Jorge Rivas/Fusion

A transgender woman who says she was illegally strip searched by male immigration officials says she was made to feel like an “experiment.”

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“This jail is not prepared to treat us. We are an experiment. They are not prepared or qualified to manage a group of transgender women,” said the woman in a message sent to Fusion through her lawyer. She did not want to reveal her name publicly and is being identified with her pseudonym OA because she fears retaliation.

OA is one of 31 women—14 of them transgender—who have recently filed a civil complaint against immigration officials and a local jail in Southern California. The women are calling on the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security to investigate their complaints.

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The trans women claim they routinely face unconstitutional and unwarranted strip searches by male officers.

Many of the trans women are asylum seekers who have survived sexual assault and are in detention as they wait for a judge to rule on their asylum cases. All the women are being detained at the Santa Ana City Jail, which is under contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The complaint is alarming because the Santa Ana facility is where transgender women are transferred to keep them from being assaulted by fellow detainees. ICE officials have called it a model facility for the care of gay, bisexual and transgender detainees. But the complaint alleges there is a “policy, practice, or custom” to unlawfully strip search the women.

Gay, bisexual and transgender detainees have lunch inside the Santa Ana City Jail. These September 2014 series of photos are believed to be the first moving images captured inside the Santa Ana City Jail facility for GBT detainees.

A 2014 Fusion investigation found ICE officials detain an average of 75 transgender detainees each night. Even though transgender immigrants make up just one out of every 500 detainees, they account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in ICE detention.

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“Those of us who are part of the transgender community in detention are harmed by this. It is very similar to the harm that we experienced in our countries and the reasons we are seeking asylum,” said OA.

This September 2014 file photo was taken inside the Santa Ana City Jail facility for gay, bisexual and transgender detainees.
Jorge Rivas/Fusion

According to the 16-page complaint, the facility’s blanket strip search policy is a flagrant violation of federal and state law. It alleges the Santa Ana City Jail has been operating outside the limits of the Constitution and violating federal standards for strip searches.

ICE’s own national detention standards specify that strip searches, as opposed to patdowns, must be authorized by a supervisor and should only be conducted when there is reasonable suspicion a detainee is concealing contraband. They also stipulate that cross-gender searches shall not be conducted unless staff of the same gender is unavailable.

These September 2014 series of photos are believed to be the first moving images captured inside the Santa Ana City Jail facility for transgender detainees.
Jorge Rivas/Fusion

Some of the women claim they are strip searched each time they return from immigration court, even though they are continuously surrounded by officers. Others say they have been strip searched after meeting with their lawyers, who are screened before entering the jail.

OA said strip searches routinely last 7 to 8 minutes. The report describes the strip search in detail. An excerpt is below:

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Both the transgender and cisgender women are told to strip naked, and an officer performs a visual inspection of the breasts, armpits, buttocks, and genitalia of the woman. The women are told to lift up their breast, spread apart the sides of their labia and to pull back their clitoral hoods to prove that they are not hiding contraband in their vagina or vulva. They are told to bend at the waist, spread their buttocks, and cough three times. Women who did not bend to the officers’ satisfaction are told to cough again.

“The women we have interviewed explain that the strip searches are humiliating and degrading,” said Christina Fialho, a California-based attorney and executive director of CIVIC, the group that filed the complaint on behalf of the 31 women.

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“They are forced to expose their bodies to people who exercise power over them in nearly every way imaginable. Some women have developed PTSD, and at least one woman has been moved to attempt suicide,” said Fialho.

In some of the cases the visual strip searches turned into physical body cavity searches by non-medical officers, according to the complaint.

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On January 5, 2016 almost all the transgender women were forced to undergo strip searches “after a plate supposedly fell and broke,” the complaint notes. Male officers put the entire transgender module on lockdown for approximately three hours and performed a strip searches while they looked for a piece of the broken plate.

The report includes an excerpt from OA testimony:

OA explained that several male deputies performed a strip search on her at this time, although OA was never in possession of the plate fragment. They came very close to touching her body, and they looked with a flashlight in all orifices including her ears, mouth, and nose. They made her bend over and cough, as they looked with a flashlight into her buttocks. They made her lift her penis, while the officers pointed at her in a mocking manner. The officers then made OA physically lift her testicles and looked under them with a flashlight. OA explains she felt completely humiliated.

Santa Ana Police Department spokesman Anthony Bertagna would not discuss any of the allegations made in the complaint, citing city policy not to comment on open or pending litigation. The spokesman directed Fusion’s inquiry to ICE.

Officials at Santa Ana City Jail are accused of violating federal, state and contractual obligations.
Jorge Rivas/Fusion

Lori Haley, a spokeswoman with ICE, said the agency “is committed to treating all those in our custody in a safe and humane manner, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. The agency has a zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment very seriously.”

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Haley said the complaint will be referred to the appropriate entity for further investigation and that in “instances where misconduct by custodial personnel is substantiated, prompt and appropriate action will be taken.”

A letter of support attached to the complaint was signed by nine national civil rights groups including the Transgender Law Center, National Day Labor Organizing Network, Immigration Equality and American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“We urge the City of Santa Ana to adopt a sensible and humane strip search policy that conforms to federal ICE standards, to state and federal law, and to human decency,” read the statement by the civil rights groups.

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The complaint is published in its entirety below.