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“No Human Being Should Be Held There”: The Trauma and Resilience of LGBTQ Immigrants in U.S. Detention

by Immigration Equality


UPDATE: Immigration Equality is co-hosting a community listening session about the report on Tuesday, July 30th, at 12pm ET. RSVP here >>

“I will never forget what I experienced in ICE custody and how I was treated. I now know that I’m a ‘them,’ I’m not an American. It was drilled into me.” —Saïd, a gay man who lived in the United States since he was a child.

Our new report, co-produced with the National Immigrant Justice Center and Human Rights First, details the rampant abuse and neglect LGBTQ and HIV-positive people endure in U.S. immigration jails. “No Human Being Should Be Held There” is a stark reminder of the human cost of a broken and increasingly complex immigration system.

While policy change is essential, the true story lies in the lived experiences of those caught in the crosshairs. The report’s findings reflect not only the trauma faced by detained LGBTQ people but also their exceptional resilience.

Verbal and Physical Abuse

Benjamin is a gay man who was detained by ICE in New Jersey. Without his consent, detention staff disclosed his sexual orientation to other detained people and displayed an ID card on the door of his cell indicating Benjamin is gay. While he was asleep, a detained man punched him in the face. Benjamin told an officer about the attack. Instead of helping, the officer accused Benjamin of fighting and threatened to lock him in solitary confinement. He was physically assaulted at least five more times in homophobic attacks. However, he did not report these attacks due to the officer’s threat to place him in solitary confinement.

Approximately one-third of those we interviewed reported sexual abuse, physical assaults, and/or sexual harassment due to their LGBTQ identity in immigration detention. Nearly all of the participants reported being targets of homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, racist, or other verbal and nonverbal abuse that included threats of violence and assault.

The Medical and Psychological Toll

Kilian, a trans man, attributed suicidal acts to abuse and surveillance by the jail staff. After one suicide attempt, Kilian was placed in solitary confinement for about 10 days. The experience was very traumatic for him. “[T]hey took away my clothes, even underwear” Kilian stated. “They put me in a shirt [straitjacket] that they put on crazy people. The worst abuse is taking my clothes away without my permission.” After his second suicide attempt, the jail staff did not take him to see a mental health professional. “They wouldn’t care unless I killed myself,” Kilian said. 

Mental healthcare in detention is substandard or nonexistent. Many detained LGBTQ people struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Moreover, the majority of participants reported medical neglect or denial of medical treatment altogether. This included HIV medication, gender-affirming hormone treatment, and basic care for injuries.

The Dehumanization of Solitary Confinement

Elisa, a transgender woman, recalled, “When you complain, they put you in the punishment cell.” She was first held in an infirmary area of the detention facility after requesting not to be housed incorrectly with men. Subsequently, corrections officers placed her in solitary confinement multiple times after she complained to the officers about sexual harassment and abuse.

Roughly half of all LGBTQ and HIV-positive participants were subject to solitary confinement, a practice linked to severe mental health issues.

Privacy Invaded, Safety Compromised

Manuel is a gay man who presented to CBP to seek asylum. When officers detained him, they asked him in front of other migrants if he had any medical conditions. He told the officers that he is HIV positive. He was scared to disclose this information in front of other people, but he was also scared that his HIV medication might be confiscated. Manuel stated, “[A] lot of people don’t understand what it means to be HIV positive and discriminate because of it.”

The report exposes a chilling disregard for privacy rights. Detained people report having their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status disclosed without consent.

The Struggle for Legal Representation

Denis, a gay man with HIV-related complications that require close monitoring and care, was unable to find an attorney throughout his immigration proceedings. The judge denied Denis relief and he decided not to appeal, although he had a fear of returning to his country of origin. However, Denis was scared that his detention would be prolonged if he appealed, which would cause his health to deteriorate further.

Survey participants routinely struggled to access attorneys to advocate on their behalf while detained. Limited phone access, language barriers, and the fear of privacy violations all create hurdles. Without strong legal support, navigating the complexities of the immigration system and fighting potential deportation becomes an insurmountable task.

Hope in Resilience

Despite the daunting challenges, the report also reflects the incredible resilience of detained LGBTQ people. Many find strength in community, connecting with other LGBTQ asylum seekers for support. Advocacy groups like Immigration Equality are working tirelessly to provide resources, support networks, and legal representation. These acts of solidarity offer a glimmer of hope in the face of immense adversity.

The Call to Action: A Moral Imperative

The voices of Saïd, Benjamin, Kilian, Elisa, Manuel, Denis, and countless others demand a response. We owe them a humane immigration system that prioritizes safety, dignity, and due process for all, regardless of sexual orientation or immigration status.

Here’s how you can take action:

  • Share: Engage in conversations about the plight of LGBTQ immigrants in detention with friends, family, and on social media.
  • Contact the Biden administration: Urge top government officials to support policies that end the practice of detention and ensure fair treatment of all immigrants.
  • Give: Support our work to provide legal representation and services to LGBTQ immigrants in detention.

The future of LGBTQ immigrants in the United States rests on our collective action. Let’s stand up and demand a system that upholds the values of compassion, justice, and human dignity for all.