Updated at 5:30 pm
Immigrant advocates today filed 13 complaints with the Department of Homeland Security alleging civil and human rights abuses of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants being detained pending removal proceedings.
The Heartland Alliance National Immigrant Justice Center wants the agency's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate the treatment of sexual minorities in DHS custody, craft policies to address any violations and oversee their implementation.
“These complaints document stories of abuse, humiliation, and neglect, often in isolated detention facilities where people have little access to the outside world,” said Heartland Alliance executive director Mary Meg McCarthy in a news release. “Given DHS’s inability to protect vulnerable individuals in its custody from abuse, the Obama administration must take concrete steps to reduce its expansive detention program and to use alternatives to detention.”
Margo Schlanger, who heads the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said in a written statement that "We received this complaint today, and will investigate it promptly."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of DHS, detains more than 300,000 people a year in a sprawling network of 270 jails and prisons for weeks or months while proceedings to determine whether they’ll be allowed to remain in the country are pending.
Some of those held are legal residents who have previously been convicted of a crime -- in some cases, even a misdemeanor. Others are felons who go straight to ICE custody after serving prison sentences. Still others are undocumented aliens, asylum seekers or people who overstayed their visas. Regardless, all are held based on a civil, not a criminal offense.
According to the complaint, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender detainees experienced abuses including sexual assault, solitary confinement, denial of medical care, and discrimination.
For example, Steve, a gay Peruvian asylum seeker, was held in solitary confinement for almost six weeks “on the sole basis that he is HIV-positive,” the complaint alleges. “Officers frequently prohibited Steve from leaving his cell to get his HIV medication. Steve was traumatized when he sought medical treatment and an officer refused to remove the shackles on his feet, waist, and hands, despite pleas from his doctor.”
Another inmate, Juan, was sexually assaulted by two other inmates. “Despite repeated requests for a transfer to another facility because he feared for his safety [Juan] was not transferred until three months after the incident,” the complaint states.
ICE officials also allegedly refuse to give hormone treatment to transgender detainees. “[Monica] continues to be denied hormone therapy, despite her use of hormones for ten years prior to immigration detention, and her physical and psychological reliance on them,” according to the complaint. “An asylum seeker who has suffered grave past abuse in Mexico, [she] also received no treatment for her trauma-related depression. She attempted suicide in February 2011 – the facility put her in solitary confinement as punishment.”
“Under the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, inflicting arbitrary conditions of detention upon civil detainees is considered punitive and is not constitutionally permissible,” wrote McCarthy and Eric Berndt, supervising attorney for Heartland’s National Asylum Partnership on Sexual Minorities.
In a written statement, an agency spokeswoman said that ICE "takes any allegations of mistreatment or abuse very seriously. The agency intends to review the complaint filed today and take appropriate action in conjunction with the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate and address the claims within it.
"ICE meets routinely with nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders as a part of the agency’s detention working groups, of which the National Immigrant Justice Center is a member. As a result of these discussions as well as the agency’s overall detention reform efforts, early last month ICE issued formal guidance to address the care and housing of vulnerable and special needs detainees.
"ICE remains firmly committed to ensuring the health and welfare of all those in our custody and to providing the highest quality medical and mental healthcare available."