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Nowhere to Run: Detained Transgender Immigrants Are Abused, Beaten, and Worse

Here’s one Salvadoran trans woman’s story of navigating the perilous waters of immigration and gender identity.

Just before 1 p.m. on May 22, 2009, Johanna Vasquez was waiting for the bus in Houston. The afternoon was calm, and she was on her way to meet her boyfriend of the last several months when a police car pulled up. Though she had been doing nothing wrong, she feared she knew where the encounter would end.

Vasquez had been living undocumented in the United States for 11 years, but her immigration status was the last thing on her mind at that moment. She was a transgender woman, born Moris Vasquez Villanueva in Jucuarán, El Salvador, where she had been tormented throughout her youth for her identity. At 16, she was brutally gang-raped by seven men who called her “a sickening piece of trash.” Violence against transgender women is widespread in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, and she had come north in search of a life free of abuse and persecution.

Houston police charged her with tampering with a government record—a permanent resident card she had acquired through a friend, onto which she had pasted her own photograph. Trans women often deal with issues concerning I.D. cards because their real documents rarely match their appearance. So if they want to avoid scrutiny or rejection, they carry fake I.D.s. Vasquez had one with the name she preferred to be called. She pleaded guilty to the charge.

Though she had been taking hormones for seven years and had been living as a woman since leaving El Salvador, at Harris County Jail outside Houston she was placed in custody with men, which is common for transgender detainees. When she was transferred to another facility, guards laughed and mocked her on arrival. Then they shaved her head.

“From the moment they arrest you they already start treating you differently, as if you’re someone from another planet,” says Vasquez, now 34. “They start treating you badly. They don’t know how to treat you, like a man or a woman. That’s when you start suffering and being afraid.”

The Center for American Progress found, through a Freedom of Information Act request, dozens of incidents of physical and sexual abuse against LGBT individuals by other detainees in immigrant detention. So prison officials may have been acting in her interest when they told Vasquez they were placing her in “protective custody”—solitary confinement. But even in solitary, transgender detainees are at risk: An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found numerous instances of assault by guards against trans detainees. Vasquez spent 46 days in isolation.

The arrest and conviction had triggered a notice to local law enforcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for removing undocumented immigrants from the country and housing them as they make their way through the removal process, that it would be taking custody of Vasquez. So after 46 days, she was transferred to the IAH Secure Adult Detention Facility, an immigration detention facility in Livingston, Texas, about an hour north of Houston. Also known as the Polk County Adult Detention Center, IAH is an all-male outfit a stone’s throw from the Polk County jail, where officials occasionally rent out unoccupied beds to ICE.

Almost immediately, it became clear to Vasquez the hardships she had endured in solitary would be nothing compared with what she would experience at Polk. “I didn’t feel protected, just exposed,” she says. As she took her first steps into the prison, she says, one guard turned to another and said, “Oh, look, another faggot.” Guards forced her to expose her breasts. She was again placed in solitary confinement. After a week, guards transferred her to a cell she would share with three men. The first night, one of her cell mates complained he didn’t want to be housed with “someone like her.” Guards denied his request to be transferred, and the next night, he beat Vasquez bloody with a broomstick. She was then transferred back to solitary to await a hearing before a judge. Despite repeated requests to IAH, Polk, and ICE over the past month, none would comment on Vasquez’s experiences in detention.

Vasquez’s story is not unique. Read more about who’s fighting for a better life for trans immigrants here.

Martin O’Malley on immigration:

Moderator: “What are the biggest differences [on immigration policy between you and your opponents]?”

Martin O’Malley: “The biggest differences are these: Sometimes people say to me, ‘Are you to the left or to the right of your opponents?’ And actually, I’m to the forward of them. I arrive at things before they do. What are some of those? Two years ago, when the kids were coming over the border, fleeing death gangs from Central America…there were many Governors in our country who said, ‘I’m gonna find out where those rascals are and round ‘em up.’ We took a different tactic in Maryland. Secretary Clinton said at the time, ‘Send them back.’ That’s what she said. I, as a Governor, brought together faith leaders from all over our state and we were able to accommodate- not in detention camps, not behind chain-link fence- in foster homes, 5,000 kids, which was more per capita than any state in the union. Furthermore, I have called for an end…to the shameful practice we have of these for-profit prisons. Awful public policy in the United States. And I believe that most Americans in the course of this campaign, when they learn that our country maintains the largest system of immigrant detention camps of any developed nation in the world, they will rise up and say, ‘This is not right.’”