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Why a transgender activist heckled Obama at the White House pride event

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The transgender immigrant activist who interrupted President Barack Obama at a White House LGBTQ event — and inspired the president to respond, "You're in my house" — is speaking out about the ineffective policies that led to her outburst.

Jennicet Gutiérrez, a trans woman and undocumented immigrant, wrote in a column in the Washington Blade:

I was fortunate to be invited to the White House to listen to President Obama's speech recognizing the LGBTQ community and the progress being made. But while he spoke of 'trans women of color being targeted,' his administration holds LGBTQ and trans immigrants in detention. I spoke out because our issues and struggles can no longer be ignored.

Immigrant trans women are 12 times more likely to face discrimination because of our gender identity. If we add our immigration status to the equation, the discrimination increases. Transgender immigrants make up one out of every 500 people in detention, but we account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in ICE custody.

This isn't the first time this issue has been brought up by LGBTQ immigrant advocates, who argue that ICE — which oversees the detention of unauthorized immigrants — unnecessarily puts people in detention even after they show warning signs for abuse.

ICE claims its policies do a good job of catching and preventing the kind of sexual abuse Gutiérrez described. ICE uses an automated risk assessment tool that's supposed to detect when someone is at risk for sexual abuse, and the agency can then decide to limit any risk by choosing whether and how to put an immigrant in detention.

But ICE's policies don't appear to be very effective, as Vox's Dara Lind explained:

According to the records obtained by the Center for American Progress, in 81 of the 104 cases where an immigrant said he or she feared being put in detention because of sexual orientation or gender identity, ICE detained him or her anyway.

In almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the 104 cases, it appears the automated assessment didn't even make a recommendation. The records obtained by CAP show the result of the assessment as "Officer to Determine" — which, according to a DHS Inspector General report about detention, means it's entirely left up to ICE officials to decide.

When ICE officials use their discretion, they tend to rule against the LGBTQ immigrant: In two-thirds of cases in which the evaluation made no recommendation, agents chose to put the immigrant in detention — even though such circumstances should automatically warrant release, according to ICE. So the agency chooses to put LGBTQ immigrants — who are disproportionately likely to face sexual abuse — in detention even when it doesn't need to and, by its own standards, shouldn't.

Whether heckling is a good way to raise these issues is an open question. But when the people you advocate for face such horrible circumstances, and a supposedly friendly administration seems to be ineffective at doing something about it, heckling may feel like your only option.