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Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) works towards alternatives to the immigrant detention system, provides direct services to queer and trans* detainees Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) works towards alternatives to the immigrant detention system, provides direct services to queer and trans* detainees

From #Not1More Queer Detainee to #Not1More Immigrant Detention Center

By Janani Balasubramanian and Jamila Hammami

Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) works towards alternatives to the immigrant detention system, provides direct services to queer and trans* detainees

When immigrants—often those who have faced situations of extreme violence and torture—arrive at the U.S. border without papers or otherwise in violation of immigration law, they are placed in mandatory detention. Cages are the U.S. government’s answer to multiply marginalized people who arrive at its borders. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security detained 400,000 people in immigration custody, at a cost of $1.7 billion. The average cost of detaining an immigrant is $164 per day, compared to about $12 per day for community-based alternatives. Private carceration corporations are lining their pockets with immigrants’ freedom.

Yesterday, April 5th, was the #Not1More day of action. The #Not1More campaign is aimed at bringing attention to and demanding administrative relief for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants the United States government deports each year. We support this mission—‘we’ being the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP). QDEP is an alternative-to-detention program for LGBTQ and HIV-positive detainees and asylum seekers located in New York City. Alternative-to-detention programs are a means of ensuring compliance with immigration proceedings without detention. Overall, these programs vary in the amount of both restriction and support they provide to immigrant detainees. However, QDEP is the first and currently the only alternative-to-detention program specific to LGBTQ and HIV-positive people in the U.S. Our clients come from all over the country to access our services. We offer support for housing, food, travel, education, employment, arts programming, know-your-rights trainings, and organizing. We also advocate around the structural barriers our clients face—as detainees and asylees and as predominantly queer, trans* and HIV-positive people of color. In other words, we are committed to assisting folks in building lives outside of the detention system, and to queering the dialogue on immigration justice.

Our clients face particular violence in detention as LGBTQ and HIV-positive people. Most of our clients come to us as survivors of torture and violence, often from countries with anti-sodomy laws left in the wake of colonialism. Once detained, LGBTQ folks are 14 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their heterosexual counterparts. Transgender detainees are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement. Both trans* and HIV-positive detainees are routinely denied adequate medical care. Outside of detention, our clients are subject to U.S. police and state violence (such as stop-and-frisk and condoms-as-evidence). They also face huge barriers in accessing basic services. Asylum seekers in New York, for example, have to wait five years or until they win their asylum cases before they are able to receive food stamps.

While our political work is rooted in services provision, we are also an activist and organizing space for work around the specific experiences of queer, trans*, and HIV-positive immigrants. We want to challenge immigrant justice activists to reconsider what family means in queer contexts, and to include support and advocacy around chosen families. We also want there to be a recognition that in many non-Western family systems, including our own, kinship is rooted in multi-generational, material support. Folks in our program have often lost connection to blood families (and therefore to material support systems) through gender and sexuality-based violence.  The direct services portion of our work attempts to fill some of these gaps.

Our commitment to #queeringimmigration also goes beyond the identities we serve. We challenge people, especially fellow queer activists, to rethink what doing queer work means. We were involved with an older alternative-to-detention program that was also serving many, many queer detainees. But we’ve received much more support from fellow queers for QDEP. Why is this the case?

In a way, immigration is already a queer experience. Immigration creates ruptures of time, place, homeland, family. It creates scattering, and forces a breakdown and rearrangement of identity. Immigrants are made to reformulate their communities and support systems. Detention centers are harmful for everyone. Our solidarity is with all immigrants and undocumented people, not just those whose genders and sexualities fit under ‘queer’. Our commitment is to detention abolition broadly.

For us, #queeringimmigration means challenging immigration dialogues to include an analysis of gender and sexuality-based violence, and challenging queers to show up for immigrants of all genders and sexualities. To support immigrants constantly and materially.  To show up.  

What we’re asking for today, then, on the #Not1More day of action, and on every day forward, is a continuous commitment to building alternatives to detention for queer folks and everyone else. We absolutely support campaigns for #Not1More deportation. We also want to demand #Not1More detained, #Not1More immigrant left without resources, #Not1More falling through the cracks of bureaucracy, #Not1More cage.

If you’re ready to show up and support queer, trans*, and HIV-positive detainees and asylum seekers right now, here a few steps you can take:  

  1. Go to and make a donation to support our work by becoming a sustaining donor, and/or share this link with your friends. Organizing requires consistent resources!

  2. Send us an email ( if you’re in New York City and want to volunteer with us.

  3. Head to the #not1more and Detention Watch Network websites to educate yourself further, and explore other actions you can take.

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Janani Balasubramanian and Jamila Hammami

Janani Balasubramanian is a South Asian artivist based in Brooklyn. Their work deals broadly with themes of empire, desire, microflora, apocalypse, ancestry, and the Future.

Catch up with me @queerdep.





April 06, 2014

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