Texas Immigration Facility to House Transgender Detainees

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A U.S. Office of Air and Marine helicopter patrols over the Rio Grande on July 21, 2014, at the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Dallas (AP) -- A detention facility for immigrants set to open later this year in Texas will include a special unit for transgender people, the second of its kind in the federal system.

The privately-run facility under construction in Alvarado, Texas, southwest of Dallas, will include 36 beds for transgender detainees, according to a statement Monday from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility is expected to open in November.

The only other such space, in Santa Ana, California, held 28 transgender people last week, according to the agency. City officials in Santa Ana have considered ending their agreement with ICE to house detainees. ICE could not provide the number of transgender people being detained in the entire system.

The agency didn't provide details about how the facility for transgender detainees would be different than other centers, and a regional ICE spokesman declined to make officials available for an interview.

Advocates say transgender immigrants often face particular challenges, including a higher risk of sexual assault, an inability to get hormone replacement treatments, and dealing with guards unfamiliar with gender identity issues.

A March report by Human Rights Watch on transgender people in immigration found that more than half of 28 women identified in the report were held in men's facilities at some point during their detention. Half were held in solitary confinement.

According to the report, one Honduran woman held at a detention center in Arizona reported being raped by three men and then being told by a guard, "You are the ones that cause these problems and always call the men's attention."

Federal guidelines instruct detention staff to ask incoming detainees about their chosen gender identity and make accommodations based on their preference. The guidelines include instructions on conducting searches, providing clothing based on a detainee's stated gender identity, and maintaining safety.

The agency said Monday it would work with gay-rights groups in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, just northwest of where the facility is located, to assist transgender people in custody.

But problems persist with the system, according to three experts familiar with transgender issues. They say the best step federal officials could take is to do away with transgender detention altogether.

Carmina Ocampo, a staff attorney at the advocacy group Lambda Legal, said independent oversight is needed for detention facilities, particularly those run privately.

"Without any mechanisms to enforce that, it just seems unlikely that transgender people will be kept safe and not subjected to abuse and mistreatment," Ocampo said.

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