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“The only thing getting me through this is my will to survive. My head is just above water. I’m trying to get through the best that I can, but it is agonizing. Any way you cut it — mentally, physically, emotionally — this is painful,” Sza Sza quickly says into the phone, trying to tell as much of her story as she can before the detention center cuts the call after the allotted 30 minutes.
Sza Sza, who is not using her full name for safety reasons, is a transgender asylum-seeker from Jamaica in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Several weeks ago, ICE transferred her from the “LGBTQ pod” at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico to Texas’ El Paso Processing Center, where she is being detained in the men’s section of the facility.
Sza Sza says she doesn’t know why she and several other trans women were transferred out of Cibola and sent to El Paso, where they spend their days “locked up in cages.” Technically considered isolation, Sza Sza and the other trans women in El Paso spend 22 hours of their day confined to their cages, with just two hours granted for physical activity.
They are trailed by a guard wherever they go for their “safety,” including when they eat. For Sza Sza, all of this has meant that she can’t even partake in the activities that keep her sane while detained, like going to the library and reading law books that help her develop a better understanding of the perpetual loop of “crimmigration” she has been stuck in for almost a decade. The term was coined by legal scholar Juliet Stumpf in 2006 to describe the intersection of criminal law and immigration law. These two systems are now so intertwined they’re impossible to untangle.
Sza Sza has spent seven years of her life in the United States behind bars — incarcerated in the criminal justice system and detained in federal immigration custody. She is perhaps the longest-ever detained trans woman.
Sza Sza is caught in crimmigration’s web, and as a Jamaican LGBTQ asylum-seeker navigating transphobia and anti-Black racism in the detention system, she knows federal immigration authorities will never prioritize her safety and well-being.
“The immigration system is unjust, and it is designed to be unjust,” Sza Sza says. “ICE commits atrocities against us. It’s what they do.”
The details of Sza Sza’s immigration case are complicated and murky. Both she and her attorney agree that given the tenuous nature of Sza Sza’s case, it’s best not to publicly share too many details. But Sza Sza also has a gut reaction to immigrants’ stories being told through the lens of U.S. immigration laws.
“This is about my story; not my case,” Sza Sza says. “I am a person and my story matters.”
Sza Sza first came to the United States on a visa in 1997 to escape persecution because of her gender identity. Coming to the United States was like “a dream come true,” she says, and allowed her to help support her mother and seven siblings back in Jamaica.
“The moments that keep me going while I’m locked up, the moments that I truly treasure, are the times when I first came here and I was able to build a life for myself and make something of myself,” Sza Sza explains. “My mom did domestic labor, and when I came here, I was able to pursue opportunities my mom could have never dreamed of. Being able to provide for my mom meant everything to me, but then my life was disrupted and destroyed.”
Sza Sza has spent a total of seven years of her life in the United States behind bars — incarcerated in the criminal justice system and detained in federal immigration custody. She is perhaps the longest-ever detained trans woman. Sza Sza overstayed her visa and was funneled into the criminal justice system because of a marijuana charge. She was in legal limbo for years and detained while fighting her case, but she was eventually deported. When she fled to the United States again in 2018 and requested asylum, she was swiftly detained and has remained in federal immigration custody ever since.
Sza Sza’s attorney, Tania Linares Garcia, says that Sza Sza’a asylum claim was denied and that her case is currently sitting with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). These case reviews take time, which means that at the very least, Sza Sza faces several more months in detention.
“This time around she returned [to the United States] because of threats of violence that she was facing in Jamaica, but then was prosecuted essentially because of the way she entered [without authorization] — and we are seeing that more and more,” Linares Garcia explains. “Bonafide asylum-seekers are being prosecuted for unlawful entry or unlawful re-entry and because the government has switched to effectively deciding that everyone should be detained, you see trans asylum-seekers facing prolonged detention.”
The Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project (BLMP) learned of Sza Sza’s case a few months ago and organizers with the grassroots organization, which centers on Black trans, queer, and gender nonconforming migrants, are working to develop a deportation defense campaign on her behalf. Step one, according to Oluchi Omeoga, one of BLMP’s co-founders, is uplifting Sza Sza’s story so that the public is aware of what she’s facing in detention. Step two, coming shortly, is circulating an online petition calling for Sza Sza’s release.
Sza Sza has a lot to lose in telling her story. Detained immigrants regularly allege that ICE retaliates against them when they speak out. Usually, they are denied privileges or placed in solitary confinement.
“In her time there, she’s been harassed because of her gender identity; they’ve made her strip in front of men; she doesn’t have privacy in the bathroom; and every time she’s escorted, it’s by a male guard,” Omeoga says. “They can’t keep trans women safe there, so they put them in ‘protective custody’ and it’s actually a form of punishment because it restricts them so severely. Sza Sza has no freedom of movement. It’s been terrible, and she shouldn’t be detained at all.”
Sza Sza is imploring the public to hear her story, and asking larger organizations to partner with BLMP to advocate on her behalf. As an asylum-seeker who has an appeal pending with BIA, Sza Sza has a lot to lose in telling her story. Detained immigrants regularly allege that ICE retaliates against them when they speak out, especially if they go public with allegations of abuse. Usually, they are denied privileges or placed in solitary confinement.
“I’m speaking out because what is happening to people like me in here needs to be in the public domain,” Sza Sza says. “This might put me at risk, but ICE behaves like a criminal enterprise and everything it does is in secret. I cannot allow it. I believe in human rights and civil rights and I will put my life on the line to protect those rights. I just want to live normally like everyone else. I deserve to be treated fairly.”
Anti-Black racism further complicates Sza Sza’s experience in the detention system. Part of the reason Sza Sza’s story has received so little attention, even after years of detainment, is because many immigrants rights organizations treat immigration as a Latinx issue, leaving Black immigrants with little to no resources while detained. Sza Sza says she’s treated differently by everyone she encounters in the immigration system, including ICE officers, advocacy organizations, immigration judges, and other detained people.
“I can’t lie. I have felt neglected and denied,” Sza Sza says. “It’s been frustrating and painful.”
On September 6, Sza Sza called me upset, saying something “terrible” was unfolding at the El Paso Processing Center. A trans woman was brought to the protective custody area the day before, but after 15 minutes she was transferred out. Sza Sza asked a guard where the woman was sent, but her question went unanswered. Later in the day, as Sza Sza was eating, she saw the trans women in the general population with no protection — meaning she was surrounded by men. Sza Sza said this was tantamount to “putting a mouse in a snake tank.”
When Sza Sza was first transferred to the El Paso Processing Center, other trans women in protective custody told her their horror stories of being raped in the showers. There is a history of trans women being brutalized at the facility, and Sza Sza herself says she experienced a “close call” when she first arrived.
“When I saw her in general population, it made me so mad. It sent me the message that ICE thinks that because we are transgender, we should be subject to assault,” Sza Sza explains. “I kept asking a guard about what was happening and he said that if anything happened to her, they would place her in protective custody. But why would you wait for something to happen to her? Why are they subjecting trans girls to rape?”
It is these types of scenarios that originally led ICE to create what the agency calls its LGBTQ pods, like the one at Cibola that Sza Sza was inexplicably transferred from. The pods were created in response to a 2011 legal complaint filed by advocates against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on behalf of more than a dozen LGBTQ migrants who were sexually assaulted and physically abused by guards and other detained people. LGBTQ migrants experience unprecedented levels of sexual violence in detention and are 97 times more likely to report being sexually abused in detention than non-LGBTQ people.
According to ICE, Cibola is the agency’s lone “official” LGBTQ pod, but advocates with grassroots organizations report that trans women are being shuffled among a handful of facilities nationwide, none of which have designated areas for LGBTQ immigrants. These facilities include the El Paso Processing Center, New Mexico’s Otero County Processing Center, California’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, and the South Texas Detention Complex. Immigration attorney Allegra Love says that her organization, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, is getting a steady stream of reports about trans women funneled into the Winn Correctional Center, a state prison for men in Winnfield, Louisiana.
While grassroots organizers and attorneys have an understanding of where LGBTQ migrants are detained, the details surrounding their detainment are harder to come by. In 2018, the Center for American Progress reported that ICE refuses to provide information about whether the agency detains trans women with other women, with men, or in isolation.
But even within Cibola’s LGBTQ pod, detention is still unsafe for vulnerable immigrant communities. In June, 29 trans women and gender nonconforming migrants detained in Cibola came forward with allegations of abuse. Increasingly, advocates are making the case that LGBTQ migrants shouldn’t be detained at all because federal immigration agencies are incapable of protecting the community from harm. Grassroots organizations led by queer and trans people of color are also creating alternatives to detention.
Sza Sza says her experience at Cibola was “gentle,” and if the options for trans asylum-seekers are Cibola’s LGBTQ pod or detention centers where she is in isolation and detained alongside men, she would pick Cibola any day.
“No one is saying Cibola was ideal, but it was better for me there. I am not safe here. In the toilets, in the showers, men are inches away. They pull their pants down, they follow me. I constantly hear comments and whistles,” Sza Sza says. “I just want to get out of here and fight for other people like me. I want to advocate and be part of the solution and fight for justice for everyone. But I have to get out of here first.”