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Demonstrators demand release of transgender woman in ICE custody

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A transgender Guatemalan asylum-seeker incarcerated at an all-male facility in Florence has been a victim of sexual assault and ill treatment by guards, activists demonstrating for her release said Monday.

About 20 people turned out in heavy rain at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office downtown to call attention to the case of Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco.

“Nicoll is currently facing very inhumane and abusive conditions under ICE custody,” said Raul Alcaraz Ochoa, the community organizer for Mariposas Sin Fronteras, a Tucson-based LGBTQ group. “ICE can’t guarantee her safety, so that’s why we are asking for her release to our community.”

According to the Oakland, Calif.-based Transgender Law Center, Hernandez-Polanco has been in custody since U.S. Border Patrol agents detained her at the border in October. She has requested asylum based on physical and sexual violence she experienced in her home country and Mexico, the group said.

Ochoa said that since her arrival to the ICE facility in Florence, Hernandez-Polanco has been sexually abused by fellow detainees and has faced explicit language and inappropriate touching by guards.

A woman who answered the phone at the ICE office in Phoenix said the agency couldn’t comment on claims about Hernandez-Polanco’s incarceration.

The Huffington Post carried an ICE statement in response to questions about Hernandez-Polanco. It said the agency has a “strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment very seriously.”

According to the ICE website, staff members making classification housing decisions for transgender detainees “shall consider the detainee’s gender self-identification and an assessment of the effects of placement on the detainee’s mental health and well-being.” It also says staff members should take a detainee’s self-identification into account.

Victoria Villalba, another demonstrator and a transgender woman, said she was held for three and a half months when ICE detained her in San Diego. She said she was denied female hormones and discriminated against by guards.

“It’s very important to get her (Nicoll) out because every day in there is like being there for 20 years,” Villalba said. “Each day is an odyssey. It’s an everyday fight against the ICE staff.”

Villalba read a statement attributed to Hernandez-Polanco.

“We can not give up because I have faith in both god and in the community,” it said.

Both Ochoa and Villalba said they have been in contact with Hernandez-Polanco.

“We talked on the phone on Sunday,” Villalba said. “She called to check up on me to see how I was doing and letting me know how she was.”

Ochoa said Hernandez-Polanco is waiting an asylum hearing that could allow her to remain in the U.S. and work immediately.

A voicemail left at the office of Hernandez-Polanco’s attorney, Heather Hamel, wasn’t immediately returned Monday.

The Transgender Law Center has organized a #FreeNicoll National Week of Action and said rallies also were planned for Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.