Trans Women Pen Letter On Abuses From Inside An ICE Detention Facility

Published: Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 12:08pm
Updated: Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 2:26pm
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LAUREN GILGER: Transgender people face a unique set of challenges when they are held in federal detention, and those issues are in the spotlight as the migrant crisis continues along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, 29 transgender women are sounding the alarm. They are being held at the Cibola County Correctional Facility in New Mexico in a unit specifically designated for transgender women. In an open letter handwritten in Spanish, the 29 women claim they are being repeatedly abused by guards on multiple levels. "Our feelings, our worries, are indignation, the violation of our rights, our vulnerability before ICE and the officials that work here," they write, "for all of these reasons we are expressing ourselves not just as trans women, but also as human beings." The allegations in the letter include inadequate medical attention -- including those who are HIV positive -- as well as fear of retaliation for speaking out. Karla Bautista Chonay is an activist with Trans Queer Pueblo, a group that advocates for transgender undocumented migrants. She is also a transgender woman and immigrant from Guatemala who has been held in immigration detention herself. I spoke with her through a translator about what she's hearing from the women being held at Cibola now, and asked her if she's in contact with them.

KARLA BAUTISTA CHONAY: Of course, I have received many letters when they ask for support. I have been receiving these since March. I've been hearing what's been going on but part of the job is in the state of Arizona. So, when I received the letters on Saturday twenty-ninth of June, I realize everything that's going on with them.

GILGER: Yeah. Can you describe it for us a little bit? What are you hearing from the women who are there, and what are the conditions like?

CHONAY:  Well, it moved me a lot. As of two months ago, I was hearing of an incapacitated person at the detention center in Cibola, where for six months she had diarrhea and she was told, we don't have medications. They don't put any importance on us, for people suffering from HIV, and also there's no way to sufficiently support the incapacitated, like in her case.

GILGER: So, are these... typical of the challenges that transgender people face in detention? I know you were also in detention, right?

CHONAY: Yes, that is correct. In the way how ICE jails us and puts us in cells, I can't imagine everything. They are suffering and the maltreatment verbally, physically psychologically, from the officials and persons who work there but also from those who find themselves detained.

GILGER: So, many of these people are also fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, right? So when they get here, is it that much harder, that they are then faced with challenges like this in detention by the government?

CHONAY:  Well, I think and consider if a person is looking for better opportunities, I don't believe they can be treated that way or return to suffering maltreatment. Like, not having medications, be in conditions where the food is horrible and also where there is mistreatment and abuse, again, verbally and physically. Why would a human continue to live with this type of abuse?

GILGER: Last question I have for you then, is about, what you would like to see change? Obviously, you are advocating for transgender women to not be held at all. If they have to be, what would you like to see change in terms of the treatment that they receive? 

CHONAY: OK. For me, I believe no one should be incarcerated or exposed to these types of inhuman conditions for simply wanting a better life and to have new opportunities in this life, the one we are living. 

GILGER: Karla Bautista Chonay, thank you so much for coming in.

CHONAY: Thank you.

GILGER: When asked for comment on the handwritten letter, ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa sent KJZZ an emailed statement, saying that "ICE cannot research or provide individual comment on allegations without specific details."


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