immigrationimageBy Olga Tomchin

Sofia is a survivor. She survived a childhood and adolescence in a Mexican small town filled with familial and societal violence directed at her for being a trans girl which led to her dropping out of school before she learned to read and write. She survived multiple hate crimes after immigrating to California, including being shot in the stomach by a stranger on the street after he realized that she was trans. She survived an AIDS diagnosis, addiction, and living with the trauma from her experiences with violence. She is also a survivor of the brutality of the U.S.’s immigration system and its particular impact on low-income trans women of color.

Before Sofia became my client at an immigration clinic, she had been deported multiple times. U.S. asylum law currently protects transgender people from deportation back to countries where they have a “well-founded fear of persecution.” However, an asylum application must be made within a year of entering the county, except in very narrow and complicated legal circumstances that immigrants must usually figure out by themselves because immigrants in deportation proceedings are not provided immigration attorneys. Once a person is deported once, they are not eligible for asylum but only for much weaker protections (with higher legal barriers).

When Sofia was deported the first time, she had no access to a lawyer, did not speak English or read in any language, did not know that asylum existed or protected people like her, and had already passed the one year asylum deadline. Her experiences in the U.S. and Mexico involved frequent harassment by the police, including multiple arrests in the U.S. for what amounted to “walking while trans,” such as for jaywalking, so she did not consider the possibility that asserting her trans status to immigration authorities would lead to anything but more suffering. Two hours after her deportation, Sofia was stabbed in the street by a group of men screaming homophobic slurs. She survived, but the very deportation that had threatened her life had made her ineligible for asylum.

In 2011, Sofia was arrested for minor drug possession. The charges were immediately dropped but she was turned over to immigration authorities. Many people don’t realize that the U.S. has a large system of civil (not criminal) immigration jails that lock up 34,000 immigrants every day, frequently through contracts with local jails and private prison companies. Transgender immigrants in these detention centers often face extreme physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, including from guards. Trans women are usually housed in the general male population or in solitary confinement “for their own protection.” Transgender immigrants who fight their deportation can spend years locked in a small room for twenty-three hours a day. Many traumatized detained transgender immigrants simply give up and accept deportation because they would rather risk possible death than continue with the torture of solitary confinement. Now, in Santa Ana in Orange County, California, the detention center has a designated pod for gay men and trans women in which guards will discipline trans women who use their chosen names or do not “use their male voices.”

Sofia was kept in the general male population, where she was forced to shower with men, had difficulty accessing her HIV-medication, and was denied hormones, a bra, and cruelly even razors to shave her face. Luckily within a few months she was able to secure legal representation, because she had befriended a gay man detained with her who was being represented by the immigration clinic where I worked. We were able to secure her release from the jail through enrollment in a program where she would wear an ankle monitoring device which, though far from ideal, allowed her to return to her family and her life. Sofia had again survived. Immigration is a transgender issue, and we must work to ensure that all members (including immigrants) of our community are protected from transphobic discrimination and violence.

Through a Soros Justice Fellowship, Transgender Law Center has recently launched an Immigration Detention project to tackle some of the worst injustices like Sofia that transgender immigrants suffer. We will be advocating to end inhumane treatment of detained transgender immigrants, equipping immigration lawyers to better serve transgender clients, and educating undocumented transgender immigrants about their rights and paths to status. Our Community Advocate Isabella Rodriguez is organizing our first immigration clinic in LA on October 19th.