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Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s #Pride tweet conceals a violent history

Immigration policy has long been a weapon to police gender and sexuality

Gabriela Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Dream Team, holds up an image on June 6, 2018, in Albuquerque of a Honduran transgender woman who died while in U.S. custody. (Mary Hudetz/AP)

On June 16, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tweeted, “During #PrideMonth, we recognize our #LGBTQ+ employees, reflect on the trials that their community has endured and rejoice with them in the triumphs of those who have bravely fought — and continue to fight — for full equality.” This tweet was a vapid example of “rainbow capitalism” — the commercialization and commodification of LGBTQ social movements.

But ICE’s message, that immigration enforcement and LGBTQ equality can be compatible, is uniquely dangerous because it conceals a violent history of immigration enforcement that has targeted and harmed LGBTQ people in the name of policing borders.

Citizenship and immigration laws have historically been exclusionary. With the Naturalization Act of 1790, only “free white” people of good moral character could become citizens. One of the first federal immigration laws, the Page Act of 1875, prohibited the entry of Chinese people deemed “undesirable,” mainly unfree laborers and prostitutes.

But while policies aimed to prevent the entry and inclusion of those deemed racially undesirable, they also policed ideas about gender and sexuality. When Congress passed a federal immigration law in 1917, it excluded “persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” which the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) defined as “persons with abnormal sexual instincts.” This was in keeping with the ideas of the then-popular field of eugenics, which saw people outside of sex and gender norms — as well as non-White people — as a source of genetic threat.

The United States also detained Chinese women at the Angel Island Immigration Station, operational between 1910 and 1940, and interrogated them about their sex lives, in an effort to exclude them from the country.

Throughout the 1950s, a time of Cold War-induced extreme social anxiety, policymakers framed LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities as a threat to the nation. In 1952, homosexuality was officially designated a sociopathic personality disorder, which it would remain until the 1970s.

This thinking continued to shape immigration policy. That same year, Congress passed a new immigration law, the McCarran-Walter Act, which prolonged the exclusion of people afflicted with “psychopathic personality,” or sexual deviation, and further policed crimes of “moral turpitude,” often code for suspected LGBTQ sexuality or related activities. Migrants who attempted to enter the United States and were suspected of sexual deviance were examined by psychiatrists, who then issued certifications to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, which helped determine whether they’d be admitted. In this way, immigration law managed ideas of acceptable sexual and gender expression and promoted heteronormative citizenship and belonging.

Actual enforcement of the law was even more invasive. Immigration officials, Border Patrol agents and medical professionals judged, inspected and diagnosed the bodies of immigrants who attempted to enter the United States from Mexico. As they scrutinized and classified people, these officials hunted for any sign that someone wasn’t straight or cis.

This resulted in cases like that of Sara Harb Quiroz, who was apprehended by immigration authorities after she attempted to enter El Paso from Mexico in January 1960. Immigration officers inspected Quiroz, who had short hair and wore trousers, which challenged expectations about femininity and raised suspicion that Quiroz was queer. Although she was initially allowed into the United States, Quiroz soon received a deportation notice. After she appealed, a court found that Quiroz was a psychopathic personality and issued her deportation.

When Congress revised the immigration statutes in 1965, ending long-standing exclusions based on race and nationality, they retained restrictions based on sexuality. The Hart-Celler Act prohibited the entry of “sexual deviants,” which meant that LGBTQ immigrants faced additional scrutiny and policing by immigration authorities.

LGBTQ migrants were further criminalized when they became associated with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. In 1986, Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis R. Bowen added AIDS to a list of medical conditions, including syphilis, leprosy and tuberculosis, that justified the refusal of entry into the United States. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1987 excluding migrants who tested positive for HIV and requiring legal immigrants to be tested for HIV. Because HIV/AIDS disproportionately affected LGBTQ communities, these bans particularly harmed LGBTQ migrants.

During the same period, the United States began to increasingly subject unauthorized immigrants to detention and deportation. New and expanded immigration detention centers became particularly violent spaces for LGBTQ migrants. The 1987 INS Detention Officer Handbook emphasized that “violations against the law or public morality, including murder, stealing, forgery, sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, drug peddling, drunkenness, gambling, and subversion,” would lead to penalties and discipline. Detention center staff were charged with ensuring that those considered “deviant” prisoners had limited access to the rest of the detention facility, such as prohibiting them from working in food services.

While formal bars on LGBTQ migrants ended with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, many restrictions remained, including the ban on people with HIV until 2010. Immigrants in same-sex relationships were denied access to marriage-based visas and benefits and lived with the threat of deportation — until 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.

Even so, LGBTQ migrants are still disproportionately targeted and apprehended by law enforcement officers and Border Patrol agents. They face increased threats, violence and higher rates of incarceration. In addition to the discrimination that shapes immigration courts and the views of immigration agents, 1 in 4 sexual abuse cases in immigration detention involves a transgender person.

One of the most devastating experiences for LGBTQ migrants in immigration detention is medical negligence. On June 20, 2007, Victoria Arellano died of AIDS complications that ICE officials ignored. Incarcerated migrants with HIV/AIDS face medical negligence, inconsistent access to medication, holds on obtaining lab work and harassment from guards.

These conditions have been particularly deadly for trans migrants, such as Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez and Johana Medina León. Rodriguez, a trans woman held at the Cibola County prison, died of HIV-related complications in May 2018, and León, a trans woman from El Salvador, passed away while in ICE custody after complaining of chest pains in 2019.

LGBTQ asylum seekers also continue to face insecurity on multiple levels. Many flee countries with hostile political, social and legal climates for LGBTQ people, such as the policing of sexual orientation via “police brutality, communal violence, corrective ‘treatments,’ imprisonment and even death.”

Once in the United States, they may experience homophobic and transphobic violence from U.S. immigration agents. In 2017, Victoria Castro, a Salvadoran trans woman, was detained in Texas and placed in the men’s unit because her legal documentation had her assigned-at-birth sex rather than her gender identity. Before Castro was transferred to a specific trans detention facility, she experienced harassment from the detained men and detention staff. In 2015, ICE issued the Transgender Care Memorandum, a set of guidelines on how to provide care for transgender individuals, including recognizing individuals’ gender identity and making accurate placements within facilities. However, Human Rights Watch warns that there is no real oversight to ensure that the guidelines get followed.

This history exposes the emptiness and the distortion of ICE’s Pride month statement. To say that ICE “reflects” and “rejoices” in LGBTQ “triumphs” for “full equality” is not only rainbow washing, but also an attempt to erase the agency’s longtime complicity in both attempting to exclude LGBTQ immigrants and mistreating them in custody. As scholar Eithne Luibhéid argues, “immigration controls have served as key technologies for producing a heteronormative U.S. nation and citizenry.”

Immigration enforcement and its ongoing role in policing gender and sexuality are antithetical to values of Pride Month, which commemorates the 1969 Stonewall uprising — sparked by a police raid of a gay bar.