Karolina Lopez considers herself a woman.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents do not.
Lopez is transgender. She immigrated to the United States to escape discrimination in her home country of Mexico, only to encounter further abuse in Arizona. She spent three years in the all-male ICE detention center in Eloy, Arizona.
She remembers them as the worst years of her life. The guards played keep-away with her false breasts. Other detainees stole her food and she often went days without eating. She received threats of injury and rape.
“I would never wish for anyone to suffer as I did,” Lopez said.
Such cruel treatment is a reality for many transgender migrants in the U.S. Almost 40 percent of transgender women incarcerated in ICE facilities have reported suffering sexual abuse, according to a 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Lawmakers have begun to take notice of such claims. In September, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a Statutory Enforcement Report on the state of civil rights at ICE facilities. The report included a section on the treatment of transgender detainees—the first time such a report had acknowledged the severity of the issue and the need to educate officials.
Tucson-based Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Borderless Butterflies) can take some credit for this recent attention. The eight members of the activist group meet in the cluttered kitchen of Borderlinks, another migrant support organization.
Mariposas’ work does not focus on addressing policymakers in Washington but on raising bonds for transgender people incarcerated in Eloy and Florence. Members write detainees’ stories on social media sites, hold funding events and work with other organizations to spread awareness.
Since 2010, Mariposas has helped release more than 20 detainees from ICE. Their voices have spread through a network of human rights groups throughout the U.S.
“You have to go step by step,” said Lopez, one of the group’s founding members. “Only that way can you create bigger changes.”
Calling Out the White House
One Mariposas case that attracted national attention was that of Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a 24-year-old transgender woman who fled to the U.S. to escape persecution in Guatemala. Hernández-Polanco was detained at ICE’s Florence Service Processing All-Male Detention Facility in early 2015. She was forced to shower with male detainees, received death threats and was sexually assaulted.
Mariposas Sin Fronteras started an aggressive campaign to fund her release and managed to raise her $3,000 bond in six months. Hernández-Polanco’s soft brown eyes and shy smile appeared on the signs of protesters in New York, Los Angeles and Washington who called for her freedom. Hernández-Polanco’s quick release was one of Mariposas’ proudest achievements, Lopez said.
Hernández-Polanco’s case was cited by the national immigrant activist group GetEQUAL. In June 2015 Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented transgender woman and a member of GetEQUAL, interrupted President Barack Obama during a speech at a White House Pride Reception. She said there was “no pride in how LGBT immigrants are treated in this country.”
Although shamed by the president and escorted from the reception, Gutiérrez maintained that her interruption was necessary.
“The White House gets to make the decision whether it keeps us safe,” she said in a statement released by GetEQUAL.
Guitérrez’s bold approach drew national attention and seemed to produce a ripple effect.
On June 19, the Obama administration released a memorandum on the care of transgender detainees. The Statutory Enforcement Report followed two months later, implying that more legal changes were on the horizon.
As with Hernández-Polanco, Lopez is a transgender migrant who experienced sexual abuse while detained. But when Lopez was held by ICE, there was no organization such as Mariposas to share her story.
“They were the worst years I have ever suffered,” said Lopez, seated on a sagging couch in the Borderlinks office. She wore all black, with a bright blue butterfly printed across her T-shirt.
Lopez was detained for three years in the all-male Eloy Detention Center. She spent six months of those years in solitary confinement.
“They never told me, ‘We’re putting you here for your security,’” Lopez said. “At the time I was thinking, ‘If you don’t want me here, free me.’”
Many transgender women are isolated for their own protection, Lopez said. For her, the six months of solitary confinement were a mental torture far worse than physical bullying.
“No one ever visited me while I was in detention,” she said. “I never got a card or anything. . . . I didn’t have any family. I got sick from depression.”
The Florence Project, a nonprofit organization that provides legal aid for detained immigrants, eventually negotiated for Lopez’s release. But outside the detention center, she found herself lonely and depressed.
Founding Mariposas gave her a network of support and a sense of purpose. “My life changed completely with the group,” Lopez said, her kohl-lined eyes bright. “I knew that I had to keep fighting from the outside and help others who had suffered like me.”
Training law enforcement officials to recognize the vulnerabilities of transgender detainees will help curtail abuse like Lopez suffered. Ignorance about health, employment and discrimination issues is something that many transgender advocates are attempting to eliminate.
“A dynamic I see a lot of with people who work with transgender individuals is ‘We don’t know what to do with this person,’” said Jennifer Hoefle-Olson, the program director of LGBTQ Affairs at the University of Arizona. “Bringing up general cultural awareness and competency is absolutely something that needs to happen to prevent discrimination.”
Education about the plight of transgender detainees is also a key mission of Mariposas Sin Fronteras. The group partners with other organizations in Arizona to raise awareness. One of the organizations is Borderlinks, which sends migrant activist delegations to the Mexican border.
“Letting our delegations have a talk with Karolina about the reasons she had to leave her home community and the issues she’s encountered here in the U.S. definitely exposes people to issues that are there,” said Indira Alez, the director of education at Borderlinks.
“Just because they may not affect us directly doesn’t mean they’re not there,” Alez said.
Besides her role as a spokesperson for Mariposas, Lopez said that one of her main duties is visiting detainees in Eloy and Florence.
“What I wanted more than anything was to receive a visit, a card of support,” Lopez said of her time in Eloy.
“I remember what it was like being alone. I tell [detainees] you’re going to get away from all of this. I know you’re suffering for being yourself, but with Mariposas you’ll have a family that will help you with what you need.”
When asked about the name of the organization, Lopez gestured to the soaring butterfly on her T-shirt.
“It’s because butterflies are migrants,” she said.
“And because they are free.”