by Ben Steele, Legislative Coordinator, Amnesty International USA
Alejandra is a transgender woman from El Salvador. She is a strong woman and a wonderful aunt. In her home country of El Salvador, Alejandra experienced sexual assault and violence, not only at the hands of a transnational criminal gang, but also at the hands of the military, from whom law enforcement authorities have failed to protect people.
Alejandra made a difficult journey out of violence to seek safety here, which required a dangerous trek through Honduras and Mexico — where high levels of crime and human rights violations are reported against migrants including attacks perpetrated by organized criminal gangs — in hope of a life with dignity in the U.S. Instead of safety, however, Alejandra experienced mistreatment once again, this time at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who is holding her in the privately operated Cibola County Correctional Facility, as the Department of Justice moves forward in returning her to the very violence she fled from.
Alejandra’s treatment is in violation of the United States’ obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a piece of international law that the U.S. government helped write and now must fulfill its obligation to uphold.
In June, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intention to remove domestic and gang violence as reliable reasons to seek safety in the U.S., despite the fact that governments of nations like El Salvador are often either unable or unwilling to protect people from the violence, and may even be the perpetrators themselves.
By seeking rapid deportation of asylum seekers to countries where the authorities cannot or will not protect them, the attorney general would be in violation of the principle of non-refoulement — the prohibition on returning persons who face persecution and imminent human rights violations to nations where their safety is at risk.
Amnesty International recognizes the fundamental value of non-refoulement as a minimum universal norm to protect human rights globally and calls on the U.S. government to continue providing asylum protections as mandated under international law.
As asylum becomes more difficult to obtain, Alejandra is at a much more immediate danger: mistreatment at the hands of immigration authorities. Her identity, medical needs, and past trauma all represent barriers to her safety within immigration detention, necessitating her release as she awaits the results of her asylum case.
Indefinite detention is an inhumane policy. Detention is also a danger to Alejandra and other transgender asylum seekers, as demonstrated by the recent death of Roxana Hernandez, a transgender asylum seeker, while in immigration custody.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Field Office in El Paso, Texas should release Alejandra to the community, where she can join her niece — whose asylum claim has already been accepted — and wait for her asylum claim to be processed in freedom. Calls to ICE for Alejandra’s release can be bolstered with direct intervention or public statements by Representative Beto O’Rourke, and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. Simultaneously, the Department of Justice must reverse course on a misguided decision from the Attorney General, and ensure an open and fair asylum process for individuals seeking asylum in the U.S.
Until she receives adequate protection, including medical treatment and freedom while her claim is processed, ICE is failing to do its job and undermining justice. After 10 years advocating for transgender human rights in El Salvador, Alejandra deserves to celebrate queer liberation in community and safety in the United States, not in an unjust detention center.