Leah Aguilera is a 24-year-old transgender woman. She’s been in the U.S. for about half her life. She came from Honduras in 2004 and now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I came to the United States for a better life,” she says. “And to become someone.”
She came to America with her family, and, for years, life was better. But in 2015, Aguilera’s dreams were put on hold when she ended up in immigration detention, after she was convicted for a crime based off something that happened when she was a minor. She became one of the more than 325,000 people that were processed through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities last fiscal year. As a transgender person, Aguilera says she was scared in her first facility.
“I was here in Vegas, but since they didn’t have no housing for transgender, they transferred me,” she says. “They transferred me to Santa Ana.”
She’s talking about the Santa Ana City Jail in California. Right now, it’s the only place in the country where ICE has a separate unit for transgender women. ICE will be opening a new immigrant detention center in Texas in January. It will be the first one in Texas to have a separate housing unit for transgender detainees.
Aguilera says she felt a little safer in a separate unit because she was among other trans women. But advocates say Santa Ana has been plagued with problems and they’re worried the Texas facility will have similar problems.
Christina Fialho is with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), an organization that monitors conditions at about 40 immigrant detention facilities across the U.S.
“We received reports of trans women who are told by guards to use their male voice and act male on an almost daily basis,” Fialho says. “Even more horrific is the sexual assault that occurs throughout the immigration detention system, including at the Santa Ana City Jail, in the form of unlawful and degrading strip searches.”
She says these strip searches were sometimes done by members of the opposite gender in front of everybody and in unsanitary conditions. Fialho says that happened earlier this year at the Santa Ana Facility when a piece of a broken plate went missing.
“The male officers put the entire transgender unit on lockdown,” she says. “These are trans women in immigration detention. They were on lockdown for approximately three hours. And the male guards performed strip searches on all, or at least most, of the trans pod.”
According to Fialho, inmates were not given the option to have a female guard perform the strip search. Nor were there any female guards present.
“This unit does not protect transgender women in immigration detention,” Fialho says.
Aguilara says while she was in detention the only thing she thought of was getting out.
“I was getting in like depression,” she says. “I didn’t know how long I was going to be there.”
So, when the announcement came of the new facility opening in Alvarado, Texas, it concerned local advocates like Andrea Aguilar. She’s with RAICES in the Dallas area. They provide legal representation for people in detention. Aguilar says her organization has been preparing for the opening of the Alvarado facility to make sure that the problems trans people faced at Santa Ana don’t happen in Texas.
“I am going to be on a committee to help come up with basically a manual of how we would present Know Your Rights presentations and do mini-consults to people detained in the detention center, for free of course,” Aguilar says. “And we’re going to present it to ICE.”
Aguilar says they also plan on hiring a legal fellow that will work primarily with the trans detainee population to ensure they’re safe. But for now, they’re working with other advocate groups in the area and will also protest the opening of the facility in January. Aguilera is also concerned about the people who will be housed in the new Texas facility.
“It’s really hard. It’s really hard being inside the detention center. And I wouldn’t like none of my girls being in detention, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” she says. “And it’s really hard to hear they’re going to open another one in Texas.”
Aguilera has won her immigration court case and is out of detention. She says she wants to pursue a career in criminal justice in hopes of helping others.
ICE said in a statement it is committed to upholding the health, safety and welfare of LGBT individuals in its custody. And will implement its Transgender Care Memorandum – further guidance on how ICE should treat trans people in their custody – at the Alvarado facility.