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Dispatches: Obama Shouldn’t Leave Transgender Immigrants Behind

The Obama administration took unprecedented steps last week to protect the rights of transgender Americans. But it shouldn’t forget to protect transgender immigrants, an especially vulnerable group within an already vulnerable community.

United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina at a press conference in Washington, DC. © 2016 Reuters

On Monday, United States attorney general Loretta Lynch spoke eloquently about the fight for transgender equality as she announced a federal lawsuit seeking to protect the rights of transgender students in North Carolina. Lynch reminded Americans of the country’s deep, painful history of racial segregation and encouraged the public to “write a different story” in the struggle for transgender rights. She even directly addressed the transgender community.

“Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

The administration also defended transgender rights on Friday, when it announced new federal guidelines instructing public schools to allow transgender students to access bathrooms and school facilities according to their gender identity and new federal regulations prohibiting healthcare providers and insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of a person’s gender identity.

The practical and symbolic significance of these steps is immense. The Obama administration has spent years advocating for the rights of transgender people, both in the US and internationally.

Yet despite these valiant efforts, some of the transgender community’s most vulnerable are still being left behind.

Transgender immigrants have suffered greatly at the hands of US immigration authorities. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that dozens of transgender women, including asylum seekers who have come to the United States seeking protection from abuse in their home countries, are locked up in jails or prison-like immigration detention centers across the country. Many have been housed with male detainees and subjected to sexual assault and ill-treatment by guards and other inmates. Others have been held indefinitely in solitary confinement because guards cannot devise a reasonable or safe way to house them. Government efforts to address these problems have so far been a failure.

There’s still time for the administration to change all of this. Before he leaves office next January, President Obama should work with his homeland security secretary to expand community-based alternatives to detention for transgender women, while ensuring that those who remain in detention are held in safe and humane environments that are respectful of their gender identity and their human rights.

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