On Monday, September 21st, the Northwest Detention Center Resistance Coalition blockaded the roads of the private deportation center, effectively stopping the deportation buses that were scheduled to leave that day. While the demonstration protested the mistreatment undocumented immigrants face as a result of criminalization, unjust policies, and the prison-industrial complex, it also called attention to the ways in which the racism, sexism, and transphobia that undocumented transgender women face reinforce and amplify each other.
The protest was made up of a diverse array of advocates, from climate activists to the Raging Grannies, a group of elderly female social justice activists who have protested issues from Arctic oil drilling to youth detention. However, the group that brought transgender issues to the forefront was the Trans and/or Women’s Action Camp, who protested Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s policy of putting Trans inmates in solitary confinement. This is considered torture by the United Nations. Furthermore, #Not1More, an organization dedicated to ending deportation, explained in an article on the protest that “while transgender women only make up 1 out of 500 detained immigrants in this country, they make up an alarming 1 out of every 5 confirmed sexual assaults in immigration detention.”
Even if they manage to avoid detention, undocumented trans women still face multiple forms of discrimination, which combine to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Trans women are often wrongfully perceived as predatory, and barred from women’s spaces or even from the proper bathroom as a result. To add to this, Latinx people of all genders, which make up the majority of undocumented immigrants, are widely stereotyped as criminals and gangsters. In the words of Donald Trump, “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” For undocumented Latina Trans women, these closely related stereotypes magnify each other. As a result, violence against them is frequent and unpunished, as it is seen not as a crime but an act of vengeance.
While many undocumented immigrants travel to the U.S. to find work, finding a job is difficult for Trans women. As mentioned before, companies perceive them as criminals. They’re women, which makes them even less likely to be hired. And their existence also threatens the notion that masculinity is better, because they are wrongfully seen as having chosen to downgrade from being men to being women. Furthermore, many employers are unwilling to hire undocumented immigrants. As a result, transfeminine immigrants often turn to sex work as a way to support themselves. This is an industry fraught with danger, as sex workers risk being beaten or even killed and cannot turn to the police without being punished themselves. For undocumented immigrants, this is even harder, as any interaction with law enforcement involves the risk of detention and deportation.
Many transgender undocumented immigrants have fled to the United States to escape discrimination in their home countries, but still face significant struggles after coming here. They apply for asylum, but those who do often get “withholding of removal,” which means that they cannot travel outside the U.S., even to return home, and cannot apply for permanent residence. And if they miss the one-year filing deadline for asylum, they face deportation, which can mean solitary confinement, misgendering, and assault.
The oppression of undocumented Trans women results from the intersection of many forms of injustice and discrimination, and to combat it, we need to come at it from all sides. We need to demilitarize our criminal justice system to end the brutality against queer people and people of color. We need to push for a more open immigration policy that allows people to escape oppression and freely enter, work, and live in the United States. And we need to make sure that when they get here, they are able to enjoy the freedom our country claims to value so highly, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic that makes them who they are.
For undocumented transgender women, or for anyone who falls into multiple marginalized groups, it is important to analyze how different forms of discrimination multiply each other and make it harder to survive. By being present at the protest against the Northwest Deportation Center, the Trans and/ or Women’s Action Camp has helped support the rights of Trans women who are especially vulnerable due to their undocumented status.