Earlier this month, Nayeli Charolet, a Mexican transgender woman living in Phoenix for more than a decade, was detained by US immigration authorities and placed in a men’s detention center in Eloy, Arizona. Charolet was given three choices, according to local rights groups Arcoíris Liberation Team and Arizona Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project; she could live at a men’s detention facility, in solitary confinement, or in a segregated unit that houses transgender women apart from the general population.
Unfortunately, all of these options are fairly grim. At any one time, dozens of transgender women, including asylum seekers who come to the United States seeking protection from abuse in their home countries, are locked up in prison-like immigration detention centers across the country, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. We interviewed many formerly detained transgender women who described being sexually assaulted and ill-treated by male detainees and guards, while others were kept in prolonged solitary confinement.
Even for transgender women housed in a segregated unit at the Santa Ana City Jail, in Southern California, detention can be a daunting and traumatic experience. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established this unit to keep transgender women safe. But women held there report being regularly subjected to humiliating strip searches by male guards and being denied necessary medical care, including hormone replacement therapy.
According to the groups advocating for her release, Charolet, a local artist and advocate for LGBT immigrants, is afraid of returning to Mexico because of the high rates of violence facing transgender women there. They say she understands the psychological trauma she would experience in solitary confinement, and that she decided against being sent to Santa Ana because she didn’t want to be separated from her family and community ties. So immigration authorities have kept Charolet in a men’s detention center in Arizona, where she faces an extremely high risk of violence and sexual assault.
ICE introduced new guidelines in June 2015 that are intended to improve detention for transgender women, but its efforts to create safe, humane conditions for these uniquely vulnerable individuals have so far fallen woefully short. And the agency continues to risk the safety and well-being of transgender women by housing them with men and in solitary confinement. If the US government is unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to ensure that Charolet and all other detained transgender women are held in settings that are free of abuse and respectful of their human rights, it should not hold them in immigration detention at all.