© 2015 Fernanda Echavarri, Arizona Public Media. Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a transgender woman from Guatemala, in a visiting room at an ICE-operated immigration detention center in Florence, Arizona.

When Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a 23-year-old Guatemalan transgender woman, turned herself in to US border patrol agents last October and requested asylum in the United States, she thought it was the end of her ordeal. Sadly, she was wrong.

Placed in an all-male immigration center run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Florence, Arizona, Nicoll was sexually assaulted by a male detainee and repeatedly groped and verbally harassed by guards, according to the advocacy group Mariposas Sin Fronteras.

“I want to fight for my rights, and for the rights of transgender women,” says Nicoll, who has requested asylum over fears of being persecuted as a transgender woman in Guatemala.

Unfortunately, Nicoll’s story isn’t unique. Rather than ensuring the safety of those fleeing violent persecution, the US government conducts fast-track screenings of Central American migrants who arrive at its borders seeking asylum. Many are placed in detention, while others are sent home where they face threats of murder, rape, and violence. Transgender people – many seeking refuge from systemic violence and persecution – often face further abuse while in detention. According to a recent investigative report, transgender people in US immigration detention are regularly subjected to sexual assault, denied access to basic medical care, and placed in extended isolation in solitary confinement.

While transgender migrants have at times been detained in so-called “LGBT pods,” which create whole new sets of vulnerabilities, the government has not sent transgender women to women’s detention facilities. “I’m not aware of any placement such as that,” a US immigration official told the media. “That has not been something that has been a beneficial policy for housing classification.”

Today, a coalition of immigrant and LGBT rights organizations is asking supporters to call directly upon US authorities to #FreeNicoll and all other detained LGBT immigrants because of the threats they face in detention. ICE should immediately comply with its own detention standards that say that transgender people should not be placed “solely on [their] identity documents or physical anatomy,” and stop housing transgender women in all-male facilities where they face great risk of sexual assault. ICE needs to address not only the problems faced by transgender migrants, but whether LGBT migrants generally should be designated as a vulnerable population who are subject to violent abuse in detention. 

Until the US addresses these issues, Nicoll and others like her will not give up. Wearing a pale blue prison jumpsuit, Nicoll smiled and said proudly from a visiting room at the detention center where she is housed in Florence, “If I am here, it is because I am fighting.”