Noelia, a Central American asylum seeker to the U.S., was released from a private U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Georgia last week after more than 6 months in detention.
Noelia, who declined to share his full name and exact country of origin for fear it may hurt his chances of asylum, said he fled his home country after being raped by members of a local gang and experiencing a general climate of homophobic hostility. However, since arriving in the U.S., Noelia has not found any respite from abuse. He described his experience in detention up to this point as “horrible.”
Noelia self-identifies as a gay man and uses male pronouns with most people. In his asylum application, Noelia said, “I identify as a gay man, because I am attracted to men, but I am also still trying to figure out my own gender identity.”
When asked how often Noelia experiences abuse and harassment in detention, he told NBC News, “This is happening every day.”
Noelia described an instance of sexual assault in a restroom, where several male detainees cornered him and attempted to force him to perform oral sex. He managed to escape his attackers, but he said fear of sexual assault is a feature of daily life.
“I have had many instances of sexual harassment where persons wanted to have sexual relations with me,” he added.
Based on a new report from the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization, Noelia’s experience is not unique. The report found that LGBTQ migrants in federal detention centers are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other detainees.
The report comes after Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., requested information on the detention practices of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). On May 30, Rice’s office sent a letter signed by 37 members of Congress to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen calling reports of abuse and sexual assault “disturbing” and “shocking” and requesting additional information from the department.
“We strongly urge you to use existing prosecutorial discretion to ensure that, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, LGBT individuals are released from custodial detention and that parole or alternatives to detention, such as supervised release and community placements, are used instead to ensure the safety of this population throughout their immigration proceedings,” the letter urged.
According to the figures provided to Rep. Rice from Homeland Security, ICE had 227 reports of sexual abuse and assault over the course of 2017, of which 28 involved an LGBTQ victim. For context, ICE detained 323,591 individuals that year, and 467 of these migrants identified as LGBTQ to ICE.
“This means that although LGBT people were 0.14 percent of the people ICE detained in FY 2017, they accounted for 12 percent of victims of sexual abuse and assault in ICE detention that year. In other words, assuming each report of sexual violence is substantiated and involves a separate victim, LGBT people in ICE custody are 97 times more likely to be sexually victimized than non-LGBT people in detention,” the report states.
ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke addressed the report's findings in a statement emailed to NBC News.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has zero tolerance for all forms of sexual abuse or assault against individuals in the agency’s custody, and we are committed to investigating and responding to every allegation of sexual abuse and assault," Bourke said.
Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress and the author of the report, said the frequency of sexual assaults against LGBTQ people is “horrific” and said the figures were surprisingly high even compared to the high frequency of sexual assault of LGBTQ people in prisons and jails.
“The Trump administration’s policy of detaining immigrants without parole or bond pending the resolution of their case or deportation — combined with its rejection of policies meant to protect vulnerable populations from abuse in detention — has led to horrifically high rates of sexual abuse and solitary confinement of LGBT immigrants,” Gruberg wrote in the report.
In terms of ICE policies that she takes issues with, Gruberg said the agency is "detaining a large percentage of trans women in all male facilities or in solitary confinement." And while Noelia does identify as a gay man, he said his current placement exposes him to daily abuse and harassment.
“Decisions related to the location illegal aliens will be detained are made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account several factors, including — but not limited to — a transgender individual’s preference, the safety and well-being of the detainee and their ties to the community," Bourke explained. "Outside of dedicated housing units, transgender detainees may be housed in any areas where general population detainees are held.”
Gruberg said she does not believe ICE is making these individualized assessments for LGBTQ migrants. “The decision is supposed to consider what they want, where they feel safe,” she added.
Gruberg said it is difficult to get a handle on the frequency of sexual assault against LGBTQ migrants because of uncertainty surrounding the process by which assaults are reported and investigated. She said she has reason to believe that “very few are actually investigated” and does not have confidence in the quality of the investigations. She also said there are reasons to believe the 2017 data may underreport the number of sexual assaults.
“There are a lot of barriers to reporting while in detention,” Gruberg said.
Bourke, however, said ICE and facility staff receive specialized training to "appropriately respond to all allegations in a professional and timely manner."
“ICE works extensively to ensure that all detainees are aware of how to make an allegation of sexual abuse or assault, that allegations are treated seriously, that detainees are protected and provided all required services, and that thorough investigations are completed," Bourke explained. "The agency has implemented policies and procedures to establish an environment where staff and detainees are encouraged and feel comfortable reporting allegations and do not face any retaliation for bringing to light concerning behavior."
In Noelia’s case, he said he did not immediately report the attempted rape in the restroom, because he was afraid the authorities "would not believe me or not care or send me to 'the hole,'" he said, referring to solitary confinement.
However, Noelia did tell a psychologist about the incident, who then filed a report on Noelia's behalf. The result, according to his attorney, was a one-page document titled “Notification of Outcome of Allegation,” which stated that the assault was “unsubstantiated.” Marie Vincent, Noelia's attorney, said there was no evidence of an investigation.
In his statement to NBC News, Bourke cited Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations and said, "Any ICE employee or facility staff member who believes a detainee is at substantial risk of sexual abuse must take immediate action to protect the detainee.”
Noelia, however, claims he has not received any help or support from the guards in the detention facility.
“I feel like they don’t pay attention to me,” Noelia said. “They pretend like I’m not there.”
“I feel like the female guards don’t like it when I have my hair down like a woman or use my earring,” he added. “They look at me weird, they make fun of me.”
Noelia also said other detainees advised him not the report the assault. "I was afraid because of what other people in the facility told me," he explained, adding that he feared he "could be punished for telling what happened" or sent to "the hole."
In addition to information regarding reports of sexual assault, the Center for American Progress' report contains information about the duration and conditions of detention, including solitary confinement.
The United Nations urges against the use of solitary confinement, considering it a form of torture. ICE’s own guidelines discourage its widespread practice. Yet the information obtained by Rep. Rice’s office indicates that one out of eight transgender detainees were put in solitary confinement last year, and those migrants “who were detained in solitary for more than 14 days spent an average of 52 days in solitary confinement.”
In a separate instance when Noelia complained about the alleged verbal and sexual abuse, he said staff from a detention center put him in solitary confinement for 10 days.
The 2014 Prison Rape Elimination Act requires ICE to publish information about detainees and conditions in facilities. However, Gruberg said they have never actually published aggregate data of regarding the total number of LGBTQ people in detention and the conditions they experience, such as use of solitary confinement and instances of sexual assault.
“It is a really important insight into what is happening to LGBTQ people in detention that we did not have access to prior to this,” Gruberg said, adding that a lack of transparency could have "really horrific consequences" for LGBTQ detainees.
"It is hard to keep track of what is happening to people while they are inside detention," she said. “Taxpayer dollars are funding these practices ... [and it is] really important to hold DHS accountable.” ICE is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS.
The Center for American Progress' report was published just days after the death of a transgender woman, Roxana Hernandez, in ICE custody.
Noelia said one of the biggest issues is that LGBTQ migrants in detention facilities are "afraid to talk."
"We are afraid they are going to punish us if we talk ... I want to tell other people like me to not be afraid to speak up," he said.
But he said it's not just those in detention facilities that must speak up.
“I want to ask the other gay people who are not in detention to help us and support us and to speak with one voice — to speak about the injustices we suffer in detention so we can all be united,” Noelia added.