For Many LGBT Migrants, North of the Border Is No Refuge
Posted July 11, 2018 8:03 a.m. EDT
TIJUANA, Mexico — Jade Quintanilla had come to the northernmost edge of Mexico from El Salvador looking for help and safety, but five months had passed since she had arrived in this border town and she was still too scared to cross into the United States and make her request for asylum.
Violence and persecution in Central America had brought many transgender women such as Quintanilla to this crossroads, along with countless other LGBT migrants. They are desperate to escape an unstable region where they are distinct targets.
Friends in San Salvador, Quintanilla said, were killed outright or humiliated in myriad ways: They were forced to cut their long hair and live as men; they were beaten; they were coerced into sex work; they were threatened into servitude as drug mules and gun traffickers.
Still, just a few miles from the border, Quintanilla, 22, hesitated. “I’ve gone up to the border many times and turned back,” she said in a bare concrete room at the group home where she was living, holding her thin arms at the elbows. “What if they ask, ‘Why would we accept a person like you in our country?’ I think about that a lot. It would be like putting a bullet to my head if I arrive and they say no.”
While the Trump administration has tightened regulations on asylum qualifications related to gang violence and domestic abuse, migrants still can request asylum on the basis of persecution for their LGBT identity. But their chances of success are far from certain and the journey to even reach the U.S. border is especially risky for LGBT migrants.
Trans women in particular encounter persistent abuse and harassment in Mexico at the hands of drug traffickers, rogue immigration agents and other migrants, according to lawyers and activists. Once they reach the United States, they regularly face hardship, as well.
There are no numbers available disclosing how many LGBT migrants seek asylum at the border each year or their success rate, but lawyers and activists say that the number of gay, lesbian and trans people seeking asylum each year is at least in the hundreds.
In weighing whether to risk the journey north, many LGBT migrants from Central America gamble that the road ahead cannot be worse than what they are leaving behind.
Victor Clark-Alfaro, an immigration expert at San Diego State University who is based in Tijuana, said that he has noticed more openly LGBT people in recent years making the journey to the border with hopes of seeking asylum. He said they are often the victims of powerful criminal gangs in Central America and Mexico — but also of bigoted neighbors, police officers and strangers.
“The ones who can’t hide their sexuality and gender, there’s a huge aggression toward them. And of them, trans women are the ones who are most heavily targeted,” Clark-Alfaro said. In Central America and Mexico, “almost everyone is Catholic, and so the machismo and religious sensibilities provoke attacks against people who break gender norms.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, has spoken out against the high rates of violence against LGBT people in Central American countries and Mexico and has noted that the crimes against them are often committed with impunity. Shortly after Quintanilla and two friends began their journey north to Tijuana from Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, in January, they were robbed. With no more money, they walked along the highway for long stretches of time in between rides, about 13 days altogether, Quintanilla said.
In Veracruz, the group boarded the so-called Beast, a train in Mexico often used by migrants to travel north; there, she said, she was sexually exploited.
“They say you can ride on top of the train,” Quintanilla said. “But the reality is different. We had to give our services so that they’d let us on. They were abusing us the whole way through. And if we refused, they’d threaten to push us off.”
She reached Tijuana in February and was taken in by Jardin de las Mariposas, an LGBT-focused drug rehabilitation home that has hosted dozens of Central American migrants in recent months. The director of the Mariposas, Yolanda Rocha, with whom Quintanilla has spoken about the journey, vouched for the account Quintanilla shared with The New York Times. She said that Quintanilla had appeared traumatized and exhausted when she arrived at Mariposas.
Warnings about trans migrants being neglected and abused in U.S. custody have amplified fears for Quintanilla and other trans migrants. A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch detailed pervasive sexual harassment and assault at detention facilities, based on interviews with dozens of transgender women.
In May, a transgender woman named Roxana Hernandez died in New Mexico while held in custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after experiencing cardiac arrest and HIV-related complications.
In interviews with The Times, several trans women described humiliation by guards and said they had been sexually assaulted by other detainees.
Seventy-two migrants who identify as transgender were being held in custody by ICE as of June 30, according to data provided by the agency. The vast majority are from Central America and Mexico. It is difficult to pinpoint how many LGBT people might be in detention because they often choose not to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of discrimination, even though it could help their asylum case.
“A lot of the queer men experience threats and physical assault and sometimes sexual assault. The trans women who are put into men’s facilities experience sexual assault at remarkably high numbers,” said Aaron Morris, a lawyer and the executive director of Immigration Equality, which provides legal assistance related to immigration and asylum to LGBT people.
ICE operates a housing unit specifically for transgender detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. Activists say that the center is far better than others, where trans women are held alongside men. But many trans women are reluctant to relocate to the Cibola center, Morris said, if it is far away from their lawyers or networks of family members.
Reports of abuse at detention centers range from guards making fun of natural facial hair that grows in between grooming to other inmates threatening violence. Of 237 allegations of sexual abuse or assault filed by ICE detainees in 2017, the agency’s records show that 11 were filed by transgender people.
In some cases, migrants say they are not taken seriously when they report attacks.
One trans woman from Honduras said she had been harassed and sexually assaulted several times by men while in custody at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, which is operated by CoreCivic. The woman requested anonymity because her asylum request is currently under review.
Speaking in an interview with her lawyer present in Los Angeles, she described several safety issues that stem from the center grouping trans women with men and having them share bathrooms. At one point, she said, she awoke to a man forcing himself onto her and shoving his tongue into her mouth; she said she was told to ignore it by the guards, even though she was afraid that she would get in trouble because of rules against physical contact.
In other instances, she said, men would pull back the curtains in the shower to masturbate in front of her and other trans women.
“They say we have support and protection in there, but the reality is different,” the woman said. “I’m not the only one. Ask any trans woman, they will each have a bad story about something that happened to them in detention.”
In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said that the agency has “zero tolerance for all forms of sexual abuse or assault” and that it investigates every allegation reported.
Activists have demanded that the government avoid holding trans women and other LGBT migrants in detention altogether. Just over half of trans people are held at the specialized unit at the Cibola center, the ICE spokeswoman said, whereas the dozens spread across other facilities are “housed in units at the facility based on their physical gender.” The Honduran woman said she was disappointed to find the guards at the center where she was held to be so dismissive. In her hometown, she said, she had been viciously attacked by a man who struck her with a machete. She never reported the crime, though he had targeted her several times before, she said. “In Honduras, it’s better not to go to the police because that just makes it worse. If they don’t kill me, they’ll kill one of my family members.”
Raiza Daniela Aparicio Hernandez, 33, a transgender human-rights activist from El Salvador, said she was physically assaulted in 2016 by four police officers in her home in San Salvador, which she shared with her boyfriend. The officers had harassed and threatened her before, arriving at their home without a warrant and demanding to be let in, before barging in and assaulting them. “They beat me. They beat me a long time,” she said.
Aparicio Hernandez and her partner tried to file a formal complaint about the abuse in El Salvador she said, but they ran into obstacles along the way. She left El Salvador in June 2017 and arrived at the San Ysidro point of entry, on the border between Tijuana and San Diego, to request asylum.
Before speaking to The Times, Aparacio Hernandez shared her account with her lawyer. She won asylum through the courts on the merits of her case.
“Leaving my country was such a hard decision,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of friends die in this fight, at the hands of the government, and people being beat and tortured. And this is happening at the hands of police officers. It’s sad, and it’s difficult, but you have to fight.”
Marcos Williamson, the detention relief coordinator for Transcend Arizona, a Phoenix-based nonprofit group that helps LGBT migrants, said asylum-seekers who are released from detention on bond often struggle to make ends meet because they are given neither benefits nor work permits. LGBT people, who often do not have the support of family members, are particularly alone.
For now, Quintanilla feels safe at Mariposas, though she has been accosted on the streets of Tijuana and harassed, she said. She is grateful to the center for taking her in. And she is not yet ready for what comes next in her long journey.
“I decided to leave because I didn’t want to die. It would just be too much for them to reject me,” she said. “What good would it have been to flee my country?”