LGBTQ+ immigrants say officials have failed to address discrimination, and that an inadequate response to Covid is compounding their misery.
It was August, and Katalina stood sobbing in the middle of the cell at the La Palma immigration detention center. She tried not to touch anything – she had seen guards escort out a man who was coughing and trembling just minutes before.
It felt like punishment. Shortly before, she had reported being sexually harassed by another detainee in a male unit of the La Palma correctional center in Arizona where they were being held. Now, she was standing in an isolation cell.
Katalina was worried about contracting Covid-19. The cell she had been placed in hadn’t been cleaned. After standing in the room for five hours, she withdrew her complaint. She had heard that other detainees had spent weeks in segregation after speaking up. It was a risk she wasn’t willing to take.
When a detainee grabbed her arm and left a bruise a few months later, Katalina didn’t say anything either.
Covid has torn through immigration detention centers across the United States. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 7,202 people held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) have been infected with the virus, and at least eight have died. LGBTQ+ populations in immigration custody have echoed the stories of other detainees who have complained that Ice has failed to institute adequate protocols to curb the spread of the virus and has not provided ample protective equipment and medical care. But LGBTQ+ people in La Palma say the pandemic has created further challenges, making it harder for them to escape the gender-based harassment and violence many of them have long faced while locked up.
Katalina, 27, had left Guatemala in April 2019, after a criminal organization tried to kidnap her because of her gender identity. She was detained after crossing the border near San Luis, Arizona, and was transferred to La Palma, an immigration detention facility run by the private corporation CoreCivic. There, she was placed in a unit for men, where she faced discriminatory insults, sexual advances and physical assault from other detainees on a daily basis.
“I decided to migrate to this country thinking that it would be different but instead it was more difficult,” said Katalina, whose full name the Guardian is withholding because of her asylum case.
The coronavirus pandemic added fresh fears. She already had anxiety, hypertension, and tachycardia (a rapid heart rate) and was worried the virus could hit her particularly hard. La Palma has registered more cases than any other Ice detention facility in the US. By 16 November, the center had recorded more than 450 cases.
In October, Katalina and several other transgender women at LaPalma wrote a series of public letters denouncing their treatment by Ice. They say officials have done little to address the harassment and discrimination they face. And they say La Palma’s inadequate response to the coronavirus crisis is compounding their misery.
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