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Federal Bureau of Prisons revises manual for incarcerated Trans people

“Transgender Offender Manual,” improves policies relating to the housing and treatment of transgender people in federal custody

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Los Angeles Blade file photo/screenshot

WASHINGTON – The federal Bureau of Prisons issued this week long awaited revisions to the “Transgender Offender Manual,” improving policies relating to the housing and treatment of Transgender people in federal custody.

The new Manual rescinds the transphobic language added by the prior administration that weakened protections for incarcerated Trans people– who are already 10 times more likely than the general prison population to be targeted for violence – and undercut compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and constitutional protections. 

Among other changes, the updated guidance requires that in making housing unit and programming assignments serious consideration must be given to an incarcerated Trans or intersex person’s own views with respect to their safety. It explicitly states that deliberately and repeatedly mis-gendering an inmate is not permitted. And it includes a process for an incarcerated person to receive gender-affirming surgery.

In 2018, Lambda Legal and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the U.S. Department of Justice and the BOP for documents and communications connected to the Trump Administration’s harmful and discriminatory changes to the Transgender Offender Manual

“The federal BOP has issued important new guidelines that will hopefully help keep Transgender people in its custody safe and provide access to life-saving healthcare including gender-affirming surgery,” said Richard Saenz, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist. “This reaffirms the constitutional rights of incarcerated Transgender people and should be an example for state prisons systems and local jails to do their duty to keep people in their custody safe.” 

“We would like to thank the BOP and our partners for working on these changes. And would like to thank Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) for his calls to reverse the previous administration’s harmful changes to the manual,” Saenz added.  

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Report documents abuse of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in ICE custody

Incidents took place during Biden administration

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Eloy Detention Center, a privately-run ICE detention center in Eloy, Ariz. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — Human Rights First on Thursday released a report that documents the abuse of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers who entered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after President Biden took office.

The report notes an ICE PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003) coordinator at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, La., in October 2021 “prevented” a Transgender Mexican man “from providing his attorney a draft copy of the complaint he wished to file” after he was sexually assaulted. Several Trans asylum seekers at the same facility said guards “subjected them to transphobic verbal abuse and other mistreatment.”

“A Mexican Transgender man reported that in August 2021 a guard pointed at him and said, ‘How many of them are there? That’s not a real man.’,” reads the report. “Guards intentionally called him ‘ma’am’ and ‘girl’ and used incorrect pronouns despite his repeated attempts to correct them.”

The report notes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Houston Asylum Office last spring “went forward with a CFI (‘credible fear’ interview)” for a gay activist from Angola, “even though he expressed that he was suffering symptoms of COVID-19, pain from a recent physical assault, and psychological distress from conditions of confinement, resulting in a negative credible fear finding.”

“The man told the asylum officer that he was experiencing anxiety and felt claustrophobic in the ‘tight space’ where the telephonic interview was being conducted,” reads the report. “The asylum officer proceeded with the CFI during which the man was unable to disclose that he is gay because he was afraid that the officer would inform others at the detention center of his sexuality.”

“He feared that such disclosure would further endanger his life since in detention he had been threatened and harassed by people who called him homophobic slurs, according to his attorney at the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative,” it adds.

Asylum seekers with HIV denied medication

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, a Venezuelan man with AIDS, died in ICE custody on Oct. 1, 2021. Sánchez had been in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., before his death.

The report not only mentions Sánchez’s death, but other cases of asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS who said they suffered mistreatment while in ICE custody. One case the report cites is a Cuban asylum seeker who said he was “denied access to HIV medication” while in ICE custody at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., from April-July 2021.

“Despite sending around nine requests for treatment to medical staff, he reported to his attorney at Immigration Equality that he did not receive HIV medication for at least two-and-a-half months,” reads the report.

The report also documents the prolonged detention of asylum seekers who are LGBTQ+ and/or living with HIV.

Several Trans women from Jamaica who were in ICE custody at La Palma Correctional Center and the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz., “were subjected to months of traumatic and unnecessary detention before they received CFIs (‘credible fear’ interviews), which confirmed their fear of persecution.” The report notes ICE did not release a bisexual asylum seeker from Ghana from La Palma Correctional Center last spring until an immigration judge granted him bond, even though he passed his “credible fear” interview.

The report cites a trans asylum seeker from Honduras who the Department of Homeland Security detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for two months, even though he received an exemption to Title 42 that allowed him into the U.S. last summer.

Title 42 is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. The Biden administration earlier this month announced it will terminate the policy on May 23.

The report notes a gay asylum seeker from Senegal did not receive his “credible fear” interview until he had been in ICE custody for three months. The report also cites the case of an LGBTQ+ person from Russia who the Department of Homeland Security detained at La Palma Correctional Center, even though he and his partner asked for asylum together at a port of entry in California.

“Under its flawed enforcement priorities, which effectively treat asylum seekers as detention priorities and do not contain exemptions for sexual orientation or gender identity, the Biden administration has detained many LGBTQ asylum seekers for months in ICE detention centers where they are particularly vulnerable to violence,” reads the report.

The report cites studies that indicates detained LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are 97 times “more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse than non-LGBTQ individuals.”

“Transgender people face a high risk of violence, discrimination and medical neglect in ICE detention, which has resulted in multiple recent deaths,” reads the report. “DHS has long recognized that detained LGBTQ people have ‘special vulnerabilities’ based on sexual orientation and gender identity and issued guidance on release of Transgender individuals. Yet despite a February 2021 memorandum committing to ‘protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and Transgender persons everywhere,’ the Biden administration continues to detain LGBTQ people, including asylum seekers who request protection at the border.”

Human Rights Report in its report makes a number of recommendations to the Biden administration, the Department of Homeland Security and Congress.

To the Biden administration:

  • End the mass jailing of asylum seekers and shift to community-based case support programs in cases where such support is needed. Community-based case support programs, which generate high appearance rates, should be used rather than “alternative to detention” programs that resort to punitive and intrusive ankle shackles and electronic surveillance or that amount to house arrest.
  • Do not designate or treat asylum seekers as priorities for detention, enforcement, or other punitive treatment. The administration and DHS should rescind the 2021 enforcement priorities memorandum and replace the policy with a protection framework that designates categories of individuals, including asylum seekers, as priorities for protection.
  • Support legislation, including the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, limiting the use of immigration detention and mandating bond redetermination hearings before an immigration judge for anyone subjected to immigration detention.
  • Work with Congress to further reduce funding for immigration detention and to instead fund: case support programs; the cost effective and successful Legal Orientation Program (LOP), which should be expanded to border shelter networks as well as all DHS facilities where asylum seekers are held, including CBP and Border Patrol facilities; and expanded legal representation for asylum seekers and other immigrants.

To the Department of Homeland Security:

  • Apply all applicable parole, bond, and other criteria with a presumption that release of asylum seekers is in the public interest, consistent with U.S. human rights and refugee treaty obligations, including the right to liberty under the ICCPR.
  • Issue parole guidance that includes a presumption that release of asylum seekers serves a significant public interest. The guidance should: apply to all asylum seekers regardless of whether they requested asylum at ports of entry or after entering the United States away from a port of entry and regardless of whether they are subjected to expedited removal; prohibit the use of bond as a condition for release on parole; and make all individuals seeking protection, including those placed in reinstated removal proceedings (which should not be used), eligible for parole consideration under the guidance.
  • Issue regulations that include a strong presumption against the use of detention, shifting the burden of proof to the government instead of the non-citizen in all custody determinations to show by clear and convincing evidence that the non-citizen should remain detained.
  • The Office of Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties should closely monitor and investigate allegations of abuse, improper use of force and solitary confinement, detention center conditions, medical neglect, racist treatment, disparate impact on Black asylum seekers in ICE detention facilities. These investigations must include interviews with asylum seekers, attorneys, independent medical experts, rights monitors, and relevant non-governmental actors.
  • ICE and detention facility operators should work with communities to implement Independent Medical Oversight Boards (IMOB) to increase public transparency and accountability on the delivery of quality medical and mental health care for detained individuals. The IMOB should have authority to review individual cases and medical files brought before it by detained individuals, attorneys, or advocates to ensure adequate care. IMOB members could include medical and mental health professionals, representatives of advocacy or community-based groups, and attorneys familiar with detention settings.
  • Avoid the use of the flawed and inefficient expedited removal process and instead refer asylum seekers for asylum adjudication before the USCIS Asylum Office. As Human Rights First and other NGOs have repeatedly explained, these adjudications should not take place within or rely on the expedited removal process.
  • To the extent expedited removal remains in U.S. law, DHS and the Department of Justice should issue regulations to, at a minimum, ensure access to counsel before and during credible fear interviews; provide appropriate interpretation, prohibit CFIs from being conducted in a language other than the asylum seeker’s native or best language, and permit asylum seekers to apply for asylum without a CFI if an interpreter in their native or best language is not readily available; and revise the March 2022 Interim Final Rule to preserve to the fullest extent a critical asylum office mechanism for review of erroneous negative credible fear determinations. DHS should not conduct these flawed interviews in CBP or ICE detention.

To the U.S. Congress:

  • Adopt legislation, including the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, limiting the use of immigration detention and mandating bond redetermination hearings before an immigration judge for anyone subjected to immigration detention.
  • Sharply limit funding for immigration detention to decrease its massive overuse and instead fund community-based case support programs, which should be employed only when additional measures are determined necessary to assure appearance in an individual case.
  • Support—along with state, local, and private entities—funding for universal legal representation without any carve-outs. Congress should also expand funding for LOP and improve access to counsel at immigration detention facilities, including by setting requirements for a minimum number of confidential attorney-client visitation rooms by facility capacity and guaranteeing in-person, contact visits for attorney- client meetings.
  • Conduct vigorous oversight on the administration’s compliance with laws, rules, and other authorities that authorize release of eligible asylum seekers from detention; access to counsel in detention; abuse, conditions, racist treatment, and disparate impact of detention on Black asylum seekers; continued violence, mistreatment, and unsafe placements of LGBTQ asylum seekers; unjustified and dangerous use of solitary confinement; and ICE’s failure to comply with necessary medical and mental health care to asylum seekers and immigrants in detention, as provided for by the NDS.
  • Ensure DHS complies with all legal requirements to provide data and information on the detention of asylum seekers, including reporting to Congress mandated by the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 1998. These reports have not been released publicly since the FY 2015 to 2017 reports were obtained through FOIA and posted by Human Rights First.

An ICE spokesperson on Friday in a statement to the Washington Blade responded to the report.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focuses its civil immigration enforcement priorities on the apprehension and removal of noncitizens who pose a threat to our national security, public safety and border security,” said the spokesperson. “ICE takes seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care, and commits to protecting their rights under the law.”

“In FY21, ICE shifted its operations away from the detention of families while adapting new and existing detention capacity to address an influx along the Southwest Border,” added the spokesperson. “ICE also previously announced it would discontinue or limit the use of certain detention facilities and will continue to monitor the quality of treatment of detained individuals, the conditions of detention, and other factors relevant to the continued operation of each facility, while assessing its operational needs for detention.” 

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Health & Human Services to rescind Trump era “ conscience rule” policy

The rule was blocked by federal courts & never went into effect, but it was expected to target practices like gender affirming care

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The Hubert H. Humphrey Building HHS headquarters (Photo Credit: GSA)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Health and Human Services is preparing to rescind the “conscience rule” – a Trump era policy that would have allowed health workers to refuse care that conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs.

The move, reported on Tuesday by POLITICO, was confirmed by an HHS spokesperson. Per the agency’s rulemaking procedure, it is now under review by the Office of Management and Budget, the spokesperson said.

Finalized in 2019, the conscience rule was blocked by federal courts and never went into effect, but it was expected to target practices like gender affirming care and abortions. Its withdrawal was celebrated by progressive groups including Planned Parenthood, which was part of a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the rule.

The White House is under pressure to protect access to healthcare, especially among women and LGBTQ people, as conservative states are unveiling laws targeting these groups’ ability to access certain treatments and procedures.

In February, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) issued a letter to health agencies in the state prohibiting their health practitioners from providing gender affirming healthcare to transgender youth, prompting a statement from HHS that the move was discriminatory and illegal.

Nevertheless, copycat legislation is under consideration in more than a dozen state legislatures.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is considering whether to appeal a ruling on Monday by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle that struck down mask mandates enforced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The administration said it will only appeal the decision if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determines extending the mandate is necessary for public health.

Three major airlines, along with Uber and Amtrak, subsequently dropped their mask requirements. 

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LGBTQ+ immigrant groups welcome decision to terminate Title 42

So-called Remain in Mexico policy remains in place

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A section of the border fence between the Mexico and the U.S. as seen from the highway that runs parallel to Tijuana International Airport in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 26, 2019. LGBTQ+ immigrant rights groups have welcomed the Biden administration's decision to end Title 42, but they say more needs to be done to reform the country's immigration system. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — LGBTQ+ immigrant rights groups have welcomed the Biden administration’s decision to terminate a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic.

“It’s about time,” Immigration Equality Executive Director Aaron Morris told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview. “This was a policy that was difficult to justify during the worst parts of the pandemic.”

The CDC in March 2020 implemented Title 42 in response to the pandemic.

Morris described Title 42 as “the brainchild of Stephen Miller long before COVID-19 even existed” and a “sort of obscure public health law to exclude people from coming to the United States.” Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday formally announced Title 42 will end on May 23.

“Ending the use of Title 42, a racist and harmful policy that was enacted by Trump is a right step for many asylum seekers, especially Black LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers that have been denied entry at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, told the Blade on Monday in a statement.

ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth echoed Omeoga and Morris.

“ORAM is thrilled to see the long-overdue overturning of Title 42, a policy that put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States,” Roth told the Blade. “We hope the removal of this policy will speed up the processing of asylum seekers — particularly members of the LGBTIQ community and other vulnerable groups.”

Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents the border city of El Paso, also welcomed the end of Title 42.

“The use of Title 42, introduced by the Trump administration, effectively eliminated access to legal asylum in our country,” said the Texas Democrat in a statement on March 31, the day before Mayorkas made his announcement. “I have been calling for an end to Title 42 since it began and I am hopeful that the Biden administration will soon rescind it.”

U.S. Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) is among the other lawmakers who have also praised the end of Title 42. U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) and others have expressed concerns.

“We are concerned that DHS has not adequately prepared and developed a plan to ensure the safety of migrants, officers and our communities post-Title 42,” said Sinema and Cornyn in a letter they sent to Mayorkas on March 31. “To date, we have not seen sufficient steps to avoid a humanitarian and security crisis. Consistent coordination and communication with state and local governments along the border, including small communities, is one necessary element in a successful strategy to secure the border, protect border communities and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely.”

The Republican attorneys general of Arizona, Louisiana and Missouri on Sunday filed a federal lawsuit to block Title 42’s termination.

‘Remain in Mexico’ policy remains in place

The Biden administration has sought to end the Migrant Protection Protocols program that forces asylum seekers to pursue their cases in Mexico, but Morris and others with whom the Blade spoke noted MPP remains in place.

“Ending Title 42 is a step in the right direction, yet at the border we are still concerned about the negative impact MPP reinstatement has upon immigrants who are still returned to Mexico to wait for their hearings,” said Abdiel Echevarría-Cabán, a South Texas-based immigration attorney who is also a human rights law and policy expert.

The State Department currently advises Americans not to “travel to” or to “reconsider travel” to the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora and Baja California — which all border the U.S. — because of “crime and kidnapping.”

A group of LGBTQ asylum seekers at a shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 27, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Blanca Navarrete is the director of Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (DHIA), a group that runs Casa D’Colores, a safe house for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and migrants in Ciudad Juárez, which is across the Rio Grande from El Paso.

Navarette on Monday told the Blade during a telephone interview that Ciudad Juárez and other Mexican border cities remain dangerous for migrants who are at increased risk to be kidnapped, robbed, raped and trafficked. Jerlín, a Transgender man who fled Honduras earlier this year, told the Blade in February before he received a humanitarian visa to enter the U.S. that he was afraid to stay in Piedras Negras, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas, because “drug cartels will kidnap you.”

“The end of Title 42 does not mean the border is going to be open,” said Navarette.

“Title 42 is only the bottom of the egregious and plenty harmful policy that happens within our broken immigration system,” stressed Omeoga. “BLMP envisions a world where no one is forced to give up their homeland, where all Black LGBTQIA+ people are free and liberated, a world where all Black people and our loved ones have housing, bodily autonomy, health and the ability to move and travel freely and with dignity, free of criminalization, anti-Black racism, misogyny and all forms of transphobia and homophobia.”

Deborah, a national organizer for the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, in a statement to the Blade described the termination of Title 42 as “the right decision,” but added “for many people who have been turned away from the border to face an uncertain fate, it was too little too late.”

“The administration can restore the right to seek asylum without reactionary removals, detention, ankle monitors and other forms of surveillance and criminalization,” said Deborah. “The Biden administration has to understand that we don’t need a $527 million ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) surveillance program. We need safe, equitable paths for migration.” 

Escobar in her statement also reiterated her calls to reform the U.S. immigration system.

“Addressing immigration exclusively at our nation’s borders represents a failure of vision and policy,” she said. “Outdated policies and processes harm migrants and asylum-seekers, waste millions of dollars annually, misuse law enforcement personnel and do not make us more ‘secure.’ Now is the time to reform an outdated and inhumane system, and I urge the administration and Congress to implement changes I have championed.”

“Our country can and must do better,” added Escobar.

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