"I’m hoping to finish my higher education studies and find a dignified job," Alexandra, a 29-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador, says over the phone through an interpreter.
"We're thinking in positive terms," adds Alexandra's new friend Violet, a 50-year-old transgender woman from Honduras. "First, that immigration will give us a positive response to our request for asylum. If that’s the case, I want to finish my university studies and work as hard as everyone does in the United States. And be a good citizen, because I want to have a dignified life and grow old here."
The women, whose lawyer asked that just their first names be used, are two of eight HIV-positive transgender women released on April 15 from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which is run by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Their release came just a day after attorneys filed a lawsuit against ICE and GEO Group in federal court on behalf of the eight women and six other plaintiffs who are all medically vulnerable; that situation heightened their risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19 while in custody, their attorneys argued in court filings.
"Our clients were trapped in a cage that stripped them of any autonomy over their personal safety and well being. [Now] these women are finally able to protect themselves. It is astonishing the difference a day — and a federal lawsuit — makes," Laura Lunn, an attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, said in a statement after the eight women were released. Lunn is one of the lawyers who filed the complaint asking for their release on April 14 in U.S. District Court of Colorado; attorneys across the country have filed similar legal complaints to get medically vulnerable detainees released from immigrant detention facilities.
While the eight transgender women were released the day after the suit was filed, the six other detainee plaintiffs remain in ICE custody at the Aurora facility, which has had five confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff members. So far, none have been reported among detainees, but some have been isolated.
Alexandra and Violet say they both plan to leave Denver in the near future to be with sponsors. But right now, they're both elated simply to be free.
"We believe that this was the greatest possible gift from God," Alexandra says.
Alexandra and Violet each spent over a month and a half in ICE custody after both were detained while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. They were initially held at an ICE detention facility in El Paso, where they were kept in a dormitory with men.
"We felt very bad because the men were treating us differently," recalls Violet. "And we had problems with one person who tried to humiliate us quite a lot."
"These were very, very unpleasant experiences for us," Alexandra adds.
After their initial detention in El Paso, the two were taken to a facility in Arizona, and then finally to Aurora, where they were kept in a dormitory with other transgender women, including one plaintiff who remains in custody.
"Some of our companions who came with us have not been able to leave," Violet says. "They're still in detention. And we want to ask that people help advocate for them and get them freed also."
During the approximately three weeks that the women spent at the Aurora detention facility, they say they worried about contracting COVID-19, especially since they're both HIV-positive.
"We didn’t have disinfectants, we didn’t have gloves, we didn’t have masks to cover our faces," says Alexandra. "The guards came near us, they were also completely uncovered; they didn’t have gloves, they didn’t have masks. We had this fear that they could infect us with the coronavirus."
"I even had insomnia. I couldn't sleep because I was so worried," Violet adds.
There were other struggles, too, as they tried to adapt to life in custody, in what they characterize as an overly carceral environment. "We don’t believe that this is necessary. We didn’t come here to commit crimes. We came here for a refuge where we can live our lives in a more peaceful way," explains Alexandra.
ICE has declined to comment on the April 14 lawsuit, as it is pending litigation. The federal agency, together with GEO Group, has until April 21 to respond to the motion for a temporary restraining order that's attached to the complaint.
Local lawyers have also filed individual legal complaints to get clients released from the Aurora facility, which has a history of infectious-disease outbreaks and quarantines in dormitories.