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End Trans Detention: Biden Admin Urged to Release Trans & HIV+ Asylum Seekers After Deaths, Neglect

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Image Credit: Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement

Ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant rights activists marched on the White House to call on the Biden administration to stop detaining trans asylum seekers, who often face severe abuse, discrimination and medical neglect in custody. Their actions included a service honoring and mourning the deaths of several trans people who died due to ICE negligence. Eight immigrant rights groups also sent a letter to the White House demanding the release of all transgender people and people with HIV/AIDS from immigrant detention centers. Jennicet Gutiérrez, a community organizer and advocate with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, says transgender immigrants often face “tremendous challenges” that force them to seek asylum in the U.S. “Many are rejected from their homes. They’re not supported and held with everything that they deserve. And they have no choice but to be out on the streets, trying to survive,” Gutiérrez says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Vice President Kamala Harris will visit the U.S.-Mexico border Friday to try to show the Biden administration is moving away from Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. Harris is going to El Paso, Texas, where the Trump administration started its family separation policy in 2017.

Next week, Donald Trump will also visit the border, on Wednesday, along with a dozen Republican congressmembers and Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has plans for the state to construct its own border wall.

Meanwhile, immigrant rights activists, including more than two dozen trans women previously detained by ICE, marched on the White House Wednesday calling on the Biden administration to stop detaining trans asylum seekers, who often face severe abuse, discrimination and medical neglect. This is trans rights activist June Kuoch speaking at the rally about a member of the queer and trans community detained by ICE.

JUNE KUOCH: Jorge Rondon Torrealba is originally from Venezuela and has been living in the United States since he was 3 years old and calls New York home. He is a former DACA recipient and a proud member of the queer and trans community. While living an unapologetic queer life in New York, he was criminalized by the police for his acts of survival. And on June the 13th, Monday, he was transferred from prison to ICE detention.

PROTESTERS: Shame! Shame!

JUNE KUOCH: Personally, as an organizer, I do not care what Jorge did. He deserves freedom! Queer and trans people deserve freedom!

AMY GOODMAN: Wednesday’s actions included a service honoring and mourning the deaths of several trans people who died in ICE detention due to neglect and abuse — among them, Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández and Johana Medina. This week, eight immigrant rights groups also sent a letter to the White House demanding the release of all transgender people and people with HIV/AIDS from immigrant detention centers, where they cannot get adequate care. One of organizers of the movement to End Trans detention is Jennicet Gutiérrez, who last joined us on Democracy Now! in 2015 after she interrupted President Obama as he spoke to a gathering celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month at the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve told you that the civil rights of LGBT Americans—

JENNICET GUTIÉRREZ: President Obama —

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, hold on a second.

JENNICET GUTIÉRREZ: Release all LGBTQ detention centers! President Obama, stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention centers! President Obama, I am a trans woman. I’m tired of the abuse. I’m tired [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupting President Obama in 2015. She joins us now from Washington, D.C., after helping organize Wednesday’s protest on the White House to end trans detention, which followed 10 other actions in major cities across the country by trans immigrant women. Jennicet is a community organizer and advocate with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.

It’s great to have you back, Jennicet. First talk about the funeral that was held yesterday in front of the White House.

JENNICET GUTIÉRREZ: Yes. Thank you, Amy, for having me back.

Yesterday, we came together in Washington, D.C., and we did a funeral service honoring Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández and Johana Medina, three trans immigrant women who died in ICE custody. And it was very symbolic and touching to the community, because a lot of times trans people don’t have the opportunity to honor them after death — right? — with their full dignity and humanity. So, for us to honor their lives and dignity in a very humane way, it really touched the community.

It reminded us also the work that we have to continue to do to stop another case of our community member for dying in ICE custody. And that’s why, after the service, we did the march to the White House demanding the administration to end trans detention.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jennicet, could you tell us the story of Roxsana Hernández, whom you just mentioned, a 33-year-old trans asylum seeker from Honduras who died in ICE custody in May 2018?

JENNICET GUTIÉRREZ: Yeah, and one of the very touching moments is when Roxsana Hernández’s nephew sent a recording humanizing his aunt, right? Through that voice message, he was describing how wonderful Roxsana was and dreams that she had of opening a beauty salon to support their family.

And, you know, what happened is that she found her death in ICE custody. So, at 33 years old, seeking protection through the border, which is a human right, and living with HIV and needing medical care, and none of that was provided to her. So, by the time she was heard, it was too late. So they took her to the hospital, and died in ICE custody in 2018.

So, that’s why, for us, it’s very important during Pride Month to continue to humanize our community against all the anti-trans legislation that is happening. And I think Roxsana’s case is one that we have to really continue to uplift, especially again during Pride Month, to remind community that we cannot celebrate while our people are still suffering in detention.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jennicet, could you talk about the kinds of difficulties that trans people face coming across the border, the U.S.-Mexico border, both in their journey as well as the situation for the trans community in the countries from which they come, in Mexico, but also Central America?

JENNICET GUTIÉRREZ: There is tremendous challenges that trans immigrant people face, LGBTQ immigrants, in general. And many are rejected from their homes. They’re not supported and held with everything that they deserve. And they have no choice but to be out on the streets — right? — trying to survive, trying to find the basic needs. And what happens is, a lot of them face tremendous discrimination, rejection, and even violence by the police, who are supposed to protect many of them.

So, they embark on that journey with no one — right? — just on their own. And even in the very few places that exist in that journey, that is very difficult and dangerous, they’re still not welcome at immigrant shelters because of their transgender identity. So they’re rejected. They’re not given any food. They’re not given any attention — right? — of survival in that journey so they can make it safely to the U.S.-Mexico border and ask for asylum. So, all those challenges of facing violence by the state, by society, and even sometimes from their families.

For example, a young trans immigrant from Guatemala talked about all the challenges that she faced, how she was beat up on the way here, how she wasn’t — didn’t have anyone, right? And her fear was that she didn’t want to be detained and put in these very inhumane, what they’re called, hieleras, like ice boxes, pretty much, where people are tortured or ultimately dying in ICE custody. So, these are very unfortunate circumstances. And the advocacy must continue beyond Pride Month. And again, the Biden administration has the power to end the suffering of our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennicet, have things improved since you protested under the Obama administration, within Vice President Biden? Now he’s president. In April, the End Trans Detention campaign was successful in releasing Eva Rosas, who is a 42-year-old transgender woman from Veracruz, Mexico, who was being held at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. Can you talk about the success of that campaign, and then what you’re demanding?

JENNICET GUTIÉRREZ: Yes. Eva Rosas is one of the latest examples, that Familia launched her campaign, after being detained in a detention center in Georgia. So, through that advocacy, we put pressure on ICE. She was detained for over a year. And after mobilizing the community — and also her humanity not being acknowledged, not providing the hormone treatment that she was seeking, or any medical care that she was seeking. So, when we heard about her case, we knew that we had to really call out the community — right? — and say that we are here to listen and support Eva Rosas. And within a week then, ICE released her. So, there’s been some progress. Also we are hearing other asylum seekers, trans immigrant people, winning their cases, but that it’s part of a hard fight that we have, and we shouldn’t just say, “OK, things are good now.” No, I think that the End Trans Detention campaign is crucial in the step of really ending the abuses that happen in ICE custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennicet Gutiérrez, I want to thank you so much for being with us, community organizer, advocate with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s national End Trans Detention action in Washington, D.C., calling on the Biden administration to stop detaining trans asylum seekers.

Coming up, we speak to Oregon’s Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, the lead Senate sponsor of the For the People Act, the most sweeping voting rights legislation in decades, coming up.

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