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Class action lawsuit demands ICE release all transgender detainees

Trans people in immigration detention ‘among the most vulnerable’ to coronavirus.

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Advocacy groups on Thursday filed a class action lawsuit that demands U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement release all transgender people who are in their custody because they are more susceptible to the coronavirus.

The Transgender Law Center and the Rapid Defense Network, along with Ballard Spahr LLP, a Philadelphia-based law firm, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit names as plaintiffs 13 trans women who are in ICE detention centers in Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and California. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and U.S. Attorney General William Barr are named as defendants.

The lawsuit states trans people “in civil immigration detention — many of whom came to this country seeking safety from violence and persecution in their home countries because of their gender identities — are among the most vulnerable during the current pandemic.” It also says ICE “has not provided and cannot implement sufficient measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities.”

One of the plaintiffs — a trans woman from Mexico who is in ICE custody at the Florence Correctional Center in Florence, Ariz., — says two of her fellow detainees who live in her pod have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Another plaintiff — a trans woman from El Salvador at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., who has been in ICE custody for nearly a year — says nurses do not wear personal protective equipment and personnel at the facility have not provided her with information about the coronavirus. A trans Jamaican woman with HIV who is in ICE custody at the Nevada Southern Detention Center outside of Las Vegas says “staff … including medical staff, do not always wear gloves and masks.”

A trans Honduran woman who is in ICE custody at the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Va., says it is “impossible for her to practice social distancing” because more than three dozen people live in her dormitory. Another trans Honduran woman who is detained at the Aurora Contract Detention Center in Aurora, Colo., claims she learned about “a confirmed case of COVID-19” at the facility while watching the news.

“Transgender people in civil immigration detention, as a group, are at a greater risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 than the general population and, if they do become infected, are more likely to become seriously ill or die,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, among other things, notes trans people are more likely to have underlying medical conditions and have higher rates of HIV than other groups. The lawsuit also notes ICE detention centers “are plagued by chronic and well-documented failures to provide proper medical care to transgender people in civil immigration detention — problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and pose another enhanced risk of infection, disease and death for transgender people in civil immigration detention.”

Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV who was briefly detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., died on May 25, 2018, while she was in ICE custody. Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans Salvadoran woman with HIV, passed away at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, on June 1, 2019, three days after ICE released her from the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M.

The families of both trans women have filed wrongful death lawsuits against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security that oversees it.

“ICE’s failures to provide adequate medical care during the pandemic — building upon its inability to do so even in the best of times — put transgender people in civil immigration detention at further risk of serious illness or death should they become infected with the coronavirus,” reads the lawsuit filed by the Transgender Law Center and the Rapid Defense Network.

“Because ICE cannot provide adequate medical care to them, transgender people in civil immigration detention should be released immediately to safer environments,” it adds.

ICE on its website says there are 287 detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases. These include one at the Caroline Detention Facility, two at the Winn Correctional Center and 10 at the Florence Detention Center.

The Transgender Law Center is among the dozens of advocacy groups that demanded the release of all trans ICE detainees in a letter they sent to Wolf and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence on Jan. 21. More than 40 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have made the same request.

ICE in previous interviews and statements to the Los Angeles Blade has defended its treatment of trans detainees.

A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Monday ordered ICE to “identify and track all ICE detainees with risk factors” and said it “should consider the willingness of detainees with risk factors to be released.” The ruling notes ICE as of April 4 will consider for release detainees who are over 60, detainees “of any age having chronic illnesses which would make them immune-compromised” and those who are pregnant or have given birth within the last two weeks.

ICE on Thursday told the Blade in a statement the agency “is reviewing cases of individuals in detention deemed to be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19.”

“Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options,” said ICE. “Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis.”

Statistics indicate ICE as of April 10 has released 693 detainees during the pandemic.

Immigration Equality last week said ICE released four of its gay clients with HIV who had been detained at the Winn Correctional Center; the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, La.; and La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz. Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, says five LGBTQ asylum seekers who had been at La Palma Correctional Facility and the Eloy Detention Center, which is also in Arizona, left ICE custody on March 23.

The Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz., on July 22, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ICE on March 4 released Yariel Valdés González, a Blade contributor who won asylum based on persecution he suffered in his native Cuba because he is a journalist. Valdés had been in ICE custody in Louisiana and Mississippi for nearly a year before his release.

Los Angeles Blade contributor Yariel Valdés González shortly after his release from the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on March 4, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

ICE less than two weeks after Valdés’ release suspended in-person visitation at all of its detention facilities as part of its response to the pandemic. Media reports nevertheless indicate more than 30,000 people remain in ICE custody.

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Florida

Florida’s Duval County Public Schools censors LGBTQ visibility

Duval County Public Schools slammed for removing ‘Safe Space’ stickers by Equality Florida as schools across state return to classes

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Screenshot/WJCT PBS Jacksonville, Florida

JACKSONVILLE – As Duval County Public School’s K-12 students begin their first day of school Monday, they are returning to classrooms that have been stripped bare of visible support for LGBTQ students.

Last week, Duval County Public School’s leadership held an emergency meeting with all of the school district’s principals in which they were directed to remove all posters, wall decorations, and stickers that support and affirm LGBTQ students, the latest in a wave of what LGBTQ+ advocates say are censorship efforts in the wake of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law (HB 1557) taking effect across the state.

Equality Florida — a statewide civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community — published a statement criticizing Duval County Public Schools officials for putting out guidance to principals that advised the removal of the rainbow signage.

“The district’s censorship of LGBTQ-inclusive classroom environments sends a dangerous message to young people,” said Joe Saunders, Equality Florida Senior Political Director.

“In tearing down rainbow Safe Space stickers and tossing inclusive posters into the trash, Duval County Public Schools is telling students that there is something inherently wrong with LGBTQ people — and telegraphing to LGBTQ youth that they should remain hidden. Despite false assurances from Republican proponents of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law that its scope would be narrow and its impacts limited to grades K-3, we are witnessing sweeping effects of this intentionally-vague policy across the state, with broad censorship of LGBTQ people being applied to every grade level.”

The Florida Times-Union newspaper reported Duval Schools officials say the removal is one facet of a district-wide rebrand of its existing “All In For Safe Schools” campaign that will better comply with the new Parental Rights in Education Act, which became law in July. Equality Florida calls the gesture “censorship.”

The move from Duval County Public Schools comes as schools across the state grapple with implementing the Don’t Say LGBTQ law. Already, the law has resulted in the banning of books and stigmatizing of families in counties across the state. Exactly what advocates say they warned about since the law’s inception. This decision by Duval County Public Schools to censor LGBTQ inclusion across the district has angered the community.

It also comes as LGBTQ youth, the very students now seeing their identities scrubbed from Duval classrooms, continue facing higher risks of depression, anxiety, bullying, discrimination, and suicidality than their peers.

A recent study by the Trevor Project showed a staggering majority of LGBTQ youth sharing that recent policy battles like that over HB 1557 and the subsequent impacts have had a negative impact on their mental health.

“We are in the process of rebranding the ‘All In for Safe Schools’ program,” district spokesman Tracy Pierce told the Times-Union. “The purpose of the rebranding is to send a clear message to all students that the support available through the program is open to them and not limited to any specific student population.”

“School districts are charged with doing everything in their power to mitigate the harms of HB 1557 and ensure that every student is protected in school and every family is respected. Duval County Public Schools should reverse course and recommit to cultivating an environment that is inclusive of and celebrates all students,” said Equality Florida’s Saunders.

In another circumstance of Florida’s newly minted ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law’s negative impact, last month a 12-min training video aimed at teaching middle and high school students how to prevent bullying and support their LGBTQ+ peers in Duval County Public Schools has been removed from student access.

Jacksonville Today journalist Claire Heddles reported at the time that besides the video, the district planned to dramatically reduce a LGBTQ+ support guide.

The video is now inaccessible and, in response to questions from Jacksonville Today, Duval Schools District spokesperson Tracy Pierce said, “The materials you referenced have been removed for legal review to ensure the content complies with recent state legislation.” 

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Federal Government

CMS, HHS pledge ‘prevent anti-Trans policies taking effect’ in Florida

“Attempts to restrict, challenge, or falsely characterize this potentially lifesaving care as abuse is dangerous”

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Screenshot/YouTube Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, Administrator, U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

WASHINGTON – After Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) signaled its plans to stop Medicaid reimbursements for transgender related healthcare last week, U.S. federal health officials expressed concerns with the move in an exclusive statement to The Los Angeles Blade. 

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) pledged they would “continue to do everything within our authority to protect Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to care and prevent discriminatory policies from taking effect.”

Pursuant to AHCA’s announcement of the new rules, coverage exemptions would be carved out of the state’s Medicaid plans for health treatments like puberty blockers, hormone therapies, or surgical procedures for gender dysphoria. 

Florida will join other conservative states that have moved in recent years to prohibit or restrict access to transgender healthcare, particularly for young people. In May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state could weaponize its Child Protective Services to investigate parents for child abuse for giving their transgender children medically approved health treatments. 

In March, the HHS’s OCR issued a Notice and Guidance on Gender Affirming Care, Civil Rights, and Patient Privacy, writing: “Attempts to restrict, challenge, or falsely characterize this potentially lifesaving care as abuse is dangerous. Such attempts block parents from making critical health care decisions for their children, create a chilling effect on health care providers who are necessary to provide care for these youth, and ultimately negatively impact the health and well-being of transgender and gender nonconforming youth.

In May, OCR announced Title IX’s rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity, with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra writing, ““Fear of discrimination can lead individuals to forgo care, which can have serious negative health consequences. It is the position of the Department of Health and Human Services that everyone – including LGBTQ people – should be able to access health care, free from discrimination or interference, period.”

Shortly after the news in Florida broke on Thursday, the LGBTQ+ legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal told The Blade, “We are exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Florida Chapter (FCAAP) also shared a statement with The Blade condemning the state’s “interference with the physician-patient relationship and its prohibition of this vital care.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Michigan AG Nessel joins coalition opposing Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

“Non-inclusive educational environments have severe negative health impacts on LGBTQ+ students, resulting in increased mental health issues”

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Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaking at the Michigan capitol building for Pride June 26, 2022 Lansing, MI (Photo Credit: Office of the Michigan Attorney General)

By Jon King | LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has joined a coalition of 16 attorneys general from across the country in filing an amicus brief opposing Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act,” otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Nessel, a Democrat who is Michigan’s first openly gay top statewide official, says that the law, which prevents classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, poses a serious threat to LGBTQ+ students who she says are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.  

“This bill is an affront not just to educators, but also to LGBTQ+ students, especially those who may already be experiencing the stigmatizing effect of their identity at school,” Nessel said. “This bill is not motivated by the desire to limit inappropriate content in classrooms. It is meant to have a chilling effect on how educators do their jobs and may also violate the First Amendment rights of students and teachers alike. I gladly join my colleagues on this brief and hope it discourages other states, including Michigan, from considering similar legislation.” 

The law is being challenged in federal district court by a group of students, parents, teachers and organizations seeking to prevent its enforcement by alleging that it violates, among other things, the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment.  

The law entirely bans “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through Grade 3 while also requiring the state education agency write new classroom instructions for standards that must be followed by grades four through 12. 

Opponents say that because the law does not define many of its key terms, like “classroom instruction,” it is forcing Florida teachers to censor themselves out of fear of prosecution. That fear is further compounded by the fact that the law also allows a parent to bring a civil claim against a school district to enforce its prohibitions.  

There are two main points in the brief.

“Florida’s law is extreme,” it states. “Although Florida claims the Act is intended to protect children and preserve parental choice, the attorneys general have curricula in place that allow for age-appropriate discussion of LGBTQ+ issues while respecting parental views on the topic.”

“The law is causing significant harms to students, parents, teachers, and other states,” claims the brief. “Non-inclusive educational environments have severe negative health impacts on LGBTQ+ students, resulting in increased rates of mental health disorders and suicide attempts. These harms extend to youth not just in Florida, but throughout the country.”

Nessel is joining the amicus brief alongside Attorneys General from New Jersey, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Oregon.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Michigan Advance and is republished with permission.

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Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.

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The Michigan Advance is a hard-hitting, nonprofit news site covering politics and policy across the state. We feature in-depth stories, briefs and social media updates, as well as top-notch progressive commentary. The Advance is free of advertising and free to our readers. We wholeheartedly believe that journalists have the biggest impact by reporting close to home, explaining what’s happening in our state and communities — and why. Michigan has hundreds fewer reporters than just a couple decades ago. The result is too many stories falling through the cracks.

The Advance is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advance retains editorial independence.

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