by Meredith Hoffman | July 8, 2015
When she stepped off the boat on the shores of the Colorado River, Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco thought she’d found safety. A transgender Guatemalan woman, Hernandez-Polanco had suffered years of abuse in her home country, and had taken buses, trains, and finally a packed dinghy to get to this dry bit of desert in southeastern Arizona.
Intending to seek asylum, she went straight to US Customs and Border Protection agents to announce her presence. But though Hernandez-Polonco had identified as a female since childhood, the government sent her to an all-male detention center, where guards gave her boxers and a standard-issue blue uniform, and tossed her into a facility with hundreds of men.
“The guards made me take off all my clothes, my bra and my underwear. They just laughed, and touched my breasts and my butt,” Hernandez-Polanco said in an interview, describing her first moments in Arizona’s Florence Service Processing Detention Center last October. “I had to shower with the other inmates and they touched me and made me have sexual relations with them,” she said. “I felt horrible because I didn’t want to do it but the inmates warned they would punish me if I didn’t.”
Hernandez-Polanco—who has taken hormones, used makeup, and gone by a female name (instead of her birth name Atmer) since adolescence—spent six months in the detention center, before being granted political asylum for persecution based on her gender identity. Hernandez-Polanco had faced sexual abuse and assault for years while living in Guatemala and Mexico. But while she came to the United States seeking refuge, in those initial months in detention she only encountered more abuse, including being patted down six to eight times a day by guards, who groped her and referred to her with slurs; in December, she filed a complaint after being sexually assaulted by another inmate.
“I feel battered. I live with this wound, it weighs on me because the memories just keep coming back,” she told me in Spanish. “I came to America because I understood there were rights for transgender women, but they treated me like a man.”