The federal government has designated the Santa Ana City Jail in California as the ideal site nationally to imprison transgender immigrant women.  But if this is the best we can do, we’re in trouble. 

Women in civil immigration detention are routinely strip searched at the Santa Ana City Jail.  Asylum seekers are forced to undergo invasive searches that often revive traumatic moments of rape and abuse.  Some are strip searched by officers of the opposite gender, violating federal law.

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Consider Olivia, a transgender woman from Mexico who did not want her real name used for fear of reprisals.  In early January, male officers locked down and strip-searched Olivia’s entire 64-person cellblock, telling the women that they were looking for a piece of a broken plastic plate.  As they made the naked women bend over to expose their anuses, some of the male officers taunted them and called them offensive names.    

Olivia was further humiliated when a male guard made her physically lift her testicles so he could peer beneath them (ostensibly looking for the broken plate), while other male guards watched and mocked her.  For someone already experiencing gender dysphoria, this type of public genital exposure and harassment can be incredibly horrifying and damaging, increasing dysphoric feelings.  For someone who has already been sexually victimized, as a disproportionate number of trans women are, it can trigger serious trauma symptoms.  And in violation of both the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) standards, the women were not given the option to have a female officer perform the strip searches nor was there a female officer present.

Law enforcement violence occurs not only on the streets but also in our prisons and immigration detention facilities, where this state-sanctioned violence against women of color and trans people of color is largely invisible.

Women civilly detained at the Santa Ana City Jail are strip searched after each in-person visit with an attorney, after each court hearing, and upon booking.  Additionally, no special provisions are made for the elderly or women with chronic physical pain.  No special provisions are made for women who are on their menstrual periods.  Sometimes they bleed directly onto the floor and are forced to dress again in soiled clothing without the opportunity to use a restroom.  This is unnecessary, unsanitary, and appalling. 

These strip searches violate ICE standards, which require specific and articulable suspicion to perform a strip search after an attorney visit, and California law, which prohibits strip searches without reasonable suspicion that the person is concealing weapons or contraband.  They also may violate the Fourth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

This is why Olivia joined 13 transgender and 17 cisgender (non-transgender) women as party to a civil rights complaint filed last week against the City of Santa Ana and ICE.

Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), who wrote the complaint, the ACLU of Southern California, and a coalition of other organizations are calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to investigate these illegal practices and force Santa Ana City Jail to follow the law.

These illegal strip searches, which do nothing to improve safety and much to encourage abuse, are particularly concerning for transgender women.  In 2013, the Government Accountability Office found that transgender women accounted for one in five (20 percent) substantiated cases of sexual assault in ICE facilities, despite comprising roughly 1 in 500 (.002 percent) of the civilly detained population.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014 reported that over 22 percent of transgender inmates were sexually abused by jail staff alone.  This is why PREA generally prohibits cross-gender pat downs and strip searches.

Trans women are among the most vulnerable in our communities.  Many have no family or friends close by precisely because they have been shipped to Santa Ana from all across the country.  And trans women, facing discrimination from all facets of our society, often have few resources to try to protect themselves from abuse.  Trans women should not be treated this way anywhere, but certainly not in a facility designated as the best site to detain transgender women in the entire country.

When we talk about law enforcement violence, let’s remember transgender immigrant women behind bars.  We can end law enforcement violence against women of color, trans people of color, and our communities.  Along with 35 Congressional representatives, we call on ICE to stop unnecessarily detaining vulnerable LGBTQ people.  Until that day, we call on DHS to investigate the abuse of people in immigration detention at the Santa Ana City Jail.

If you are interested in helping, you can begin by signing this great petition.

Fialho, is an attorney and co-founder and executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).  Hill is LGBTQ Rights fellow and staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.