EL PASO — Gay and transgender people held at a large Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in New Mexico have faced physical and verbal abuse and were placed in solitary confinement after complaining about it, according to a complaint civil rights groups sent to the U.S. agency Monday.
The letter from lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project alleges that 12 gay and transgender detainees at the Otero County Processing Center, a 1,000-bed facility about 30 miles north of this border city, routinely suffered sexual harassment and abuse from other detainees, that guards verbally assaulted them and that ICE officials violated their own regulations in denying hormone therapy to transgender detainees. They also allege that they were placed in solitary confinement after complaining about their treatment.
“ICE’s practices at Otero have created an unsafe environment for transgender women and gay men who are detained there,” the letter said.
ICE officials declined to comment on the specific allegations in the letter, but spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said the agency follows national standards for medical care and has specific policies for caring for transgender detainees in its custody.
“ICE is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and human environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” Zamarripa said.
A 21-year-old Honduran man who identifies as gay said in an interview that he was continually sexually harassed and fondled by other detainees after arriving at the Otero facility in December. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because his family in the United States doesn’t know that he is gay.
The man said he didn’t file a complaint with officials because he feared retaliation. When a friend filed a complaint alleging that he was being sexually harassed and abused by fellow detainees, he and his friend were both placed in solitary confinement, he said. He said that after four days in solitary, officials told him that he could be released into the general population but that if he complained again, he would be put back into solitary. He was then placed in an area where detainees routinely harassed him.
“I asked for a change of barracks, but I was afraid to write specifically what was happening to me because I had already been warned that if I made another complaint, I’d be sent to solitary,” said the detainee, who was released on bond last week after he endured three months of abuse
In 2018, 37 Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to ICE with similar allegations of mistreatment of detained gay and transgender people. That letter said 13 percent of the 300 transgender people detained by ICE in fiscal year 2017 were placed in solitary confinement.
ICE guidelines allow for use of solitary confinement for people vulnerable to sexual abuse or assault “when no other viable housing options exist, as a last resort.” The 2018 congressional letter raised concerns about the length of time that LGBT migrants were kept in solitary confinement.
“This is not a new problem. Sadly, from our conversations with the detainees in Otero, we’ve learned that this level of unlawful abuse, mistreatment and harassment is more widespread and common than we had imagined,” said Nicolas Palazzo, an attorney for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.
The attorneys representing gay and transgender detainees at the New Mexico facility are asking for a Department of Homeland Security inspector general investigation. A 2017 report by the inspector general found “potential misuse” of solitary confinement for gay and transgender detainees at Otero and other facilities.
The attorneys also asked for a meeting with ICE officials to discuss proposed reforms at the Otero facility, which is operated for ICE by Management and Training Corporation, one of the nation’s largest private-prison companies.
Robert Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.