Note: Due to safety concerns, a pseudonym has been used to keep Maria’s identity confidential.
It is well known that the journey to the US for those fleeing violence and poverty is often one replete with hardship and danger.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer immigrants and asylum-seekers, however, there are unique obstacles and challenges that arise both in the route to the US and upon arrival that can make their journey safety especially arduous and perilous.
Nevertheless, their stories are often excluded and erased from mainstream representations of migration.
On Nov. 15, the LGBTQ contingent of a more than 3,600 large caravan made news by becoming the first group to reach the Tijuana border. With some of those individuals still waiting at the border and some now navigating the US immigration system, Neta sought out to understand the obstacles LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants face both on their way to the US and once they are here.
The dangers of home and the path to safety
Maria is a young Honduran Black trans woman who participated in the Spring 2018 caravan. In her case, her story of migration begins as a teenager, shortly after her mother’s death.
Alone and without a support system, she wound up leaving her small, rural, hometown for a larger city in Honduras. Upon arrival, however, alone and visibly confused she caught the attention of local human traffickers who would eventually kidnap, traffic, and sexually exploit her. It would take years for Maria to have the opportunity to escape from the hell she lived through as a child, throughout which time she would endure unimaginable horrors.
“Yo lloraba, lloraba, lloraba.” I would cry, cry, cry, Maria remembers of the trauma she endured during her childhood. “Pero yo nunca quise hablar de lo que me había pasado. No tenía confianza con nadie.” But I never wanted to talk about what had happened to me. I didn’t trust anybody.
It didn’t take long for them to track her and to begin making death threats. Convinced that she would surely die if she remained in Honduras, Maria made the only decision she could make: she left.
Eventually, she ended up in Mexico, where she survived for almost two years. In Mexico, though slightly less threatened than in Honduras, the country with the leading rate for trans murders, she remained vulnerable to not just to the violent threats of transphobia and machismo, but also xenophobia and racism.
Since nobody would hire her, Maria turned to sex work to remain alive. She survived, but always just barely. Throughout her time in Mexico, Maria said she still suffered various types of violence, both at the hands of locals and at the hands of the State. Once, she was brutalized by Mexican police simply for asking for money to eat.
It was in this context that she heard of the caravan that was making its way to Mexico.
“Entonces dije yo, esta es mi oportunidad para irme.” And then I said, this is my opportunity to leave, Maria said. Although she knew the journey to the US wouldn’t be easy, she knew Mexico could not offer her the safety and peace she needed. With a large group of people traveling alongside she would at least be safer than alone, she reasoned.
But the reality turned out to be far more complicated than that.
Even among thousands of other desperate individuals leaving their homelands in the search for safety and refuge, as a Black trans woman, she was othered and subjected to abuse by both fellow caravan members and caravan leadership.
Verbal abuse, she told Neta, became routine. She still remembers the harsh words and anti-gay slurs that were frequently directed at her and other LGBTQ caravan members as they waited in food lines. “Palabras bien feas.” Really ugly words, Maria recalled emotionally. Sometimes, when the insults were too much to bear, she would leave and try to find food elsewhere. Sometimes she would choose to not eat at all, rather than suffer through the insults.
Even when outsider groups set out to intentionally help the LGBTQ asylum-seekers of the caravan, extreme anti-LGBTQ sentiments often prevented their access to such resources anyway. On one occasion, for example, buses were secured to help the women and children of the caravan reach their next stop. She and several other trans and LGBTQ individuals attempted to board the buses, only to be denied access by caravan leadership. Several days later, Maria learned that one of the buses had actually been set aside or secured specifically for the LGBTQ contingent.
The most painful experience of them all, however, happened in Tijuana, when a shelter where she and other trans people were staying at was targeted and set on fire in May. Maria and the asylum seekers that she was traveling with were out when the building was set on fire. Tragically, she told Neta, many of the people who worked in the shelter were not and suffered serious burns.
In the US but still far from safe
Unfortunately, the discrimination and hazards LGBTQ individuals face at home and on their way to the United States don’t stop at the border. Despite the trauma endured, they must still face the harsh and, often violent, realities of the US immigration system.
It’s a fact Ana Andrea Molina, executive director of the Organizacion Latina Trans en Texas (OLTT), is only too aware of. For the past three years, OLTT has worked to support and liberate LGBTQ immigrants and asylum seekers incarcerated in detention centers throughout Texas. Their efforts started in 2015 when two of their members were placed into immigration detention.
“Empezamos hacer este trabajo con miembros de la comunidad, empezamos a hablar con abogados pro bono, colectando cartas de apoyo de organizaciones y personas.” We started working with members of the community, talking with pro bono lawyers, and collecting letters of support from organizations and people, Molina shared.
Eventually, due to the high need that they observed, the work transformed into the LGBT Immigrant Defense Project. Through this program, OLTT doesn’t just connect detainees to legal services; it also provides support to detainees through regular visits.
Among the issues she says queer and transgender migrants and asylum-seekers often raise is inadequate access to medical treatment and other healthcare services, including access to hormone replacement therapy and HIV treatment.
Another issue that Molina says many LGBTQ individuals often have to wrestle with is the anti-LGBTQ prejudices of the same organizations that are there to help. In one of the cases she eventually became involved in, she noted, Catholic Charities, a national legal services provider, asked a trans woman to identify as a man in order for the case to move forward them.
“No es un caso aislado.” It’s not an isolated case, Molina said about the example. In her experience, she’s found this to be a reoccurring issue with conservative groups like Catholic Charities, who she said refer asylum-seekers to other organizations when they refuse to be misgendered.
The death of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez at the hands of US immigration agencies
One of the tragic cases that exemplifies the unique challenges LGBTQ immigrants and asylum seekers can face is that of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, like Maria, was a trans asylum seeker from Honduras, who is described by those who knew her as a good person with many dreams and as someone who would cheer up those around her. On May 9, fleeing from Honduras, she crossed the US/Mexico border in search of safety. She was promptly detained and placed into the custody of Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) for 16 days. While in custody, according to an independent autopsy report, Hernandez Rodriguez suffered extreme physical abuse that resulted in severe dehydration and hemorrhaging over her ribs. On May 25, following the abuse and lack of medical treatment, Hernandez Rodriguez died from HIV complications and dehydration.
“She is a prime example of a queer and trans woman who is living with HIV who had she had been given the proper care and proper sort of treatment at the border, she would still be alive,” Isa Noyola, Deputy Director of the Transgender Law Center (TLC) said. “But none of that happened, and I think that is very telling.”
According to Noyola, Rodriguez is just one of many examples of trans people who have suffered at the hands of ICE and Border Patrol. Through her work at TLC, she has encountered dozens and dozens of trans and queer immigrants and asylum seekers who are fleeing from violence, persecution, and even family rejection.
For Noyola, that detention centers were never meant to keep people safe is self-evident.
“These are places where harm happens, where a sexual assault happens, or violence happens for everyone,” Noyola said. In the case of trans women, specifically she noted, it’s not uncommon for them to be incarcerated with men.
According to a 2008 report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ people are “97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other detainees.” The report also notes that transgender people are detained an average time of 99 days, which is double the average of 43.8 days that all immigrants spend in these facilities.
It’s not just detention that harms LGBTQ individuals; it’s the US immigration system as a whole, Noyola added.
“Sometimes lawyers and judges don’t understand what it is like for a trans person telling their story about assaults, sexual assaults, violence, degradation,” Noyola said. “A trans person has to constantly relive that because the asylum process isn’t just one interview and then that’s it…So it’s having to do that over and over again, and that takes a toll on your mental health.”
On Nov. 26, the Transgender Law Center and Law Office of Andrew R. Free announced that they would be moving forward with a Notice of Wrongful Death Tort Claim, in the hopes of bringing some justice to the death of Rodriguez.
While the journey that Maria, who knew Roxsana, went through was filled with so much pain, she doesn’t regret the risks she took to get here. She hopes that one day other trans asylum seekers can also find their way to the safety.
“Que sigan luchando por sus sueños,” Maria said. “Que no se rindan porque cuando una tiene sueños, hay que perseguirlos.” Keep fighting for your dreams. Don’t give up because when we have dreams, we have to fight for them.