LGBT Immigrant Detainees at Heightened Risk

LGBT and non-LGBT came out for Black Lives Matter and LGBT support. Like prisons and jails, immigration detention centers are potential hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. File photo. Editorial credit: Aaron of L.A. Photography /

NEW YORK — Immigrants held in crowded Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers are extremely vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases including COVID-19, and the risks can be especially high for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

The Free Them All Campaign is a joint effort by immigrants’ rights groups across the country. It has called for the release of everyone in immigration detention to reduce the risk of the deadly virus spreading among the detainees.

Ian Zdanowicz, co-director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, said discrimination and harassment faced by those in the LGBTQIA community magnify those risks.

“They go through sexual violence on a daily basis,” Zdanowicz said. “Trans women are housed in solitary confinement for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years.”

Q-DEP works to find pro-bono lawyers for LGBTQIA detainees and finds them sponsors to help expedite their release on parole or bond.

Zdanowicz noted that detainees living with HIV are in the high-risk category for infection and death from COVID, and detention centers have a poor track record for providing medical care.

“We hear too many stories about them not having access to their medication, sometimes for months,” he said. “And very often people are not provided HIV tests inside of detention.”

The Free Them All campaign is working with lawyers to secure the release of detainees living with HIV as soon as possible.

Those efforts have been getting results. Zdanowicz said before the COVID pandemic, they had 160 members in immigration detention. That number has been reduced to 60. And, he added, they continue to get assistance once they’re released.

“We provide post-relief support to folks who are eligible for free housing in New York City,” he said. “We also connect people with medical care; we have mental-health and healing-support programs.”

He said releasing immigrants from detention also frees up taxpayer dollars for the fight against a public health crisis that continues to grow in many parts of the country.

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