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Queer Detainee Empowerment Project Organizes to Stop the Detention of Undocumented Immigrants

In Aug. 2015, LGBTQ immigrant rights advocates led a week of demonstrations across the country to protest the detention and abuse of queer immigrants. North Star Fund grantee Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) organized a rally in New York in coordination with groups in California, calling attention to the abusive treatment of LGBTQ detainees by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. 

ICE detains undocumented immigrants in prison-like detention centers to wait for their cases to be processed through immigration court. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that a staggering 35 percent of transgender detainees experience sexual assault while in detention.  

As a response, in April 2012, ICE implemented a program using Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (GBT) Pods to hold queer men and trans women together, separate from other detainees. However, the agency’s solution does not address the heart of the problem. While separating queer and trans folks from the general population may limit harassment from fellow inmates, it does not eliminate the physical and psychological abuse they face at the hands of guards. 

Natalia, a trans woman whose name has been changed here for privacy, was raped in Tijuana on her way to the United States. She was detained by ICE in Santa Ana and placed in a pod with queer men and trans women. “They treat us like we’re in prison—there are no human rights here,” she told Human Rights Watch investigators.

Another detained trans woman, Fernanda, was isolated in a psychiatric ward, where she was assaulted. There are several other stories of trans women in GBT pods who reported that they were intimidated, denied therapy, and subjected to full body cavity searches without the option of being examined by a  a female doctor.

QDEP’s movement strategy to stop the detention of LGBTQ immigrants has three parts: policy work with the New York City Council, research and testimony collection, and organizing activists. They are currently working on three city council resolutions in collaboration with New York Council Member Daniel Dromm. The policy work calls for an end to long term solitary confinement, a Department of Homeland Security investigation of the treatment of LGBTQ immigrants in U.S. custody, and an end to solitary confinement for all immigrant detainees.

QDEP’s activism is already proving effective.  Recently, ICE dropped its plan to transport queer detainees to Adelanto Detention Center, in the Mojave Desert in Southern California.  This detention center would have housed trans women alongside other women. However, because Adelanto is 4 hours away from Los Angeles, the closest city with ample access to legal counsel, it would have been a barrier for trans women to have the legal counsel they need to obtain asylum and protection from abusive guards.  

North Star Fund gives grants to groups like QDEP in order to ensure that communities directly affected by ICE’s detention policies have a say in reforming these policies to respect the rights and humanity of LGBTQ immigrants, regardless of their citizenship status.
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