For LGBTQ Immigrants, the Pandemic Threatens Lives Already in Dangerous Limbo

by Dan Allen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 28, 2020

Natasha, a 23-year-old transgender immigrant struggling to obtain asylum in the U.S.
Natasha, a 23-year-old transgender immigrant struggling to obtain asylum in the U.S.  (Source:RAICES)

Natasha headed north from Honduras with a dream, one that she's shared with millions of American immigrants for the past four centuries. As a young trans woman, she'd been disowned by her family and made an outcast in her community. She yearned to start a happier new life in America, the land of acceptance and opportunity.

After a grueling 40-day, 2,000-mile journey, Natasha finally arrived at the Mexico-Texas border at Brownsville last September, expecting to claim asylum and be allowed into the United States to await her hearing. Instead, she was brusquely turned away by immigration officials and left to fend for herself in Mexico.

"They didn't explain anything," says the 23-year-old in a video by RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), a South Texas nonprofit aiding immigrants like Natasha. "They didn't ask me anything or tell me to sign anything or say why they were sending me here. But before I knew it, here I was."

"Here" is a makeshift camp of some 2,000 immigrants like herself in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, where she's been ever since. Within days of her arrival, everything she'd brought with her from Honduras was stolen, and she was forced to sleep on the open street at the camp, without even a blanket. "I just cried," she says. "I didn't have anything to eat. I went two days without eating before someone donated food."

"It's not easy," she adds. "And I still don't know why they sent us here."

A migrant sleeps in a canal near the wall that separates and protects the border line between the United States and Mexico and San Ysidro border port.
A migrant sleeps in a canal near the wall that separates and protects the border line between the United States and Mexico and San Ysidro border port.  (Source: Photo Beto / Getty Images)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, conditions were unspeakably grim for LGBTQ immigrants coming to America during the Trump administration. Often having faced life-threatening situations in their home countries, they'd made arduous journeys to get to the promised land — only to realize that President Trump's anti-immigrant policies have created ever more confusing variables at the U.S. border. These variables left even the luckiest among them in a protracted state of hellish limbo.

Now, for these LGBTQ immigrants already living tremendously marginalized and precarious lives, the deadly pandemic is adding even more layers of danger and uncertainty. In late April, Trump tweeted his intent to put a temporary but apparently wholesale halt to immigration to the United States — ostensibly in the name of slowing down the pandemic, but clearly as an excuse to implement the immigration ban for which he's long yearned. For current asylum candidates, this will likely mean even longer waits in squalid detention centers or dangerous camps along the border, for hearings that have already been postponed for months.

"What the Trump administration has incrementally put in place is literally an attack on the asylum system itself — and these policies affect queer people disproportionately," says Amitesh Parikh, staff attorney at Immigration Equality, America's leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization. "These people are fleeing persecution in their countries of origin. A lot of them have been threatened with death. They've been tortured. They've been raped. They've been beaten. And once they come here, they apply for asylum, they're not granted asylum, and they're sent back to the very place where these atrocities happened."

For those "lucky" enough to still be granted a place in the asylum hearing queue, wait times of six months for a first hearing had already become commonplace — which meant either a long wait in a federal detention center or increasingly, somewhere on the Mexican side of the border, thanks to the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols (or MPP, also known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy), which went into effect in January 2019.

Sandy, a transgender woman from Mexico, fled to the United States in 1995 to escape mistreatment based on my gender identity. In 2009, she went to Immigration Equality for help and eventually received a green card and became a U.S. citizen.

Steve Roth, Executive Director, ORAM
Steve Roth, Executive Director, ORAM  (Source: ORAM)

The Perilous Road to Freedom

"In the past and up until recently, you could just arrive at a U.S. Port of Entry and say, 'I have a well-founded fear of persecution in my country, and I'm applying for asylum in this country,' and the U.S. would allow people in," explains Steve Roth, executive director of ORAM (the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that advocates for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ asylum seekers. "You could even get permission to work temporarily while your asylum case was being adjudicated. But, of course, the Trump administration has changed all of that."

"Before this policy came into place, up to 200 people could go to a border guard every day and say, 'Hey, I want to claim asylum,' and they would have to process them," says Parikh. "They would then be put in a detention facility in the United States, to then go on to the asylum process. MPP is kind of a waitlist even to do that. Now, when someone presents themselves to a border guard, they say, 'Okay, fine. You can file your asylum application. However, you have to remain in Mexico until it is your turn to be called before an immigration judge.' And basically, that puts LGBTQ people again in harm's way. We've heard stories of people being kidnapped, tortured, raped, forced into sex work, and beaten up at the border, just for being LGBTQ."

Indeed, for Natasha, the wait for her asylum hearing — scheduled for this June, some nine months after her arrival — has proven long and increasingly perilous. The small tent someone gave her at Matamoros means that she's no longer sleeping on the open street, but her days have been filled with constant harassment. With volunteers now withdrawn from the camp over coronavirus concerns, lawlessness has increased.

(l to r) Raiza Hernandez and Tess Feldman holding a sign in support of the Dignity for Detained Immigrants bill.
(l to r) Raiza Hernandez and Tess Feldman holding a sign in support of the Dignity for Detained Immigrants bill.  (Source: Los Angeles LGBT Center)

"The MPP/'Remain in Mexico' policy is designed to discourage people from even starting the asylum process that they're allowed to go through," says Tess Feldman, manager of the Immigration Law Project at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. "They're being returned to Mexico, but then required to show up for court dates at all hours of the night. People get in line at two, three, four in the morning for their court dates, aren't allowed into the courtroom to appear for those court dates in San Diego, and [are] then being ordered deported in their absence, even with their best attempts to comply with this newly fabricated set up. So the system is definitely designed to discourage people from exercising their rights."

Parikh says that some people who self-identify as LGBTQ are still being allowed to wait for their asylum hearings in the United States — albeit in detention facilities, which, aside from often being squalid, have now become hotbeds of COVID-19 panic.

"We've already been really concerned for the health and safety of our immigrant clients for years — especially LGBTQ asylum seekers and folks who, for example, are living with HIV, or people who are living with AIDS," says Feldman. "We know that our trans community is rarely housed in the correct place, or given medical care that they need related to health conditions, or medical needs related to their identity. In the last year, we've had multiple deaths of trans women asylum seekers, well before this pandemic, from not having proper medical care. I have one client, a trans woman, who was both denied HIV medication and incorrectly treated for tuberculosis."

Jardin de las Mariposas
Jardin de las Mariposas  

As the coronavirus spreads, calls are increasing for officials to release the most at-risk asylum seekers from federal detention facilities. Five LGBTQ detainees were released for various med-ical reasons from an Arizona facility at the end of March, but Immigration Equality and other LGBTQ advocacy groups have called for the nationwide release of all asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS and otherwise compromised immune systems.

ORAM is helping some LGBTQ asylum seekers stuck in Mexico as part of MPP. The group works closely with Jardin de las Mariposas, an LGBTQ rehab center turned safe space for immigrants, which has received financial support from interior design power couple Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent.

"The U.S. is saying to anyone put in MPP, 'Okay great, here's your court date in November or next year, now just go hang out in Mexico,'" says Roth. "And you know, people are arriving at the border not speaking English, and without legal representation. It's kind of a sham. So we work with them before they reach the U.S., providing needed legal services and getting them ready for their interviews and to fill out their asylum forms."

"The thing to think about with most other refugees and asylum seekers is that they're traveling with family, or people from their own country, from their own communities," says Roth. "But for LGBTQ asylum seekers, usually those are the people they're fleeing from, from their own families that are trying to kill them or villages and communities that are persecuting them. LGBTQ asylum seekers don't have that kind of natural infrastructure. Luckily, you have the shelters that have popped up there, which support these kinds of created families where people take really wonderful care of each other."

For Natasha and countless other LGBTQ asylum seekers who haven't been fortunate enough to find a safe house, the bleak and precarious wait continues along the border. And yet, she insists there's no turning back. "I will never go back to Honduras," she says. "I'd rather be killed a thousand times than go back."

Worth Manifesto, a Pittsburgh-based group helping immigrant women at the border, has launched a petition to request immediate asylum for Natasha, which can be signed here. To help ORAM assist LGBTQ immigrants during the coronavirus crisis, donate here.

Dan Allen covers travel and LGBTQ culture for numerous outlets around the world including NBC Out, CBS Watch!, the Los Angeles Blade, Passport and Fodor's.


This story is part of our special report titled EDGE-i. Want to read more? Here's the full list.