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Activists celebrate release of trans woman detained by ICE for 20 months, but urge U.S. officials to keep her safe

2019-09-10

From #FreeAlejandra to #AlejandraIsFree.

Human rights activists and the transgender immigrant community are celebrating a rare victory after 44-year-old Alejandra Barrera was released from an ICE facility in New Mexico, after nearly two years in detention.

“We are thrilled,” rejoiced Denise Bell, Amnesty International’s researcher for refugee and migrant rights. “I have tears [of joy] right now. It’s just extraordinary,” she told the Daily News.

Barrera was released late Friday after an intense campaign spearheaded by the organizations Amnesty International, the [email protected] Coalition and the National Immigrant Justice Center; by dozens of lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Adam Schiff (Calif.), and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.); and as a result of over 30,000 signatures, which included actress Laverne Cox and YouTuber Chella Man, in a #FreeAlejandra petition.

She was released on parole, and can now enjoy her freedom, at least temporarily, while her asylum case goes to immigration court. The coalition of human rights and transgender rights activists working on her behalf is now calling for a “full and fair hearing.”

“We don’t think that she should be returned to El Salvador, where we are gravely concerned for her well-being,” said Bell.

The transgender activist from El Salvador, who’d fled her country to escape discrimination and violence, was the longest detained trans woman in the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico ? Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s only detention center with a unit specifically for transgender women, according to the Phoenix New Times. Complaints of abuse and mistreatment of inmates have been covered extensively by local media.

Barrera fought for transgender rights in her native country for over a decade, but after she was repeatedly attacked by a criminal gang and abused by the Salvadoran military, she fled to the U.S. where she requested asylum in November, 2017.

Her hope for a safer life, however, turned into a nightmare when she was detained by ICE in December, 2017.

“ICE was fitting into a pattern where they would automatically denied parole as part of a policy that had come out earlier in the Trump administration," Bell explained. U.S. authorities denied her parole five times.

News of her release came as a shock to Amnesty International.

Even after a massive campaign of mobilization, the organization wasn’t expecting the good news just yet. “Based on ICE’s behavior [and] treatment of Alejandra,” Bell told The News, “we were choosing not to be optimistic.”

The case proved to activists “that together, advocates, everyday people working with their elected officials can put pressure to help make people’s lives better and stop these abuses ,” said Bell. "Alejandra really, really touched the hearts of so many people — everyday people, celebrities, and members of Congress. It was really incredible to see how the congressional pressure and the public pressure really did stop her deportation.”

In a statement, Barrera thanked the enormous response to the advocacy efforts on her behalf: “Through letters of support, people from around the world gave me the strength to continue in this struggle that was so hard for me. I’m here to keep fighting,” she said.

Now that she’s no longer in custody, Barrera is getting ready to fight — for her, as well as for others in the same situation .

“She really wants to get back out there and be an advocate for trans people and for other people who are detained like she was," said Bell, noting that, while her release was “extremely important,” she’s hardly the only transgender person who has suffered from prolonged detention by ICE.

“Trans people in detention are at a special risk of abuse because of their special medical needs, often, and [because of] their gender identity. So we just want to draw attention to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other trans people who are seeking asylum, who are in immigration detention [and] who should be released on parole," she said.

“That’s the key," she concluded. "Nobody should be locked up simply for seeking safety.”