2 join car­a­van north, but only 1 sur­vives

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­tiana Sanchez

Mo­ments be­fore paramedics rushed Roxsana Her­nan­dez out of an ICE jail in New Mex­ico, Char­lotte con­soled her dy­ing friend.

“I wasn’t sure if I was go­ing to see her again,” she said. “So I hugged her and told her, ‘God bless you. Take care. We’ll be here when you get back.’ ”

They’d only known each other a few months, but the Hon­duran women had formed a tight bond, trav­el­ing to the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der to­gether last spring in a highly pub­li­cized mi­grant car­a­van and pe­ti­tion­ing for asy­lum in San Ysidro. As openly trans­gen­der women, the pair were run­ning from the grip of death in one of the most vi­o­lent coun­tries in the world.

But only one would sur­vive the treach­er­ous 2,700-mile jour­ney. Only one would have a chance at a new life.

Her­nan­dez died from car­diac ar­rest and com­pli­ca­tions from HIV in May, spark­ing out­rage and re­new­ing a de­bate on the treat­ment of trans­gen­der people in de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties. The mys­tery and con­tro­versy be­hind her death

“Be­ing trans and trav­el­ing in a car­a­van is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. You ex­pe­ri­ence a lot of dis­crim­i­na­tion.” Char­lotte, await­ing a rul­ing on her asy­lum case

Char­lotte, a trans­gen­der woman who is seek­ing asy­lum af­ter flee­ing Hon­duras, holds a photo of her friend Roxsana Her­nan­dez, who died while in the cus­tody of im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials.

mys­tery and con­tro­versy be­hind her death lingers — an in­de­pen­dent au­topsy re­vealed signs that Her­nan­dez was abused and ne­glected while in the cus­tody of the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency, ac­cord­ing to her fam­ily. The agency has con­tested the al­le­ga­tions.

Nine months later, Char­lotte is piec­ing her life back to­gether, hop­ing to start over in the Bay Area. But the trauma of her jour­ney is un­re­lent­ing, of­ten trans­port­ing her back to dark mo­ments she des­per­ately wants to for­get.

“You think you’re flee­ing a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion only to find your­self in an even worse sit­u­a­tion,” said Char­lotte, who de­scribed in Span­ish her treach­er­ous jour­ney through Mex­ico in an hour-long in­ter­view last month. “Be­ing trans and trav­el­ing in a car­a­van is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. You ex­pe­ri­ence a lot of dis­crim­i­na­tion from the same people who are trav­el­ing along­side you, and some­times from people in Mex­ico.”

Char­lotte asked that The Chron­i­cle iden­tify her only by first name, be­cause she fears con­se­quences to her pend­ing asy­lum case and ret­ri­bu­tion by gangs in Hon­duras, which threat­ened her life on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. She’s part of a sky­rock­et­ing num­ber of asy­lum seek­ers who have flocked to the U.S. in re­cent years, even as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion looks to turn them away.

Her story il­lus­trates the plight of les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der mi­grants in par­tic­u­lar, who face ex­treme vi­o­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion in their home coun­tries. There were 264 recorded deaths of LGBT people in Hon­duras from 2009 to July 2017, in­clud­ing 152 gay men and 86 trans­gen­der people, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

The jour­ney to the U.S. can prove just as deadly. Trans women are par­tic­u­larly sub­ject to ha­rass­ment and threats in Mex­ico from po­lice and im­mi­gra­tion agents, drug traf­fick­ers and other mi­grants, ac­cord­ing to lawyers.

“They have suf­fered pretty se­vere and of­ten ex­treme forms of phys­i­cal and sex­ual vi­o­lence, of­ten from a very young age,” said Wes Brock­way, an at­tor­ney with the Santa Fe Dream­ers Project, which ini­tially took on Char­lotte’s case while she was de­tained in New Mex­ico. “It’s from fam­ily mem­bers, of­ten it’s from class­mates, but we’re see­ing a lot more in­ci­dents from mem­bers of gangs, po­lice of­fi­cers and govern­ment of­fi­cials them­selves.”

Mean­while, or­ga­ni­za­tions in the Bay Area are ex­pand­ing their ef­forts to con­nect LGBT asy­lum seek­ers with spon­sors who can pro­vide hous­ing and other needs.

Ad­vo­cates be­lieve they have the best chance at win­ning cases in San Fran­cisco, where there’s more aware­ness about the asy­lum process and un­der­stand­ing of trans­gen­der is­sues, said the Rev. Deb­o­rah Lee, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­ter­faith Move­ment for Hu­man In­tegrity in Oak­land.

“Be­cause the risks are so high — if they get de­ported it could mean a death sen­tence — it’s re­ally im­por­tant that they’re get­ting the best chance to win their case,” Lee said. “We want them to thrive, and land in a place where they’re go­ing to have a fight­ing chance.”

Brock­way, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion has rep­re­sented nearly 40 trans­gen­der women in asy­lum cases dur­ing the past year, and about 75 on re­quests to be re­leased from ICE de­ten­tion on bond or pa­role, said LGBT mi­grants typ­i­cally have a high prob­a­bil­ity of win­ning asy­lum be­cause of their vul­ner­a­ble cir­cum­stances.

“There’s ex­tremely high rates of vi­o­lence against LGBTQ in­di­vid­u­als,” he said. “It’s very well doc­u­mented. The women who are com­ing and are pre­sent­ing their claims with le­gal coun­sel are of­ten very suc­cess­ful.”

ICE, U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion and the Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice for Im­mi­gra­tion Re­view said they don’t specif­i­cally track the num­ber of LGBT asy­lum seek­ers who cross the bor­der each year. There were 111 self-iden­ti­fied trans­gen­der in­di­vid­u­als in cus­tody at 20 ICE fa­cil­i­ties na­tion­wide as of Feb. 4, ac­cord­ing to the agency.

Char­lotte, who re­cently found a pro bono at­tor­ney in the Bay Area, checks in with ICE reg­u­larly and is await­ing a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing in San Fran­cisco Im­mi­gra­tion Court this month.

Char­lotte said MS-13 gang mem­bers in Hon­duras had pres­sured her to trans­port drugs into the fac­tory where she worked in San Pe­dro Sula, an in­dus­trial city in north­ern Hon­duras. The drugs were pop­u­lar among work­ers who used them to stay awake dur­ing long shifts, she said. But af­ter Char­lotte re­fused to be a mule, the gang be­gan to send death threats.

“Why did they ap­proach me, why did they choose me? Be­cause in Hon­duras, iden­ti­fy­ing or look­ing trans means be­ing the fo­cus of jokes and crit­i­cism,” Char­lotte said. “They don’t value our lives as hu­man be­ings. This group uses this as an ad­van­tage for them and a dis­ad­van­tage for us, be­cause we’re forced to do things for them. … You can run away and move, but they send you death threats and tell you they’re go­ing to kill you, like they did with me.

“I de­cided to leave my coun­try and flee for my life be­cause I wanted to keep liv­ing.”

Like many people who flee Cen­tral Amer­ica by foot and travel north, Char­lotte’s jour­ney is de­fined by a com­plex labyrinth of un­known cities, long bus rides, shel­ters and a jum­ble of frac­tured mem­o­ries.

She ar­rived in Mex­ico in 2016, set­tling in Ta­pachula, a city in the south­east state of Chi­a­pas near the Gu­atemalan bor­der where im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties granted her asy­lum, she said. But when her grand­fa­ther died in Hon­duras that sum­mer, Char­lotte re­turned home to at­tend his fu­neral. It wasn’t long be­fore MS-13 mem­bers tracked her down af­ter the cer­e­mony, rap­ing her in a re­mote area in her home­town and threat­en­ing to kill her if she didn’t leave, she said.

“It was ter­ri­ble for me be­cause they forced me to do things that I didn’t want to do,” she said. “But I didn’t say any­thing to any­one be­cause it was MS-13.”

Char­lotte left for Mex­ico that night, re­turn­ing to Ta­pachula for a few days be­fore hop­ping on a bus to Mex­ico City, where she stayed at a shel­ter for about eight months. Then, she caught wind of a car­a­van ap­proach­ing.

Mi­grant caravans from Cen­tral Amer­ica, which of­ten in­clude more than 1,000 people, have be­come a grow­ing phe­nom­e­non in re­cent years and a sym­bol of de­fi­ance against Pres­i­dent Trump’s hard-line im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies. The caravans have par­tic­u­larly fu­eled Trump’s de­mands for a $5.7 bil­lion bor­der wall, el­e­vated by claims that crim­i­nals and drug traf­fick­ers travel with the groups.

Char­lotte went to Pue­bla and joined the car­a­van May 5. That’s where she met Roxsana Her­nan­dez and about 30 other LGBT people.

“That’s where the travesty be­gan,” she said.

The group faced taunts and threats through­out the jour­ney, ac­cord­ing to Char­lotte. They were turned away at sev­eral churches and told they had to dress like men if they wanted food and other needs. At a shel­ter in Ti­juana, neigh­bors yelled for the women to leave and threat­ened to run them over when they walked out­side, she said. One night when Char­lotte and her friends went out, a group of six men set the shel­ter on fire.

“All of our things burned. Our clothes, our makeup. Ev­ery­thing burned,” she said.

Char­lotte — soft-spo­ken, guarded and funny — sat in the color­ful of­fices of El/la Para Tran­sLati­nas, a non­profit that pro­vides health and ed­u­ca­tional re­sources to trans­gen­der Lati­nas in San Fran­cisco. The women who run the group out of a run­down build­ing on 16th street have be­come an adopted fam­ily to Char­lotte, who takes BART from El Cer­rito to visit. At the cen­ter of the of­fice is a wall-to-wall al­tar hon­or­ing trans women who have died.

Char­lotte held a small photo of Her­nan­dez, smil­ing in a white lace blazer, her beach-blond hair pulled to one side. Though she was cropped out of the photo, Char­lotte’s hand re­mains in the frame, rest­ing on her friend’s shoul­der.

The group crossed the bor­der at the San Ysidro Port of En­try near San Diego on May 9. They spent sev­eral days in a hold­ing cell — dubbed “la

hiel­era” or “the cooler” for its ex­tremely low tem­per­a­tures — as they waited to be trans­ferred to ICE de­ten­tion. By then, Her­nan­dez’s health was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, ac­cord­ing to Char­lotte.

The women were trans­ferred to a unit for trans­gen­der in­mates at the Ci­bola Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity in New Mex­ico on May 16, ac­cord­ing to ICE records. Her­nan­dez had stopped talk­ing and eat­ing. Her friends re­quested med­i­cal help.

Less than two weeks later, she was dead. Other in­di­vid­u­als de­tained in the same unit as Her­nan­dez who were quoted in the in­de­pen­dent au­topsy re­port al­lege that she showed symp­toms of se­vere de­hy­dra­tion while in ICE cus­tody but didn’t re­ceive med­i­cal treat­ment un­til she was gravely ill.

She and Char­lotte, who ex­pe­ri­enced se­vere stom­ach pain while in de­ten­tion, had briefly seen a doc­tor in San Diego. But Her­nan­dez, who had pre­vi­ous de­por­ta­tions and crim­i­nal charges for pros­ti­tu­tion in the United States, was told she couldn’t be treated for HIVre­lated symp­toms, ac­cord­ing to Char­lotte. There’s no record of the San Diego hospi­tal visit in Her­nan­dez’s of­fi­cial death re­port.

“Yes, she was sick through­out the jour­ney, but she wasn’t dy­ing. She could’ve lived longer,” Char­lotte said. “They put a hu­man be­ing’s health as sec­ond pri­or­ity. And that should never be the case. My friend lost her life be­cause of that.”

Dr. Kris Sperry, the foren­sic pathol­o­gist who was hired by the Trans­gen­der Law Cen­ter to con­duct the in­de­pen­dent au­topsy, has faced con­tro­versy in the past. Sperry stepped down in 2015 from his post as chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner for the state of Ge­or­gia af­ter a news in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed he had taken on hun­dreds of pri­vate cases while em­ployed by the state.

ICE said it can­not speak to the va­lid­ity of the pri­vate au­topsy per­formed on Her­nan­dez, but that al­le­ga­tions she was abused in ICE cus­tody are false.

“A re­view of Her­nan­dez’s death con­ducted by ICE Health Ser­vice Corps med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als con­firmed that she suf­fered from a his­tory of un­treated HIV,” the agency said. “At no time did the med­i­cal per­son­nel treat­ing Ms. Her­nan­dez at Ci­bola Gen­eral Hospi­tal or Lovelace Med­i­cal Cen­ter raise any is­sues of sus­pected phys­i­cal abuse.”

Mean­while, hun­dreds of miles away in Rich­mond, Deb­bie Bayer and her part­ner, David Rein­ert­son, got a call from an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion ask­ing if the cou­ple would be will­ing to spon­sor Her­nan­dez and Char­lotte once they were re­leased from ICE de­ten­tion. Bayer com­mu­ni­cated with Char­lotte of­ten and filled her com­mis­sary ac­count but had trou­ble reach­ing Her­nan­dez.

“I kept call­ing, and every­body said, ‘We don’t know where she is,’ ” said Bayer, 69, a re­tired nurse. “She was al­ready dead, I think.”

They wel­comed Char­lotte into their mod­est two-bed­room home in Au­gust.

“I had never housed a stranger be­fore,” Bayer said. “I didn’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence with trans people. When I went to the air­port in Oak­land I im­me­di­ately thought, ‘She’s beau­ti­ful.’ ”

Char­lotte is learn­ing English and hangs out of­ten with friends from the car­a­van and from El/la. She’s ea­gerly await­ing her work per­mit, which will al­low her to get a job while her asy­lum case makes its way through the court. But on some days, her mind is with Her­nan­dez.

“We were both sup­posed to come to this house,” she said. “That’s why I feel as if our story wasn’t fin­ished yet. It was sup­posed to con­tinue.

“But God knows why he does things.”

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Char­lotte leaves the San Fran­cisco of­fices of El/la Para Tran­sLati­nas, which pro­vides re­sources to trans­gen­der Lati­nas.

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