Rihanna Ferrera Sanchez stood near the intersection across from the Pete V Domenici federal courthouse in Albuquerque, after having flown in from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, a few days earlier. It was hot, and police were at the ready nearby—but Ferrera Sanchez, a transgender woman, hadn't broken a sweat.

She has endured far worse. Ferrera Sanchez says 17 transgender women have been killed this year in Honduras, where they face horrific violence from both street vigilantes and state security forces. Staying in the country is itself a risk, which is why trans women are migrating to the United States and elsewhere in huge numbers.

"In the United States, trans people can have some respect," Ferrera Sanchez says. "They can work, marry, they have options, they can have a life, [even though] there is discrimination."

But, she adds, those privileges don't preclude a desire to be treated humanely by immigration officials in the US. A record of neglect and sexual abuse of transgender migrants in New Mexico detention facilities and elsewhere has become a rallying point for activists like Ferrera Sanchez across the country and even the world.

Rihanna Ferrera Sanchez flew to Albuquerque from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to deliver a keynote speech at a convening of activists calling attention to trans immigrants in the US.
Rihanna Ferrera Sanchez flew to Albuquerque from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to deliver a keynote speech at a convening of activists calling attention to trans immigrants in the US. | Aaron Cantú

On Monday morning, activists took over the intersection at 4th street and Lomas in Albuquerque, hoisting up banners advocating an end to migrants' incarceration and the agency that's locking them up: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. People in an outer layer formed human barriers to stop traffic on all sides of the intersection. Protesters held the space for the next two hours, eventually dispersing without any arrests.

The action had been carefully coordinated over the previous weekend during a convening at the University of New Mexico, where people advocating for the liberation of transgender and queer people, particularly immigrants, met to exchange ideas and build alliances. They'd arrived from across the state and the country for the event.

The concerns of trans and queer migrants are often “a bullet point on the agenda and not the agenda itself,” says Anna Castro, a spokesperson for the California-based Transgender Law Center who attended the convening and action. Both events, Castro continued, were intended to send a message to the broader movement for migrants’ rights that it must “center and respect the organizing done by trans and queer migrants, particularly black trans and queer migrants, whose stories and work are often rendered invisible.”

In response to the protest, ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa told SFR via email, "US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference."

New Mexico is the site of the only segregated pod for transgender immigrant detainees in the country, at the privately operated Cibola County Correctional Center. In recent months, former detainees, residents and state legislators have closely scrutinized the ICE prison in Cibola, where former prisoners allege human rights abuses. SFR reported in July that a special phone line supplying translation services there was inoperable for two weeks this summer, limiting detainees' access to legal counsel and mental health support.

A former Cibola detainee who is a trans woman told SFR of intentional misgendering and medical neglect by prison staff, and of being placed in solitary confinement for a month. State legislators who sit on the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee heard similar testimony from former detainees last month at a hearing, though no representatives from ICE or CoreCivic, the prison company that operates the Cibola lockup, were present.

Ending the complex arrangement in which cash-strapped counties grow dependent on ICE detention of immigrants was a significant theme of the hearing in July. Cibola County, for example, acts as a pass-through entity for money ICE pays CoreCivic to operate the prison, at a rate of a little over $400,000 a month when it holds at least 150 detainees, according to a document obtained by journalist Sarah Macaraeg.

Participants at Monday's rally echoed demands to end trans incarceration. Allegra Love, director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, was among them.

From a local perspective, Love says, she and others are asking for "oversight of [the Cibola] facility, releasing all trans women from detention and not just moving them to somewhere in Texas, but saying trans people should not be detained."

Recently, lawyers working with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project secured the release of 14 trans women from Cibola following a federal court injunction barring ICE from issuing blanket denials for detainees' requests for release. However, Love says about 25 to 30 trans women are still imprisoned at Cibola, including half a dozen new arrivals in the last month.

The most prominent banner held aloft at the rally read #JusticeForRoxsana, a reference to a trans woman from Honduras named Roxsana Hernandez who died on May 25 from HIV-related complications after being held at the Cibola prison for a day. Hernandez had been in ICE custody for only four days before dying at the Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, according to ICE. The Transgender Law Center is currently investigating Hernandez' death on behalf of her family.

Soon after Hernandez died, 19 members of Congress sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urging the release of "LGBT individuals" from immigrant detention. No one from the New Mexico delegation was among the signatories.

The letter said that queer and trans people accounted for 12 percent of all sexual assaults reported in ICE detention for fiscal year 2017, even though they represented just 0.1 percent of the detainee population.

Ferrera Sanchez saw the goal of Monday's disruptive protest as not only raising awareness of the unique difficulties trans immigrants face, but as a vessel to building power across borders to abolish systemic violence facing trans people everywhere, from Tegucigalpa to Cibola.

"We're not animals," Ferrera Sanchez says. "We're human beings, and we need the guaranteed right to life, health and human rights that everyone has."