: “My fear is that if I’m by myself and someone does something to me, no one will know what happened. I don’t want to be alone.”

After years in Ice, she said she missed the most basic freedoms – cooking her own food and taking Zumba classes. She said she hoped she could get out and get a job so she could start sending money to her mother again.

Martinez said she was initially hopeful that things could change under Biden when she heard news about the executive orders he was targeting in his first 100 天: “But those of us still detained have been forgotten.” And she can’t imagine returning to Nicaragua where she has no family: “It would mean death to me.”

Ice did not respond to multiple inquiries on her case.

Although Biden has overhauled some of Trump’s signature immigration policies, leading to a major decline in Ice arrests and deportations, Ice continues to aggressively target migrants who have had run-ins with the law.

Martinez’s lawyers with the Kirkland and Ellis firm first applied for asylum last year, and an immigration judge deemed her credible, but denied her application, citing her conviction for a “particularly serious crime”. The attorneys have appealed, and requested her release while the case is ongoing, but the lawyers were told in March that she would remain in detention, records show.

Her attorneys have argued that she faces a high risk of being jailed and abused or killed if the deportation proceeds.

“Not only are trans folks overly criminalized in this country, but if they are immigrants, they face double punishment with removal proceedings – and it can lead to their deaths,” said Garcia, Martinez’s lawyer, who is a senior attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center.

Activists met with DHS officials in April, to discuss a detailed 18-page policy memo arguing that Ice is incapable of keeping trans people safe in custody, and that the only appropriate option was to adopt community-based alternatives to detention.

“We are not asking them to make detention centers better. We are saying they have to release all trans people,” Vicente said.

The memo, authored by six not-for-profit groups, said there should be a presumption of release for trans migrants and people living with HIV, and outlined organizations across the country that could assist with housing and case management. Even though secretary Mayorkas was discussing the same concerns with advocates five years ago, DHS has made no commitments or changes since that meeting.

“Ice cannot train its way out of this or make certain pods for trans people and think that’s the answer,” Noyola added.

“Ice does not have the capacity to care for our people,” said Victoria Castro, a trans migrant advocate with El/La Para TransLatinas, who was detained by Ice in 2017. She said that if Biden really wanted to honor Pride month, he would free trans migrants: “There is no Pride in detention. And we can’t celebrate when people are still being detained.”

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