People detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement around the country describe harsh conditions and even abuse inside facilities. Transgender women seeking asylum in the United States are often held by ICE in a separate pod at a detention center near Grants, New Mexico. On Friday, July 27, advocates saw a small victory when some women were released.
Fourteen women dug through backpacks of clothes, toiletries and snacks at El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos in Albuquerque, just a couple of hours after they were released from detention. Community members were arriving who would welcome the women into their homes for a couple of days.
Twenty-three-year-old Estefany Monge-Alveranga traveled with the caravan from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border at the end of April, along with many other LGBTQ refugees. "Me amenazaron que si yo regresaba a mi país, que me iban a matar y todo," she said. "Y yo es el miedo, por eso salió huyendo mi país."
Transgender people have no rights in her home country of Honduras, Monge-Alveranga said, and she was fleeing persecution, violence and death threats. And after a long journey, she presented herself to authorities at the border, seeking asylum. She’d been in the Cibola County Detention Center ever since—about two and a half months. "Horrible. Ay no. Yo no le deseo a otras personas encerradas," she said. "Ay no. Y yo con problemas medicos también que no me lo quisieron atender bien."
Monge-Alveranga says she wouldn’t wish detention on anyone, and she did not receive medical attention despite repeated requests. Another woman who traveled with the caravan, Roxsana Hernandez, died in late-May in Albuquerque after what advocates say was extreme medical negligence while she was detained out of state.
Allegra Love, the director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, is the lawyer who represented the women in their parole cases. "Part of the problem, why they need parole, is because all of these women turned themselves in at the U.S. border at the San Ysidro crossing," she said. "They walked up to the port of entry and said, 'I’m here seeking asylum,' which means they have never broken a single United States law."
Here in New Mexico, the Cibola County Correctional Center acts as a federal prison, a county jail and an ICE detention facility. It’s run by private company CoreCivic.
An ICE spokesperson maintained in an email that ICE does not house detainees in prisons. She wouldn’t comment on general concerns about health care at the detention center.
But Love said the trauma, the lack of physical and mental health care, and ongoing and unpredictable detainment resulted in several suicide attempts in the transgender pod in New Mexico this summer. "Trans detention is inappropriate. It’s inhumane," she said. "Do you know how easy it was for ICE to let them go? They signed a paper I sent them."
Nakai Flotte is an organizer with Diversidad Sin Fronteras, and she accompanies migrants from Central America and Mexico to the border. "It’s a victory. It’s a partial victory. I feel happy to see my friends out here, and see that they’re free and that they’re doing well," she said. "But I’m also very sad that some of the other compañeras are still detained. And it breaks my heart."
Somewhere around 40 or 45 transgender asylum-seekers remain in detention in New Mexico.
"The ones that stay there are probably the ones that have to do the most work," Flotte said. "They’re the ones that have to stay strong, and they are the ones that have to keep being fierce inside, so they don’t go crazy and start thinking ‘Why not me? Why didn’t ICE let me be out?’ "
After a meal of empanadas and lemonade, volunteers and advocates sang Las Mañanitas to one of the women, wishing her a happy birthday and saying her liberation was her gift that day.
The women head to sponsors around the U.S. They’ll pursue their individual asylum cases in the coming months.
Monge-Alveranga had a message for the women still back at the Cibola County Detention Center: Don’t lose hope. "Como dicier pues, salir adelante y luchar con fuerza. No mire para atrás. Mira para adelante."
She’ll keep fighting, she said, keep moving forward—that’s where her strength comes from.
Leticia Zamarripa, ICE spokesperson in this region, emailed the following in response to questions about adequate medical care at the facility in Cibola County.
National Detention Standards: Through an aggressive inspections program, ICE ensures its facilities follow the Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). ICE provides several levels of oversight to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe and secure environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Oversight is provided by on-site Detention Service Managers employed by ICE, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations’ Detention Standards Compliance Unit, ICE Office of Detention Oversight, and the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, all of whom have open access to ICE detention facilities.
Correction: The Cibola County Correctional Center acts as a federal prison, a county jail and an ICE detention facility.