For Imprisoned Immigrants, a Happy Pride Month Is a Dream Deferred

Immigrant rights are too often pushed to the margins of concern in American LGBTQ+ communities. The past year of political hatred targeting transgender people and the past decade of institutional violence against immigrants have left me sickened at the toxic positivity contained in the phrase “Happy Pride!” There can be no happy Pride given the terrible hardships faced by people who happen to be both LGBTQ+ and undocumented immigrants.

Therefore, I felt a sacred sense of calling to attend the June 15 action “No Pride in Detention,” organized in Atlanta by Community Estrella, a nonprofit organization dedicated to community organizing and mutual aid on behalf of transgender immigrants. To make it clear who they were protesting, the rally was held in front of the local office of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico are extremely dangerous places for transgender women and other LGBTQ+ people to live. In such countries, murders of trans women are chillingly termed “social cleansing.”

Yet upon arriving in the United States, too many trans asylum-seekers are imprisoned simply for the “crime” of seeking a safe place to live. Despite promises from the Biden Administration to shut down privately-run ICE detention facilities, many immigrants continue to be held in the deplorable conditions of private prisons.

While the Administration has terminated the contract of the company running the most notorious of these private prisons, Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., nearly 40 U.S. immigration detention centers remain in operation. The goal of Community Estrella’s June 15 rally was to call upon the Biden Administration to make good on its promise.

For transgender immigrants with special medical needs, such as HIV-positive status, the privatized ICE detention facilities have proven deadly.

  • Victoria Arellano, who had lived in the U.S. since age 7, died in a California ICE facility in 2007 after being denied her HIV medication.
  • Roxana Hernandez of Honduras died in 2018 from pneumonia and dehydration after being held for several days in an “icebox” cell while waiting to have her case heard by an immigration judge.
  • Johana Medina Leon, an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, died in 2019 of untreated HIV complications while in a New Mexico ICE facility.

So the sign at the June 15 rally saying “ICE has blood on their hands” was not mere rhetoric. The poor medical care at ICE facilities (and outright medical abuse at the Irwin County Detention Center) is indeed tantamount to murder.

The June 15 rally brought attention to these issues in an artful and colorful manner. It was a form of street theater. Participants who had endured ICE detention at any point in their lives were wearing orange jumpsuits. Participants in black and khaki represented ICE facility guards, and participants in scrubs represented healthcare workers at ICE facilities.

After the organizers spoke, recounting hardships from both their native countries and in ICE detention, all the participants marched around the city block housing the ICE office. We chanted “No Pride in Detention!” and “End Trans Detention — Now!”

I joined the ascending chorus of chants and wails as the march continued. Toward the conclusion of the march, I added my screams to the collective din as if we could together topple the walls of Jericho.

Yet for participants like myself,  who are white and U.S.-born, this was only a beginning to the hard work in becoming a good ally to BIPOC, immigrant and incarcerated trans people.

Moreover, advocating on behalf of people in prison or detention is a commandment of scripture:

Remember those who are in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

We cannot have a truly “Happy Pride” until Black, Brown, immigrant and incarcerated members of the LGBTQ+ community are accepted and honored.