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ICE Is Detaining A Leading Local Trans Activist & Supporters Are Urging Help

By Rachel Cromidas in News on Dec 30, 2016 11:10PM

Nina Chaubal, photo via Twitter.

Updated Jan. 3 10:30 a.m.: Activists are raising money through GoFundMe to help Chicago's Nina Chaubal, who has been held in ICE detention in Arizona since Dec. 28. Chaubal's wife, Greta Martela, expects Chaubal to be released on bond Tuesday, and is raising money to help pay the cost of the bond, legal fees, and other expenses as a result of Chaubal's detainment.

A local LGBT activist and the founder of the crisis hotline Trans Lifeline is being detained by immigration authorities in Arizona after being stopped while driving home to Chicago.

Nina Chaubal, 25, an India-born Chicagoan and the co-founder of Trans Lifeline (a San Francisco-based non-profit), was driving to Chicago from California on Interstate-8 with her wife and two friends when the group encountered an immigration checkpoint in Arizona on Wednesday. There, officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained Chaubal and demanded she show them her passport (Chaubal was carrying her Illinois drivers license at the time, but not her passport, because she was traveling through the United States and not crossing international borders, so she provided ICE with a photo of her passport) and that she provide proof that she is married to a U.S. citizen. They then took her into custody after learning that her gender identity did not match the gender listed on her Indian passport and that she was in the country on an expired work visa, her wife Greta Martela told Chicagoist.

Chaubal's family and friends are urging ICE to release Chaubal, who has been held since Wednesday by ICE in two Arizona immigration detention facilities. She is currently being held at Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona—a privately operated prison with a disturbing reputation for violence against LGBT detainees.

"For a lot of trans women, the thing we fear most is ending up in prison," Martela, the co-founder and executive director of Trans Lifeline, told Chicagoist. Trans Women in prison and detention facilities are disproportionally at risk for assault, rape and harassment, and it's common for prisons to place trans women in male-only facilities or in solitary confinement.

"This is pretty much the worst thing I could think of happening besides her being murdered," Martela said. "I have really had to try to suppress my emotions so I can do what I need to do to get through this. If I think about the things that could be happening to her then I would completely lose it. I'm sad and I'm angry. I really want her out."

Martela, is pushing to have Chaubal released—reasoning that the well-known activist and non-profit founder should not be imprisoned and is not a flight risk—or at least transferred to another detention center with a better track record for treating LGBT people. She is also urging friends, family and supporters to help amplify her voice by contacting ICE with these requests.

"Nina left a six-figure tech job to found Trans Lifeline, where she's helped 18,000 people in crisis," Martela said. "She's kind of exactly what we say you're supposed to be to immigrate to the United States. She has sacrificed in her own life to help her community. It's distressing that in America you can be everything you're supposed to be, and if you're an immigrant you can have no rights and be imprisoned on the whim of somebody who is a police officer."

Chaubal, who moved to the U.S. in 2009, graduated from the University of Illinois and worked as a software engineer at Google before leaving her job to found a suicide prevention hotline for trans youth, has been in the process of applying for a Green Card for two years, according to Martela. But that process has stymied due to various bureaucratic hurdles. The pair were due to return to Chicago Friday. Authorities have told Martela that Chaubal's two options are to deport herself to India or apply for asylum in the United States.

"She was [in the U.S.] as an H1B, a tech worker here on a visa that lasts as long as the person is employed," Martela said. "We thought we would get married, we were in love, and we figured we'd be able to get a Green Card. But because it's not that easy to apply for a Green Card, we ended up in a bureaucratic catch-22."

Martela is hopeful that Chaubal will be granted asylum in the United States, because it is illegal to be gay in India, and it is not uncommon for trans people to experience violence and harassment in India. But the past 48 hours have also left her worried about the safety of Chaubal and other trans immigrants at a time when the President-elect's political agenda involves curtailing the rights of immigrants and deporting immigrants.

"I'm afraid this is what the country is going to be like over the next four years," she said.

Virginia Kice, a regional spokeswoman for ICE, confirmed Chaubal is in ICE custody in an email to Chicagoist Friday evening, but said ICE cannot release information about individuals in custody without their signed consent.

Responding to a question about the conditions of trans detainees, Kice said that ICE "continues to work closely with community-based groups and other stakeholders to enhance conditions for those in the agency’s custody," and pointed to a 2015 agency directive specifically to improve housing for trans detainees.

"The updated guidance is the result of a six-month agency working group that examined issues with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) subject matter experts, sought input from ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Field Offices, transgender individuals, and visited various non-federal facilities across the country to observe best practices," she wrote.