When Yimy Aldair Benitez Lopez was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last November, they had one major fear about being held in detention. The 25 year-old Honduran national was in the process of taking transgender hormone therapy to become a woman.
“I've seen on the news that in other detention centers how people in the trans community suffer just for being transgender and don't receive the proper treatment," Benitez Lopez said during a call from the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey.
Benitez Lopez—who prefers the pronoun they—said they didn't reveal their identity when they were detained and was housed with other males. They stopped taking their treatment in order to look more masculine. But two months later, facial hair is growing and their voice is deeper. And Benitez Lopez isn't feeling well.
“Physically and emotionally I feel a bit depressed, sad, I'm always crying because I feel like my life has been placed on pause while I've been detained.”
This week, Benitez Lopez’s lawyers filed a request for ICE to release their client on humanitarian grounds.
“We want Yimy to be safe,” explained attorney Rachel Levenson, of Make the Road New York. “And what that means is Yimy is out of detention and is home in their community and continuing their gender affirming hormone therapy without fear of retaliation or isolation.”
Rachael Yong Yow, spokeswoman for the NY office for ICE, said transgender detainees who were already receiving hormone therapy “shall have continued access” as well as “transgender-related health care.” She referred to a 2015 memo on ways to protect transgender detainees, which includes various housing options.
When asked about Benitez Lopez’s situation, a spokesman for Hudson County said, “The individual in question did not notify staff regarding any gender identity concerns be they medical or safety related. Alerted by your inquiry, the correctional center will fully address all needs, per the 2015 ICE Memorandum, including separate, supportive housing and access to all requested medical care.”
Benitez-Lopez said they’ve noticed extra security since their case was reported in GayCityNews and said they haven’t been threatened. But Levenson said her client still had valid reasons to fear remaining in detention.
“It is well-documented that transgender individuals and LGBTQ individuals in detention who do self identify have faced various forms of hardship, ranging from deprivation of medication in some cases, to discrimination, to assault in detention centers across the country,” she explained. Two transgender immigrants died while in ICE custody over the last two years, Johana Medina Leon in Texas and Roxsana Hernandez in New Mexico.
This week, New York Representative Jerry Nadler joined a group of 40 members of Congress in calling on ICE to release all transgender individuals currently in detention, citing the risk of abuse, medical neglect and sexual harassment.
Benitez Lopez crossed the southern U.S. border in 2012 at the age of 17. They claimed to have been sexually assaulted in Honduras and threatened for being gay. They were allowed to live with a relative in New Jersey while their asylum case moved its way through the immigration court system. But Levenson claims Benitez Lopez missed a court date because they didn’t receive proper notification. An immigration judge then ordered their deportation in 2013.
Unaware of this ruling, Levenson said Benitez Lopez later moved to Long Island and came out as gay. They performed in drag clubs in Queens under the name Itzel, and began taking hormone therapy. They expected to become a woman in time for Christmas of 2019.
But in October, Benitez Lopez was arrested following a dispute with a former boyfriend. Court records show the complainant declined to press charges. Benitez Lopez was released on their own recognizance and returned to court on November 7th for another hearing. But ICE agents were waiting outside and arrested the immigrant based on the outstanding deportation order.
Levenson is now seeking a new asylum hearing. A new immigration judge in New Jersey rejected her first attempt, and she’s currently pursuing an appeal with Make the Road New York. She said Benitez Lopez has even more reason to fear being sent back to Honduras than when she fled in 2012.
“There's been a recent uptick in anti-transgender and anti LGBTQ violence in Honduras,” Levenson said. “That gives them increased fear of returning. On top of their existing fear of returning to Honduras, as somebody who experience anti-gay violence there and who is now identifying as a transgender woman, or it is now in the process of transitioning to live as a woman.”
In the meantime, Levenson is trying to get her client out of detention. She said Benitez Lopez’s arrest outside a courthouse is one more reason why New York’s legislature should pass a law to prevent ICE from detaining people in and around courts. “We currently have a rule in place by the Office of Court Administration to prevent in-house court arrests by ICE without a judicial warrant,” she noted, but said that hasn’t stopped arrests outside.
This week, two state lawmakers re-introduced the Protect Our Courts Act. The legislation didn’t advance last year, but supporters say they’ll lobby even harder this year because immigrants continue to be arrested on their way in and out of courts. New York State has also sued the federal government over the practice. The government claims it has a right to make these arrests because immigration enforcement is under federal law.
Translation by Jose Olivares.