Jared Polis wants investigation into abuse of LGBT immigrants in detention

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Jared Polis.
Colorado Congressman Jared Polis has called for a government investigation into alleged abuse suffered by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender immigrants detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "Here we have people who are at their most vulnerable -- many without access to any legal assistance -- who are being preyed upon and assaulted," Polis said in a statement. "LGBT immigrants appear to be special targets for abuse."

That abuse, according to a complaint filed last year by the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance National Immigration Justice Center, includes allegations of sexual assault, long-term solitary confinement and denial of medical care.

From the complaint:

[Juan] was sexually assaulted by two other detainees. Despite repeated requests for a transfer to another facility because he feared for his safety [Juan] was not transferred until three months after the incident, when ICE Headquarters intervened. In the meantime, the only "protection" that the Otero County Detention Center (in New Mexico) offered was placement in the "hole."

[Steve] describes how he was transported to a doctor's appointment for an HIV checkup while his feet, waist, and hands were shackled. A doctor and a nurse repeatedly asked the facility officer to remove the shackles so that they could draw blood. The officer refused. [Steve] explained: "Even though the nurses and doctors asked them, that they could not withdraw blood like that, the officers from CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] didn't care, and they had to take blood from my hand, and even though I cried from pain, they didn't care."

[Monica] continues to be denied hormone therapy, despite her use of hormones for ten years prior to immigration detention, and her physical and psychological reliance on them. [Monica], now detained for over five months, told NIJC staff, "I can't even look at myself in the mirror anymore," due to returning facial and body hair and other distressing changes. [Monica], an asylum seeker who has suffered grave past abuse in Mexico, also received no treatment for her trauma-related depression. She attempted suicide in February 2011; the facility put her in solitary confinement as punishment.

[Alexis] was repeatedly called a "faggot" by guards, who also made jokes about her dying of AIDS. They singled her out for public searches in which they forced her to remove her outer clothing and mocked her exposed breasts.

In 2011, Westword told the stories of two LGBT immigrants seeking asylum in the United States in the cover story, "Coming Out To America." Though neither reported having been abused while in ICE custody, they detailed the sexual assault and discrimination they faced at home -- and the fear it would continue if they were sent back.

Polis, who is gay, drafted the letter with Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley. It was co-signed by 28 other representatives, though no others from Colorado.

"It's an issue we've been looking at for a while," says Polis spokesman Chris Fitzgerald. He adds that he does not know of abuse allegations specific to Colorado detention facilities.

Read the letter below:

The Honorable Gene Dodaro Comptroller General U.S. Government Accountability Office 441 G Street, NW Washington, D.C. 20548 Dear Mr. Dodaro:

We are writing to request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) undertake an investigation into the incidence of sexual violence against immigrants in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While we applaud the administration for the steps it has taken to reform our immigration detention system, we are concerned about ongoing reports of sexual abuse at facilities housing immigrant detainees.

In April 2011, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed a mass civil rights complaint with DHS reporting several recent incidents of sexual abuse in immigration detention. The victims in these cases report instances of sexual abuse, denials of medical care, long-term solitary confinement and misuse of segregation due to sexual minority status, and a pervasive culture of hostility towards gay and transgender individuals in some facilities.

In October, Frontline aired its documentary "Lost in Detention," which detailed the pervasive nature of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities. The documentary drew on documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act which highlight the severity and breadth of the problem. According to government documents, nearly 200 allegations of abuse from detainees in detention facilities across the nation have been reported to DHS since 2007 alone. Given that sexual violence is often underreported, as victims are afraid to come forward with their claims, this figure likely understates the severity of the problem.

In spite of these reports, the Department of Justice recently announced that immigration detention facilities will not be covered by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Therefore, we respectfully request that the GAO undertake a detailed audit of immigration detention facilities used by DHS to detain immigrants to investigate the incidence of sexual violence. This review should include facilities run by the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), private facilities under contract with ICE to hold immigration detainees, and those public facilities (like county jails) also under contract with ICE. Additionally, please identify what steps DHS is taking to rectify the problem and suggest any actions it needs to consider in order to ensure that sexual abuse does not continue to plague the immigration detention system.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation and attention to this request.

More from our Politics archives: "Jared Polis represents 92 percent of Colorado congressional delegation's net worth: $166M."

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