Queerness and U.S. Immigration Detention Centers

By Jesus Barrios

Over the past twenty years the United States’ response to the mass migration of individuals seeking to establish a new life within its borders has failed to allow them to meaningfully integrate into society. By prioritizing border militarization, implementing xenophobic laws targeting immigrants, and structuring a legal system that only those with the most privilege successfully navigate, immigrant health has become a neglected public policy issue. As hundreds of thousands of immigrants are funneled into a draconian immigration detention system, pertinent issues in immigrant health have become even more pressing.

In response to repeated human rights violations in immigration detention centers, the detention system has come under significant scrutiny from human rights organizations.(1) However, with limited oversight of detention centers – many of which are located in remote areas – detainees continue to endure conditions that compromise their physical and mental health.(1) Conditions of confinement for immigrants in detention pose a great public health concern. In particular, the plight of LGBT and HIV-affected immigrant detainees has yet to garner significant public attention.

Gaining access to immigration detention facilities to document human rights violations is one of the many obstacles researchers and activists face. Advocates have tried to document the narratives of immigrant detainees. In 2011, two activists infiltrated the Broward Transitional Center in Florida, and spent over 20 days in the facility before being forced out.(2)  However, they succeeded in documenting some of the abuses experienced by detainees: prolongued and excessive detention of non-criminal immigrants, poor medical access, sexual violence, lack of legal access, pressure to voluntarily deport, and mental health trauma.(2)

The conditions and treatment that all detainees live through are unjustifiable, but the intersection of homophobia, transphobia, HIV phobia, and a culture of “machismo” makes LGBT and HIV-affected detainees even more susceptible to a culture of violence. A high profile case involved Olga Arellano, an undocumented transgender woman living with HIV who was forced into immigration detention after being arrested for a minor traffic infraction in California.(3) In 2007, Ms. Arellano died in an immigration detention facility after being denied medical care for two months.(3) More recently, Marichuy Leal Gamino, an undocumented transgender woman who has spent the last two years detained in Arizona,(4) reported being held in a cell with male detainees where she was repeatedly bullied, threatened, and raped. After this terrifying experience, she was subjected to further punitive confinement measures and placed in solitary confinement.(4)

In 2013, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report(5) on the mistreatment of LGBT individuals in immigration detention. Complaints filed by immigration detainees include: sexual assault; verbal harassment and humiliation by guards and detainees; inadequate medical treatment; and use of solitary confinement based on a detainee’s gender identity and sexual orientation. While the average detainee is deported or released within 30 days, for those seeking asylum because they are fleeing persecution, the average detention is 102.4 days.(5) Survivors of persecution should not have to face terrifying detention conditions in immigration facilities. Notably, LGBT and HIV-affected people make up a significant percentage of the detainees seeking asylum, and extended detention makes this already vulnerable population more likely to experience significant abuse and violence over the course of prolonged immigration detention.(5)

The draconian immigration detention system in the U.S. must be abolished. National policies are needed to allow for the full integration of individuals migrating to the U.S. For individuals currently detained, accountability is needed to ensure that health violations and abuse are reported and that appropriate actions are taken to decrease incidents. Detainees fighting in immigration court desperately need a legal system that respects due process and that provides them with appropriate legal resources, including access to an attorney. Finally, detention facilities must be closely monitored until all abuses are eradicated.


Jesus Barrios, was born in Tijuana, Mexico, raised in Southern California, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He currently works as a program coordinator in the prevention department at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and he is also a MPH candidate at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College. His research includes investigating how the conditions and treatment of LGBT detainees in immigration detention centers shape their health outcomes.



1. Detention Watch Network. Expose - Close, Artesia Family Residential Center, NM. 2014; 1-13. 

2. Pavey S. Human Rights and Social Justice Briefing: U.S. Immigrant Detention as the Next Phase of the Expanding Prison Iindustrial Complex – a case study of broward transitional center. Society for Applied Anthropology. 2012; 1-5.  

3. Hernandez S. A Lethal Limbo for Migrants. Los Angeles Times. June 1, 2008.

4. Ochoa R. Op-ed: Why You Should Help Me Get LGBT People Out of Detention. The Advocate. October, 14, 2014. 

5. Gruberg S. Dignity Denied LGBT Immigrants in U.S. Immigration Detention Center. Center for American Progress. November 2013.