Karime, a transgender woman who is being held in immigration detention, is forced to share a packed dorm room with 45 men who sleep in cots less than three feet apart.
The guards don’t wear masks or gloves, and if someone gets sick, they have to make a request to see a member of the medical staff, which can take up to four days for a response.
Adding insult to unhealthy practices, Karime must share two showers and two bathrooms with the men; some of them make unwanted sexual advances toward her and threaten to beat her up.
Karime has little faith that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – the agency keeping her imprisoned – will protect her from the men’s threats or the coronavirus, which recently killed two immigrant prison guards in the same state where she is detained.
“ICE lies or hides the truth,” Karime, 20, said in a recent interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “I don’t trust the people taking care of us. There are men in here with fevers. The older people are transferred to a separate dorm, but we must comingle with them in any of the common areas. No one here cares what happens to us.”
Karime – who has been locked up at Winn Correctional Center in Winn Parish, Louisiana, since Sept. 11, 2019, is a class member in Heredia Mons v. McAleenan, a federal class action lawsuit that the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana filed in May 2019 on behalf of 12 people and others in the same situation.
The New Orleans ICE Field Office confined these people to remote prisons and categorically denied their release, despite a 2009 policy directing ICE to release asylum-seekers who lawfully present themselves at official ports of entry, establish their identity and show that they are not a danger or flight risk.
In March, the SPLC and the ACLU filed an emergency motion for a COVID-19 preliminary injunction that would restore access to parole for asylum-seekers who had been detained indefinitely across the Deep South.
But Karime has yet to be released, even though ICE ensured her release on parole – then denied it without cause.
“We won an injunction in September, yet the New Orleans ICE Field Office continues to defy it, even in the face of an unprecedented, lethal virus infiltrating its centers,” said Mich Gonzalez, an attorney for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “That’s why we recently filed a motion for contempt seeking to hold ICE accountable and bring them into compliance with the judge’s order, in the hopes that people like Karime will finally be freed.”
Karime fears for her life because of the COVID-19 pandemic and because the guards do not enforce the social distancing guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In fact, she and the men detained with her weren’t even told how to protect themselves from the pandemic until April 14 – nearly four months after the coronavirus first hit the U.S.
The immigrant prison has since turned into a madhouse, she said.
“It’s chaos,” she said. “There hasn’t been a confirmed case here, but they’ve brought three men who are supposedly infected to this center. Of course, we’re all afraid. We’re trapped.”
‘Living in fear’
Life in detention has been nothing short of grueling for Karime, especially because she is a transgender woman confined with men. Not only is she subjected to extreme transphobia from the guards, she has also been harassed by the men detained with her.
“For whatever reason, I’m sent to segregation as punishment,” she said. “In there, I can’t relax at all, I only have room to sit. My detention has been difficult, too difficult.”
Whenever Karime stands near a man, the guards immediately assume she’s hitting on him before sending her to solitary confinement.
What’s more, when Karime – who suffers from anemia and asthma – became ill, a guard spewed transphobic slurs at her for over five minutes, told her she had to wait to see the doctor, and threatened to again throw her into solitary confinement.
“It makes me very sad,” Karime said. “And I’m very scared, obviously. Being detained is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
Before her detention, Karime was undergoing hormone therapy. But ever since she entered Winn Correctional, she has been denied the therapy she needs.
“I’m tired of begging people to let me take my hormones,” she said. “I’ve made so many requests, but ICE doesn’t care. I can’t dress how I want, and the officials treat me like a man, refusing to give me consideration as a woman.”
In February, Karime was too scared to leave her dorm room after two men made unwanted sexual advances and verbally harassed her for the way she walks and because she is transgender. After Karime reported the incident to the guards, only one of the men was transferred to a different dorm. The next day, the man who remained threatened to beat her up.
“ICE did nothing about it,” she said. “After that, I wouldn’t go to the yard anymore; I just stayed inside. Nobody did anything to help or protect me. I’m living in fear.”
When Karime left the state of Michoacán, Mexico, she was fleeing physical abuse at the hands of her father, who would often punch or hit her because he didn’t accept her gender identity. Karime’s other family members – including two cousins who are gang members – also physically abused her.
In June 2019, Karime fled to Tijuana, Mexico, where she waited for two months to present herself at a port of entry as part of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which the SPLC is challenging in federal court. Karime put her name on a waitlist of people seeking asylum. After two months, her number was finally called.
After she presented herself at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego, California, Karime was whisked away to an hielera – also known as the “icebox” that U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses as a holding facility. She spent 24 days in the hielera, sleeping on the floor.
Now detained at Winn Correctional, Karime said that she and the men detained with her are responsible for cleaning the immigrant prison, even amid a global pandemic.
“We clean everything,” she said. “We’re not required to, but no one wants to live in such filth.”
Maintaining the CDC-recommended social distance is also impossible, she said.
“We’re together when we see a doctor; we’re together at court,” Karime said. “We wait next to each other to see the medical staff; we wait next to each other in line for food. We live in very close quarters, all jammed together.”
Karime’s next immigration hearing is set for July 24. It will be her final hearing before a judge to defend her right to stay in the U.S.
Trapped at Winn Correctional and surrounded by men during the COVID-19 pandemic has been worse than the violence she fled in Mexico, Karime said.
“I came looking for a safe country, but nothing has happened,” she said. “I’m depressed and suffer anxiety and insomnia. I almost would’ve preferred being in Mexico, even though I would be harmed more there. I’ve never hurt a rat or done anything to deserve this kind of treatment. From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, it’s psychological torture.”
Photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images