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Transgender Asylum Seekers in the United States

Articles excerpted from “For transgender migrants fleeing death threats, asylum in the U.S. is a crapshoot”, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times.
© Los Angeles Times

The article below is about transgender migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The excerpts are taken from “For transgender migrants fleeing death threats, asylum in the U.S. is a crapshoot,” written by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times.

MATAMOROS, Mexico — As has happened so often in her life, Mayela Villegas once again faced the threat of violence.

It was a late afternoon in September and she was alone. Hundreds of other asylum seekers camped at the foot of the U.S.-Mexico border bridge were resting before volunteers arrived with dinner.

Suddenly, a fellow Central American migrant appeared at her tent, growling threats.

“I don’t want any problems,” said Villegas, a slight figure with long brown hair and red lipstick.

The Honduran woman threatening her was dating a member of a Mexican drug cartel. Villegas tried to appease the woman by acknowledging she had powerful friends, even as Villegas secretly recorded their encounter on a cellphone.

“Yes,” the woman snarled before leaving for her nearby tent. “You know how this is going to end.”

Studies show LGBTQ migrants are among the most vulnerable, more likely to be assaulted and killed: 88% were victims of sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin; two-thirds suffered similar attacks in Mexico, according to a 2017 study by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Non-Mexican migrants seeking asylum must now await U.S. immigration court hearings south of the border under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico program. A Homeland Security spokeswoman said asylum seekers may be removed from the program and allowed into the U.S. if they are “more likely than not to face persecution or torture in Mexico.”

Some transgender migrants have indeed been released or placed in detention in the U.S. But many more LGBTQ asylum seekers have been placed on waiting lists or returned to Mexico for months. Dozens of LGBTQ asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros and Tijuana said in interviews that U.S. immigration officials told them they were not exempt from Remain in Mexico.

Villegas, a 27-year-old hairdresser from El Salvador, first sought refuge in the U.S. five years ago. She entered the country via Tijuana, but was deported. Two years later she returned, only to be deported again by a judge who didn’t believe she was Salvadoran or transgender, according to court documents she keeps with her.

Villegas said she and a transgender friend were kidnapped in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula by men who stripped and raped them repeatedly. Villegas, who dropped out of college to help support her family, managed to escape and return home, only to be assaulted and forced into prostitution by Salvadoran gang members. She reported the attacks to the police and to Amnesty International, testifying at a human rights conference. But after receiving a death threat from the gang in May, she headed north again, hoping to join her aunt, a legal resident in Houston.

Villegas said her family accepted her as transgender. Her aunt, a fellow hairstylist, would help her find work and made room for Villegas in her suburban home. But the aunt, who is conservative, also would call her by her male name, pressure her to attend church and criticize her if she wore flashy dresses or anything too feminine.

In Matamoros, Villegas waited three weeks before she was allowed to cross the border bridge to Brownsville, Texas, and claim asylum. Customs and Border Protection agents could see from her identification that she was transgender. When she asked if there were exceptions to Remain in Mexico for trans migrants, “They said that would happen at my court hearing.”

She was sent back to Mexico the same day. Her immigration hearing in Brownsville wasn’t until Dec. 9.

“I could die before that,” she said.

Migrants bathing in the nearby Rio Grande last month found the torso of a man whose limbs and head had been cut off. Villegas thought about her own death a lot.

“Where will I be buried?” she wondered aloud. “Will my mother know?”

On Sept. 1, she and a half dozen LGBTQ migrants, accompanied by U.S. legal advocates, entered the bridge and confronted customs officers, demanding they be removed from Remain in Mexico. They were sent back to Matamoros.

I’m a woman. I can’t give up what I am. MAYELA VILLEGAS

As weeks passed, life at the camp worsened. Migrants threw trash onto a fetid black pile beside Villegas’ tent. The woman who had threatened her kept circling. Villegas wondered if she would get attacked.

“I think about suicide sometimes,” she said.

She did not consider wearing men’s clothes or acting macho to blend in.

“I’m a woman,” she said. “I can’t give up what I am.”

Villegas has a smooth face and breasts, having taken hormone blocking drugs since age 16. She dreamed about having gender confirmation surgery once she made it to the U.S. and found work. She said she wanted to be free to walk the streets without fear, “to finish my transition and to not be persecuted by anyone anymore.”

Though her hearing was weeks away, an immigration lawyer offered to walk her over the bridge to attempt an asylum claim this month. Days later, she heard that presidential candidate Julián Castro, working with the Texas Civil Rights Project, was coming to Matamoros to escort fellow LGBTQ asylum seekers across the bridge.

Villegas wondered what would increase her chances for asylum. Crossing on her own? With her friends?

In her tent the night before she was due to cross, she packed two small suitcases and messaged other LGBTQ asylum seekers on WhatsApp.

“What would you do in my shoes?” she said.

It’s not clear how many LGBTQ people are among the 54,000 asylum seekers returned to Mexico or the 26,000 more on waiting lists to apply for asylum. Forty-five congressional lawmakers wrote to Homeland Security officials in June, demanding they clarify the Remain in Mexico policy for LGBTQ migrants and detail how many had been returned.

“Forcing them to remain in Mexico or creating additional hardships in their asylum process only makes them more susceptible to the same violence that forced them from their home countries in the first place,” the lawmakers wrote.


Villegas was interviewed as her LGBTQ friends had been: via telephone, by an asylum officer. Unlike the one who interviewed her before, this officer was sympathetic; he said he had a gay relative.

Villegas told him about being threatened at the tent camp, that she had recorded the encounter, reported it to the police and obtained police reports.

The officer listened and then made a ruling: Villegas could stay in the U.S. while her asylum case is pending. She was allowed to contact her aunt, who bought her a bus ticket to Houston. By the next morning, she was on her way.

But the following day, eight of her LGBTQ friends tried to cross the same bridge with Castro. They too were interviewed by an asylum officer. But this officer said there were no exceptions to Remain in Mexico for LGBTQ migrants. They said he told them that if they felt unsafe in Matamoros, they should move somewhere “with more gays,” like Mexico City.

All eight migrants were returned to Mexico.

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© Los Angeles Times
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