Advocates Call For Release Of Detained Transgender Asylum Seeker

By Jude Joffe-Block
March 02, 2015

PHOENIX — The plight of a Guatemalan transgender woman seeking asylum in the United States is gaining attention. The federal government is holding her in an all-male immigration detention unit, where she says she was assaulted.

A series of rallies are planned in various cities this week to call for Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco’s release from immigration detention. The first is planned for Phoenix on Monday.

Hernandez-Polanco is 24 years old and takes female hormones.

According to her attorneys, Hernandez-Polanco was persecuted for her gender identity in Guatemala and Mexico. So last October, she turned herself in at the U.S.-Mexico border to ask for asylum.

Federal officials are holding her in detention in Florence, Ariz. until her April hearing. Though Hernandez-Polanco identifies as female, federal officials placed her in an all-male unit.

Hernandez-Polanco alleges she was sexually assaulted by a fellow detainee and harassed by guards there.

“The U.S. claims it condemns persecution of transgender people and LGBT people generally,” said Olga Tomchin of the Transgender Law Center. “But yet when people like Nicoll flee that exact same persecution, the US then reacts by throwing them into cages and subjecting them to horrible homophobic and transphobic violence. And we think that does not make sense.”

The federal government can hold certain immigrants facing deportation hearings in civil detention facilities if they are believed to be a flight risk or a risk to public safety. 

Advocates are calling on the Obama administration to stop detaining transgender asylum seekers because of their vulnerability to sexual assault.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is investigating Hernandez-Polanco’s allegations of assault in the Florence facility.

A statement released by the agency said: “ICE has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment very seriously.”

Phoenix attorney Heather Hamel is representing Hernandez-Polanco pro bono. Hamel wants ICE to allow her client to be released from detention to a Tucson organization that helps LGBT immigrants, Mariposas Sin Fronteras.

Hamel has also asked if Hernandez-Polanco can be released with an ankle bracelet, but says ICE has refused those requests so far.

Hamel said ICE considers her client a flight risk who should be detained until her asylum hearing because Hernandez-Polanco was previously deported after she tried coming to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor several years ago.

But Hamel said her client has every incentive to show up for her April asylum hearing and should not be held in detention.

“The Guatemalan police have shot and killed transgender women in the street in broad daylight and they do it with impunity,” Hamel said, referring to findings by the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission. 

“She is not going to risk getting deported back to that country. She is going to show up for her asylum proceeding.”