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Gay, trans activists come to Philly from across the U.S., will strategize over treatment by immigration enforcement agencies

People are coming from as far as Seattle to meet and strategize, gathering at a moment when the treatment of LGBT people has emerged as an animating issue in the national debate over immigration.

Miguel Andrade speaks on behalf of the Latino activist group Juntos during an "End ICE Contracts!" rally in Center City on May 1.
Miguel Andrade speaks on behalf of the Latino activist group Juntos during an "End ICE Contracts!" rally in Center City on May 1.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Jorge Gutierrez calls himself an UndocuQueer activist.

That is, an immigrant who entered the United States without permission, and who fights for people whose gender and sexuality fall within a broad spectrum.

“Both are identities that have shaped my world view,” Gutierrez said, “and influenced my activism and organizing.”

On Friday, the founder and executive director of Los-Angeles-based Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement will help welcome about 200 transgender, bisexual, and gay Latinos to Philadelphia for the group’s first national conference.

Participants are coming from as far as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas to meet and strategize, gathering at a moment when the treatment of LGBT people has emerged as an animating issue in the national debate over immigration.

They’re arriving in a city that’s home to one of the most aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in the nation, and where a for-profit agency is fighting in court to house 60 undocumented Latino children in North Philadelphia.

“When you hear people talk about the immigrant rights movement, you’re generally hearing about the situation at the border, or children being separated,” said Miguel Andrade, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Latino activist group Juntos. “But there are other populations that are being victimized, and it’s important to talk about all of them.”

The three-day conference will be held at two sites — the William Way LGBT Community Center in Center City on Friday and Sunday, and Taller Puertorriqueño in the Fairhill section on Saturday.

Familia was founded five years ago to bring attention to the struggles of transgender and queer people, to help those held at government immigrant-detention centers, and to try to stop the construction of more of those facilities.

“These places are not good for anybody,” Gutierrez said, “particularly gay and trans people. … We need more boots on the ground to push back.”

ICE says it’s committed to providing safe and humane treatment to all in its custody. But Familia and other advocates say transgender and gay immigrants are commonly mistreated in detention:

— LGBT people made up 0.1 percent of all those detained by ICE in 2017, but accounted for 12 percent of sexual-assault victims in those centers, according to a congressional letter to the Department of Homeland Security.

— A Honduran transgender woman’s health deteriorated during almost three months in solitary confinement before she was released — and then promptly detained again by ICE agents in Texas this year, according to her asylum attorney and other advocates.

— Gay and transgender detainees in New Mexico have been targets of “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse,” the ACLU and other groups charged this year.

Many LGBT migrants fled to the United States after being attacked in their homelands because of their sexuality. And they say they could be hurt or killed if sent back.

That fear plays a key role in a high-profile Philadelphia case, where a gay Mexican immigrant, Jose “Ivan” Noe Nuñez Martinez, was taken into custody last year as he met with federal authorities to try to resolve his status.

The native of Michoacán fled to the U.S. after the murder of a gay friend in 2001, and said he, too, could be killed if he returned.

He is now married to an American citizen, Paul Frame. The couple arrived at what they expected to be a routine interview with officials of Citizenship and Immigration Services in West Philadelphia. Instead, ICE officers entered the room, put Nuñez Martinez in handcuffs, and took him away.

ICE officials have said Nuñez Martinez was unlawfully present in this country and had previously been removed. After nine months in detention, he was freed in October after winning the opportunity to post bail.

Many in the movement have been galvanized by the case of Roxana Hernandez, a 33-year Honduran transgender woman who died in the custody of immigration officials while awaiting deportation last year.

Hernandez sought asylum at the San Ysidro, Calif., port of entry, and died 16 days later at a hospital from dehydration and complications of HIV infection.

Immigrant activists blamed her death on medical negligence by ICE, and said an autopsy showed injuries consistent with physical abuse. ICE said the agency provides medical care to detainees from the moment they arrive, and denied that the woman had been harmed while in custody.

The agency said Hernandez had two criminal convictions in Dallas, for theft in 2006, and for lewd, immoral and indecent conduct and prostitution in 2009. She previously entered the country illegally in 2005, 2009, and 2014, ICE officials said.

Gutierrez, born in Nayarit, Mexico, and raised in Santa Ana, Calif., was initially undocumented but now has legal status under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants who were brought here as children to live and work legally in the U.S.

“We are queer, we are trans, many of us might be undocumented, but we’re organizing,” Gutierrez said. “Those most impacted can and should be on the front lines.”