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LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles



In the darkness of the early hours Monday, about a dozen immigration agents gathered outside a Starbucks in Bell Gardens.For the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who make daily arrests, it was supposed to be business as usual.But that morning, they greeted one another with elbows instead of handshakes; the Starbucks where they rendezvoused was only grab and go; and they passed freeway signs that read: “Wash your hands stay healthy avoid COVID-19.

”The ICE agents were about to spend the day trying to arrest targets on a most unusual of days: the day after the California governor and L.A. mayor ordered people to ramp up their efforts of social distancing over the coronavirus. The agents had N95 respirator masks in their vehicles, just in case.

“We’re out here trying to protect the public by getting these criminal aliens off the street and out of our communities,” said David Marin, the director of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE in L.A. “Asking us to stop doing that basically gives those criminals another opportunity to maybe commit more crimes, to create more victims.”

In the parking lot, the group of agents stood in a loose circle — not quite six feet apart — as they reviewed the target list. That morning, they were searching for four people, including two registered sex offenders.

Among the gathered officers were two U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers — identifiable only by a patch on their vest with their agency’s name. They were among nine total CBP agents and officers deployed to the L.A. area in the last few weeks to assist ICE in making arrests.

They rattled off the height, weight and daily routines of the people they sought to arrest. Nearly all the targets lived within a one-mile radius. With many schools closed due to coronavirus and some people staying home from work, it was unclear how arrests would go that morning.

“We couldn’t factor this in, right? This COVID-19 and the precautions that everybody’s taking,” Marin said. “We just have to continue to go with the same game plan that we’ve been doing.”

All of the officers had been issued the protective masks over the past few weeks. In his car, Marin kept packets of hand sanitizer wipes, which he’d used that morning to wipe down his steering wheel, his keys and his hands after pumping gas.

Around 5 a.m., the officers waited outside of Pedro Castillo Bravo’s home. He was convicted in 2015 for DUI causing bodily injury and hit and run.

The officers knew the 56-year-old would soon be heading out to work collecting metal. In less than an hour, they spotted movement in the driveway.

“I can’t tell if it’s the target or not, but they got into the target vehicle,” an officer’s voice crackled over the radio. After Castillo prepared to leave, an officer knocked on his car door.

He asked if Castillo was sick or taking medication, to which he said no. He asked him if he’d been arrested before and Castillo admitted he had. The officer, who wore a pair of black gloves, handcuffed Castillo and placed him in the back of a white Dodge Challenger.

Since the 2015 conviction, Castillo said, he had not driven again drunk. That morning, after work, he planned to visit the grocery store — worried about the lack of food at home and the stores emptying amid panic buying.

“I’m the head of the house,” Castillo said, growing teary eyed. “If they have me here locked up, what about rent and food?”

Shortly after 6 a.m., the officers were at the next home on Lanto Street, where they looked for a man who had been convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to three years’ summary probation. When ICE pulled him over, he told them he had a green card.

His crime, Marin said, made him removable. Officers placed the man in the backseat beside Castillo.

As a few officers took the men to be processed, the rest went to door knock in a nearby mobile home park. They were searching for a man convicted of receiving stolen property and conspiracy to commit a crime. Instead, they encountered his wife and two children, both home from school that day because of closures.

“We’re the only ones here,” the man’s wife told the officer, allowing him to come inside and look around.

After striking out, the agents circled back to Starbucks for coffee and a bathroom break. Inside, staff were not allowing customers to put their own cream or sugar, to help stop the spread of coronavirus. And the bathroom they’d been waiting for was closed to the public — badge or no.

As the officers stood outside, a man approached them to ask if it was “true that the sheriff got the coronavirus?” The officers said no. Throughout the day, they spotted people wearing masks and others with arms full of toilet paper and paper towels.

Coronavirus has had effects across the agency.

In the building where Marin works downtown, officials have talked about limiting contact with the public. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there are 150 people who cram into a waiting room and line up outside against the wall for check-ins with ICE, some of them arriving every 30 days.

“We might have to adjust that and make it 60 or 90 days maybe, to limit their contact,” Marin said “We’ll work on that on a case-by-case basis.”

Homeland Security Investigations, a branch within Immigration and Customs Enforcement, postponed its citizens academy. Advanced classes at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers have been canceled. Marin’s meeting with faith-based leaders was canceled.

Over the weekend, Marin sat down with senior leadership to determine which jobs might allow staff to telework. Aside from mission support specialists, that seemed out of the question.

“Our job is not a job that you can telework from,” Marin said. “Processing people or doing check ins with people, that can’t be done via telework.”Later that morning, officers waited outside the last house on their list that day. They usually saw their target leave his home between 8:45 and 9. But that morning, they waited an hour and a half and never saw him.

“This guy’s late,” Marin said, speculating that he’d changed his pattern “because of coronavirus.”But the biggest change became clear as Marin drove downtown on the 110 north.“Where is the traffic?” he asked.

By Associated Press

PHOENIX — A transgender woman seeking asylum should be released after she was sexually assaulted and harassed while being detained in an Arizona immigration facility with men for nine months, advocates said Thursday.Alejandra Alor Reyes, who is from Mexico, is suffering from PTSD and should be released on humanitarian grounds while she awaits an appeal in her asylum case, according to several groups, including ACLU of Arizona, Trans Queer Pueblo and Detention Watch Network. They say her case is a further indication that transgender immigrants face unsafe conditions and that none are being held with members of the gender they identify with.Related Reyes, 24, says she fled Mexico after suffering abuse and discrimination because she is transgender. Shortly before presenting herself at an official border crossing to seek asylum, Reyes was kidnapped and beaten, and part of her thumb was cut off, advocates said.She asked for asylum in June and has been in custody since then, serving two stints— one for a month— in solitary confinement, according to the advocacy groups.Supporters are pleading with ICE to release her from custody while she appeals her asylum denial. They say the agency has violated its own polices by placing Reyes in solitary for longer than it should.“ICE continues to fail to address her needs and further harms her by keeping her in custody," said Yvette Borja, an attorney with the ACLU of Arizona.The Associated Press doesn't typically name people who say they are sex abuse victims, but Reyes and her advocates have gone public with her claims, hoping to bring attention to hetr Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had offered to transfer Reyes to housing for transgender detainees in August but she declined.“ICE is committed to upholding an immigration detention system that prioritizes the health, safety, and welfare of all of those in its care and custody, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals," spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe wrote.However, the nation's only housing for transgender migrants was located in New Mexico before it closed in January amid long-standing allegations of inadequate medical care and mistreatment.Asylum-seeker Roxana Hernandez, 33, was held at that facility after making her way to the U.S. from Honduras in 2018. An autopsy by the New Mexico medical examiner showed Hernandez died of a rare disorder that developed quickly due to AIDS. Supporters said she didn't receive the medical care she needed when she became ill. Hernandez died at a hospital.Related Advocates estimate there are currently about 90 transgender migrants in immigration detention, all being held with detainees who identify as a different sex.They say transgender inmates face a lack of sufficient medical care and that staff aren't trained to deal with what's considered a more vulnerable population.Reyes, who is being held at a facility about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Phoenix, knew she was transgender as a child and faced harassment at home for being effeminate.She ran away when she was 13 and has spent her life fleeing abuse, living on the streets off and on for many years, according to Cyrina King, an immigrant advocate. In detention, Reyes devours romance novels by Isabel Allende while she waits for her appeal.Reyes is in peril as long as she's detained, advocates say.“We are concerned about her mental health because she has been diagnosed with PTSD. It will lead to mental health deterioration if she is not released," Borja said.

By Reuters

Federal inspections of the U.S. government’s only dedicated detention unit for transgender immigrants last year found hundreds of unanswered requests for medical attention, poor quarantine procedures and deficient treatment for mental illnesses and other chronic diseases, Reuters has learned.Details of the inspections of the transgender unit at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, which have not been reported previously, were contained in internal reports from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) health corps and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) civil rights office.

The problems, which led to the transfer of all detainees to other facilities in January, were described to Reuters by congressional aides who were briefed on the documents and spoke on condition of anonymity.The reports come to light as Democrats in Congress accuse ICE of not living up to the agency’s own standards for caring for detained transgender immigrants. Democratic lawmakers call on ICE to release transgender migrants

April Grant, an ICE spokeswoman, did not comment directly on the specifics outlined by the congressional aides but confirmed that a December 2019 report by the ICE health corps found “several health care-related deficiencies” at the center, such as failing to complete laboratory orders or arrange for HIV patients to see infectious disease specialists within 30 days of arrival.

Grant said many of those problems were addressed in December, for instance by speeding up backlogged lab orders and educating staff on detention standards and medication policies.However, the concerns led to the transfer of all of the approximately two dozen detainees in the transgender unit, as well as other chronically ill detainees in the general population. About half were sent to a facility Aurora, Colorado, and the others to one in Tacoma, Washington, according to transgender detainees, former detainees and their advocates.At Cibola, some told Reuters, detainees had made desperate attempts to get adequate care.Related Transgender ICE detainee died from AIDS

“Every time we felt sick the first step was to raise a request, but they never answered,” said Kelly Aguilar, a 23-year-old transgender woman from Honduras who said she had been detained at Cibola for two years before being transferred to Aurora.“When people had fevers, headaches, stomach problems, we just tried to help each other by giving sips of water or buying pills in the commissary, but a lot of times we didn’t have money.

”ICE was not able to immediately comment on individual cases described in this story.Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic Inc (CXW.N), the private prison company that operates Cibola and holds immigrant detainees under an ICE contract, said the company was “committed to providing a safe environment for transgender detainees” including training staff about preventing abuse and harassment.A debate in Congress

Revelations about the medical concerns at Cibola come as Democrats in Congress are scrutinizing care for the approximately 100 self-identified transgender detainees in U.S. facilities, a small portion of migrants in immigration custody. Many are awaiting resolution of asylum claims.Democratic lawmakers are pushing ICE to enforce the agency’s existing detention standards for transgender immigrants laid out in a 2015 memo. The memo, signed by former ICE Director Thomas Homan during the Obama administration, offers such protections as allowing immigrants to be housed according to their gender identity (transgender women with other women, for instance), as well as to be given access to medically necessary hormone therapy and mental health care.Homan told Reuters it had proven difficult to find facilities willing to modify their contracts to adopt the transgender care standards. Currently none have done so.

Some ICE facilities, like Cibola, are operated by private prison companies. Others are run by federal, state or local governments. In December, Democrats directed ICE, in legislative guidance that accompanied a spending package, to adhere to the memo - but ICE rebuffed the request at the end of January, according to a congressional aide. The legislative guidance from Democrats is “not legally binding upon the agency,” according to an ICE statement that was provided to Congress and seen by Reuters.Relate Transgender, gay migrants allegedly suffer 'rampant' abuse at ICE facility

Legislative guidance accompanying spending bills is commonly followed by government agencies, former federal officials and legal experts say.Grant said several of the country’s more than 200 immigration detention centers have “informally” implemented aspects of the 2015 memo. She said ICE is continuing to look for facilities willing to run a dedicated transgender housing unit and “remains optimistic that some locations will sign the formal contract modification.”Sharita Gruberg from the Washington D.C.-based liberal nonprofit Center for American Progress, one of the groups that filed complaints with ICE about the treatment of transgender detainees, said the transfers only shuffled the problems to other facilities.

“Congress is asking ICE to adopt its own standards for care,” she said. But “instead of complying with their own standards and complying with congressional direction, they went with secret option number three of just transferring (detainees) to other private prisons.”Since taking office in 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump has rolled back protections for transgender people in the U.S. military, public schools and federal prisons.Trump also has made an immigration crackdown - including increased detention of unauthorized immigrants - an important part of his presidency and his 2020 re-election campaign.From hope to disappointment

ICE opened the dedicated transgender unit at Cibola in 2017 after a similar facility in California ended its contract with the agency.Some detainees told Reuters that arriving at Cibola initially seemed a respite, allowing them to live among others like them, without the fear of abuse they had suffered in their home countries and other U.S. detention centers.Zsa Zsa, a 54-year-old Jamaican who asked that her last name be withheld, said that after stints at ICE facilities in the general population of male detainees in San Diego and El Paso, she felt safer at Cibola. But soon, she said, she came to believe that the medical care in Cibola was “very poor.” She said she repeatedly tried and failed to get a specific medication to control her high blood pressure, becoming dizzy from lack of treatment.Honduran detainee Shantell Hernandez, 29, said she had asked repeatedly for hormones at Cibola, but to no avail. It took her transfer to detention in Washington to get the medication she said she needed.Before that, she said, “They never gave them

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