Lit­tle refuge north for LGBT mi­grants

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Jose A. Del Real KAYLA REEFER/NEW YORK TIMES

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.

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