When Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama at a White House event celebrating gay pride earlier this week, she was swiftly shut down and escorted out. But she was not entirely unsuccessful.
The interruption — together with all the attention it got on social media — was successful in igniting a discussion on the issues human rights advocates, including Gutiérrez, have long said plague detained LGBT immigrants: Sexual assaults, extended stays in solitary confinement, and lack of medical care.
Trans women in particular are more likely to be attacked or discriminated against in detention, Gutiérrez told BuzzFeed News.
"Nobody seems to be caring about the violence trans undocumented women face," Gutiérrez said. "The federal government needs to release these people from detention, they're not a threat to anyone."
Video of Gutiérrez from the crowd
A Fusion investigation found that about 1 out of 500 people in detention are transgender, yet a 2013 inquiry by the Government Accountability Office found that of every five victims of sexual abuse in detention, one is transgender.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.
Gutiérrez and other groups are asking the administration to do for LGBT people what they did for those who benefited from Obama's executive actions on immigration, changes to priorities for deportation, and recently proposed reforms to end long-term detention of families.
Heather Cronk, co-director of Get Equal, said Obama has the authority to designate who is a priority for detention and deportation. Before the executive actions, which sought to shield young immigrants and their parents from deportation, the administration maintained there was nothing they could do about the same group of people, Cronk said.
"At every turn the administration said nothing can be done until they find a way to do it," Cronk said. "We think there's a very clear precedent for LGBT folks to be placed on the low priority list and out of deportation proceedings."
Many of these immigrants, Cronk said, could qualify for asylum or some type of protection that would allow them to stay in the U.S. because they were likely persecuted back home due to their gender or sexual identity.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently weighing the cases of three transgender women that could set a precedent for immigration courts to recognize a transgender person as belonging to their own distinct social group, and help make explicit that gender identity is different from one's sexual orientation.
A favorable ruling could make it easier for them to make their cases for asylum because transgender people in some countries like Mexico face far more challenges and dangers than gays and lesbians, who have made some civil rights inroads in recent years.
Once detained, transgender women immigrants run the risk of being placed in centers with men or in isolation for extended periods of time under the guise of keeping them safe, Cronk said.
Transgender women in men's prisons in California were 13 times more likely to be sexually abused as other inmates, according to a 2009 study by UC Irvine.
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in an effort to stop sexual abuse in prison and detention facilities. But it wasn't until 2012 that the Department of Justice issued final regulations on how to implement the law after years of study and review.
Keren Zwick, managing attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center's LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative and Adult Detention Project, said the rollout has been slow in ICE facilities because it requires a lot of training and, in some instances, changes to how the centers use their space.
"It has a lot of aspirational stuff that isn't happening on the ground," Zwick told BuzzFeed News. "Trans people are more vulnerable than other immigrants in custody."
Among a number of changes for trans detainees, the law sought to limit time in solitary confinement, how searches should be conducted, and individual assessments on whether they should be housed with other women instead of men.
"If you're a trans asylum seeker from a Latin American country and you're housed with Latino men, you're basically being placed with your persecutor," Zwick said. "The U.S. should not detain people who are refugees or asylum seekers without a very compelling reason to do so."
Following Gutiérrez's interruption, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he wasn't sure if the president was aware of the issues she brought up about trans detainees.
Still, she hopes that now that the Supreme Court has ruled same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, the focus will shift to the plight of transgender people.
"Our community faces bigger obstacles than marriage equality," Gutiérrez said. "Access to a decent job, healthcare and basic things we need to survive is more concerning to me than getting married."
Adolfo Flores is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He focuses on immigration.
Contact Adolfo Flores at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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