Ending the Deportation Nation: An Interview With Transgender Activist Jennicet Gutiérrez

In June, Jennicet Gutiérrez, a transgender woman and activist, interrupted Barack Obama at a celebration of Pride month at the White House to raise attention to the detention and deportation of vulnerable immigrant populations – including LGBTQ people and mothers and children. Advocates and activists have increasingly shed light on ongoing conditions of neglect, discrimination and harassment in detention centers, and have organized actions and hunger strikes to end the inhumane detentions and deportations.

Jennicet’s action was criticized by some in the LGBTQ community, but just days after her protest, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement quietly announced a new policy allowing trans detainees to be housed according to their gender identity.

Jennicet sat down with Lupita Romero and Keegan O’Brien at the Socialism 2015 conference in Chicago to talk about the state of the immigrant rights movement and the need for the movement to be inclusive of marginalized immigrant communities.

Tell us about yourself. What is it that made you become a political activist?

I’m a member of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, I became involved with the organization about seven months ago.

I was born in Mexico and came to the US when I was 15 years old. Before coming to the US, my family tried to get a visa, but unfortunately, the US embassy denied the request. Sadly, economic opportunities in Mexico are very difficult. I grew up with a single mother who raised nine children, so she had a lot of pressure to feed the children and maintain a shelter for us.

As my older brothers and sisters were growing, they started traveling to the US, and finally, when I turned 15, I came to the US where I finished high school and went to college. I started to work, joining the labor force and doing what I had to do to be able to help my family and myself survive with our basic needs.

As I continued to learn how to navigate US culture, my mom would say, “You have to be respectful, don’t get in any trouble.” But because of my identity, I started to feel very uncomfortable with who I was, and I felt rejected.

Since I was three years old, I always strongly identified as female, but my genitalia didn’t match. I wanted to explore my gender expression and bring her to life, so I battled with that for many years. During that time, I fell into heavy drinking and drugs, trying to heal the pain and being irresponsible, making poor choices.

Then about three years ago, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that I couldn’t let my family hold me back, I couldn’t let my job hold me back, I couldn’t let anyone hold me back anymore. I called my sister and told her, “I’m trans – I’m transgender and I can’t be hiding this anymore.” She urged me to do what I need to do and they would support me – just take your time and make sure you do it on your own terms.

I think that’s key for us trans women. Sometimes, we feel so much pressure to fit into the gender binary – male versus female – that we go into the underground of medications, which can have harmful results to our health.

So I transitioned, and I started working for an attorney. But because the laws were getting so strict, I had to use someone else’s social security number and identity to be able to survive. This adds to the criminalization we already face in this screwed-up system.

I did it, and I was working, except I just wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t me. Even though I was treated with respect, I always felt this vibe that I have something bigger here that I can accomplish. I started getting involved with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.

The thing that pushed me to that was the wave of violence that trans women of color were facing. As I mentioned in my speech [at the Socialism 2015 conference in Chicago], so far in 2015, there have been at least nine trans women of color who have been murdered, according to official figures. That’s what got me to protest and demand respect and justice for my sisters.

But I don’t want to limit myself to the issues of the LGBTQ community – I think there’s a bigger problem of violence. We had a case in LA of a homeless African American man who got killed by the police, and there was a demonstration, so I went and joined that protest as well. In LA, there’s a movement for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, led by Women for $15. They want to increase the minimum wage so they fast for 15 days to send a strong message.

That’s some of the work that I have been doing in the last seven months. I want organizations to start making connections like I did myself.

This was when GetEQUAL, a group that advocates nationwide for putting an end to oppression of against LGBTQ communities, received an invitation to the White House. My organization didn’t because we have been doing civil disobedience, so the White House never even reached out to us.

GetEQUAL also concentrates on the intersectionalities of the issues that LGBTQ communities are facing, so they contacted me to see if I wanted to go to the White House, and I said yes. I turned my information in and submitted it to the White House and they cleared for me to be in the White House.

What happened that night at the White House? Why did you choose to speak out, and what were you hoping would come out of it?

You know, I’m just so blessed to be alive, because the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of color is 29, and I’M 29 years old now – so this is all very personal to me. I just wanted to make a statement – that I won’t tolerate this kind of abuse and torture, and that I’m human.

In the White House, I went through many emotions. I was having flashbacks of different parts of my journey and all the suffering I have been going through, all the rejection I’ve felt. The night before, I was at the house of the people who were hosting me in D.C., and I couldn’t sleep. It was my first time in D.C., and I had this big mission. I got up in the morning, got ready and had this feeling of urgency to get this message out to the president.

I went to the White House, cleared through the two checkpoints, and went into the room, and I start mingling with all of these elite members of the LGBTQ community. There were some trans people and very few people of color. As I was waiting for the president to come out, I kept looking around and visualizing where I wanted to stand and what point I wanted to make.

Obviously, as an activist there was some kind of planning that went into this action, because we wanted to deliver this message. There was a little disagreement on how it was going to be executed, but at the very end, it was left up to me.

So Mary Cheney comes out into the room, and I was already furious because when her father was vice president and marriage was being debated, she never publicly claimed marriage support. But now she’s here talking about how marriage should pass and how everything is wonderful. So I was already building up anger, because I was thinking of all these injustices that LGBTQ people of color are facing.

When President Obama came out, I let him speak for a minute or so, but the moment he mentioned progress, I thought about the trans women in detention centers who are detained and the suffering that they’re going through.

There was one person one in particular I thought of, from Santa Ana. I spoke to her the day we did a demonstration back in May 2014, where five members of Familia got arrested. She got released that day, and I waited until that happened. She was telling me about how painful the experience was – how humiliating it was and how they just dehumanize you or your persona. Then she hugged me and said, with tears in her eyes, “Jennicet, I wish people would know what’s going on inside these detention centers. There’s at least 55 or more here who are going through a lot of mistreatment.”

So that’s what gave me the strength to confront the president. I tried to make an interruption for everyone to hear. You could hear clearly in the mainstream media coverage that I said, “President Obama,” and then my voice kind of gets silent. But there’s another video where you can clearly hear what I’m saying and the message I was sending the president to please release all LGBTQ detainees in detention centers, to stop the violence and torture that trans women are facing in these centers – and the main message of the campaign, which is not one more deportation.

It’s the case not just in detention centers, but with police in general, that if you provide identification that doesn’t match your identity, they put you with the sex your identification dictates. In my case, that would be with men. That’s when you’re more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

It’s a basic injustice, so I just had to speak up, I found the opportunity of a lifetime to bring this issue up to the president.

Obama ran for office on the basis of a promise of sweeping immigration reform. But instead of making life better for immigrants, we’ve seen more than two million undocumented people deported, which is more than any other president in history. What do you think about that and what do you think needs to happen to put a stop to these deportations and win legalization and citizenship for undocumented people?

You asked two very important questions and I’m glad you bring those up.

I’m very disappointed with the administration’s record on immigration. It just demonstrates how our communities, especially immigrants of color, are under attack. The statistics are there. People can look them up – it’s not a number that we’re just making up. As much as he wants the media and people to praise him for progress on immigration, it’s a number that is unacceptable to me because there are families being separated.

We have cases where we’ve heard about parents driving children to school, and they get stopped by police and are turned over to immigration. The children are U.S citizens, so now they’re left in limbo. The system has to take care of the children, and it’s the separation that, to me, is just brutal. These people have been here for years – it’s not like we just crossed over the border, and we’re tearing up the nation.

When he ran for president, Obama promised immigration reform in the first year. That’s a total failure. Almost eight years later, with his record of deportations, it tells us he doesn’t care about the community. That’s what gives me more motivation to continue to be critical and push for the administration to really do the reform and help our communities.

As far as how we can make that happen, we’re at a point where we have to first get the message out. I hope that with my interruption, people are debating, and that it’s happening more around the nation.

I think it’s crucial for organizations that are non-LGBTQ to join the #Not1More deportation campaign and make it a nationwide effort to put pressure on the administration and send a message to release all people in detention centers. I think the administration would really feel the pressure.

That’s a key thing that we can do. We need to have our own communities embrace the immigrant community and leave their differences and prejudices aside. Let’s see how much more power we can have if we unite. That would be a great victory for the immigrant community.

In 2006, people were demanding sweeping reform and amnesty, but since then, we have seen the immigrant rights movement largely focus on a reform that never really panned out, while a marginal set of organizations are trying to bring attention to the need to end detention and deportation. There seems to be a split – two areas of focus and demands for the movement – immigration reform and an end to detention and deportation. Do you think at this point that reform is still a possibility? What are your thoughts on ending deportations either through a moratorium or ending the bed quota?

Because Obama is about to leave office, I believe that the organizations seeking immigration reform should put that on hold and concentrate more on what #Not1More is doing. Because even if we see reform as a priority and we can make it happen, there still has to be a battle with Congress, which probably won’t even happen in the next year. So that would be a waste of time and energy.

Yes, we need to push for immigration reform with the coming administration, but in the meantime, I think joining Not1More or any other organization which seeks similar demands – like ending the detention of trans immigrants, women, children and other vulnerable populations – that’s community building and the support that we need.

Another demand is to expand deferred action to the most people possible under the law; terminate private prison and detention contracts; have required and strict accountability, oversight and clear consequences; and relief for the visa backlog. People who are in process have to wait so many years to even get their turn.

Other demands are for immigrant workers who report labor rights abuses to be protected by federal agencies and given deferred action; separating criminal law enforcement from immigration by ending all collaboration between local enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); and ending all programs that criminalize undocumented migrations.

The #Not1More campaign has a bigger vision for communities. It’s not just the LGBTQ community. We are pushing ourselves into this campaign because deferred action or deferred action for childhood arrivals excludes LGBTQ people – we don’t have children, and we’re not married. Even though Obama issued an executive order, it’s still on hold in the courts.

I think reform is possible, but we need to put the emphasis on these demands and put the pressure on, so we can see more results in the short term. Once we gain that goal, we can really organize for immigration reform that benefits many.

What do you think real immigration reform would mean? For us as socialists, we think no human being is illegal, everyone should have citizenship, and we want to get rid of borders.

I agree with the socialist view. I do believe in tearing down borders. I believe that everyone should have citizenship. This is my thinking: When someone comes to America, they should have the same rights as everyone else if they are going to contribute to the nation and the labor force.

The tricky part is that we have to convince a huge sector of the labor force. How do we convince people? With reforms, it’s always a tricky thing that these laws will start being rewritten by Congress, and we’re going to have some segment of the population that is excluded.

It’s a challenge, but I think that if we can convince people to get rid of immigration enforcement in the first place and the laws that discriminate, that would be ideal.

A lot of the actions that you have been a part of with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and other groups in Los Angeles have been sit-ins and civil disobedience in front of detention centers and police departments. Why target those facilities specifically, and why is it that you are opting for civil disobedience at this point?

It’s very important that we put pressure and bring the media to these places where this abuse is taking place. It has more impact, the police and ICE will feel the pressure from the community. It’s more of a direct impact to go to the source of where the problem is happening. That’s why we picked this location in Santa Ana. It’s one of the locations in the country where police have a detention center for undocumented people.

There have been other organizations that have tried to go the diplomatic way – to reach out to the White House and get the message out that this is happening. And it hasn’t worked. We haven’t seen any results. That’s why the organization that I belong to takes pride in taking action – and if that means doing civil disobedience and risking arrest, then we will do so.

It’s been almost 10 years since 2006 when we saw the huge mega-marches for immigrant rights. What do you think at this point would get us back there?

I do think we have the potential again if we bring the support and make people understand the connections between oppressions and see the link to their own. I think we can mobilize people to that extent. We can have over half a million people in Los Angeles who join to put pressure on the government. But the challenge is how do we connect these communities?

We’re hoping that these issues will get momentum because we have some great Latina and Latino activists, people of color, pushing for results and to release people from detention centers. I think we are working our way toward reaching the mainstream people who are being affected. That way, we can mobilize families and communities with these kinds of demonstrations.