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Inside My Harrowing 13 Months Suffering Through ICE Detention

Venezuelan makeup artist, hairstylist, activist, and survivor Gustavo Acosta says “They took my name, but they never took away my hope.”

They took my name, but they never took away my hope.

My story into the United States starts at the Tijuana, Mexico border. That day they took my information and assigned me to group number 1464. Because I did not have a visa to enter the country, I was forced to enter illegally. It was not a dramatic entry that included running or jumping over a wall, as many in the United States assume. I simply had to present my passport and other personal identification records to the U.S. Border Patrol.

In my initial registration I answered general questions about my country of origin, first and last name, age, etc. They also asked me to identify my preferred gender and sexual orientation. When I reported that I am a gay man, they requested that I be isolated with other gay men. It was explained to me that this was to maintain the safety of heterosexual men.

I was taken into the initial Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center that would be my home for the next 11 days. I was served the same unhealthy food each day: a burrito at 4 a.m., two slices of toast with mortadella at 11 a.m., then later two slices of bread with fried chicken, carrots, and raw celery. I was also prevented from brushing my teeth and was permitted to shower only every three days. What was even more demoralizing is that I was referred to as an alien number instead of my name.

Every day the same routine took place starting at 4 a.m. They would chain together my wrists and ankles, shackled to my stomach, treating me like a dangerous criminal to take me to and from my cell for interviews where I would meet with government officials interrogating me about why I was there.

After my 11th day, on March 31, 2019, I was transferred to a maximum security prison in the South. Within seven days at the new detention center, I was called in for my "credible fear" interview, where they asked why I left Venezuela to seek asylum in the United States. The interviewer spent three hours asking me questions ranging from birth until that very day to decide whether I would stay in the country or be deported. Sadly, this is when I began to get bullied in the showers for being gay -- only after receiving the news that the official found my fear "credible." I was ultimately transferred.

My next detention center, in Louisiana, was no better, and the bullying was just as bad, if not worse. In lieu of cells we were held in a large warehouse with 104 bunks filled with other detainees. My bed assignment placed me in front of bathrooms that did not even have a door. The television was on from Friday at 5 a.m. until Sunday at 11 p.m., preventing us from sleeping. The bathrooms had a urinal area, four showers, and four toilets that were fully visible to every detainee. As the others discovered my sexuality I would be confronted in the showers as they masturbated themselves in an effort to excite me. These encounters would happen no matter what time of the day it was. If this was not enough, many of the abusers would scream at all hours of the night, "Today I am masturbating, me hago la paja!"

It was in these dark days that I appeared before a judge for the first time and found out that the approval of the credible fear interview only grants us permission to appear before a judge and defend our case. As months passed, I continued to experience the same sexual harassment with little hope in sight after receiving the news that I would be deported. However, the deadly cloak of the pandemic was my savior. With great fortune I was finally released from ICE detention. I eventually set my sights on a life in New York City, where I found a new story. My story.

Gustavo Acosta is a Venezuelan makeup artist, hairstylist, activist, and survivor based in New York City. @gusshairby

This story is part of an investigative series for Out's 2021 Travel Issue, the first in the magazine's history centering on Latin America. The issue is out on newsstands on April 28, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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