By Brianna Lee | July 09, 2015
Jessycka Lettona describes most of her life as lonely, having grown up in Guatemala with a sexual orientation and gender identification that set her apart from most people around her. But the most recent chapter of her life, immigrating to the United States, began with a particularly isolating experience: spending seven months in a men’s immigration detention facility as a transgender woman. “It was a very ugly experience. It was a nightmare,” she said.
From October 2014 to May 2015, Lettona, 27, was detained in Florence, Arizona, and later in Santa Ana, California, after entering the U.S. in a bid for asylum. Fear seized her for those seven months while she endured groping, jeers and verbal harassment on a regular basis.
Lettona’s experience is all too familiar for transgender women who have spent time in immigration detention. Transgender women in detention are frequently housed in all-male facilities while they await court hearings that determine their fate in the United States. Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, issued new guidelines on the treatment of transgender detainees, which included directives for immigration officials to place them in facilities that correspond to their gender identification. But despite ICE’s overtures, activists from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrant community, including former detainees, are skeptical that the agency will be able to effectively implement the policy, saying the memo lacks rigorous enforcement mechanisms that will provide for the protection of transgender detainees.
The treatment of transgender immigrant detainees, who are often seeking U.S. protection after fleeing life-threatening situations in their home countries, has gained more attention over the past few years. Transgender people have become more visible, most recently with widespread media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner. Meanwhile, political momentum is growing against immigration detention practices, particularly with family detention centers that have housed Central American women and children seeking relief in the United States.
ICE’s new guidance shows the federal government is paying attention, too. But Lettona doubts it will make a difference at all. “It doesn’t matter if a trans woman is being placed in an all-women’s facility. She will still be mistreated wherever she’s at,” she said.