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What It's Like To Be A Transgender Person In ICE Custody


Also on Friday, President Trump mocked asylum-seekers coming to this country, calling their claims "a big, fat con job." That's a quote. Many of those at the border are fleeing violence in their home countries and among them, transgender people.

JOHELY CAMPOS CERVANTES: (Through interpreter) I came from Mexico because I was fleeing discrimination. They mistreated me. They threatened my life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Johely Campos Cervantes. She says she came to the U.S. from her native Mexico because she faced death threats and physical violence from gangs and police because she's transgender. She lived in the U.S. for years without documents until she was picked up for using a fake ID to buy a car. She was then handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE in 2018.

CAMPOS CERVANTES: (Through interpreter) This is part of the story where the most horrible things that have ever happened in my life took place. It was torture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are telling her story because, this past week, several civil rights groups, including the ACLU, wrote a letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security alleging gay men and transgender women face rampant sexual harassment, inadequate medical care and retaliation in the form of solitary confinement. They allege this happened at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico. In response, ICE issued a statement, saying it is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and that ICE has policies for caring for transgender people, including specific, separate facilities where transgender people are housed. Johely Campos Cervantes was in ICE custody for about seven months, though not in Otero. And she says she faced repeated acts of what she described as treatment meant to humiliate her. In one incident, while she was in transit between two facilities at an airport, she alleges she was strip-searched by an ICE officer in front of other people.

CAMPOS CERVANTES: (Through interpreter) It was totally out in the open. Out in the open, he pulled down my pants, examined my backside and my front parts. And my boobies were squeezed and pushed really hard. And he wanted to stick his finger in my mouth and more. And I didn't let him. I felt terrible because he had been touching my intimate parts. That's an abuse. That's a terrible thing to happen to someone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Campos Cervantes says she was bound by hand and foot during transport, and so she was forced to walk with her pants around her ankles while being made fun of. The guard eventually pulled up her pants and violently pushed her.

CAMPOS CERVANTES: (Through interpreter) They told us that we're men, that we should behave like men. For me, that's not right. Not even an animal is treated like that here in the U.S. Animals get more respect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she repeatedly tried complaining, but she was brushed aside. There are over a hundred transgender people in ICE custody, according to advocates. Campos Cervantes says many others were also mistreated.

CAMPOS CERVANTES: (Through interpreter) They don't respond to your complaints at all inside detention. I would help the others fill out their asylum applications, so I heard many horrible stories about abuse by ICE officers. There were people with chronic pains, terrible infections. They would bleed. And I would tell the officers that they need medical attention and that they were urgent cases.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But little would be done, she says. Campos Cervantes believes that the harassment is a deliberate attempt to dissuade transgender people from fleeing to this country. She says she was eventually released from ICE custody. And she's been granted asylum here. She now works at a halfway house that helps transgender migrants released from detention.

CAMPOS CERVANTES: (Through interpreter) Especially for us trans girls, we want to have a pretty life, a respectable life, a good job, not to become prostitutes. Because we don't have opportunities, we are forced to do horrible things. And that's why society sees us in such an ugly way. And that's why I want to fight for the girls like me who are still detained and forgotten. They are not heard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Johely Campos Cervantes speaking from Albuquerque, N.M. And thanks to Gia Martinez, who did our voiceover.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.