Little refuge north for LGBT migrants
They fled violence and persecution in Central America, but find uncertainty at the border.
JTIJUANA, Mexico ade 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.
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.
“A lot of the queer men experience threats 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.
Jade Quintanilla, a transgender woman from El Salvador, seen in Tijuana, Mexico, said she was robbed, exploited and abused on her trip north to seek asylum in the U.S.