By Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade
A gay man from Guatemala who has asked for asylum in the U.S. runs a project that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers in a Mexican border city.
Estuardo Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, at the end of July 2019 and asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he said he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation. Cifuentes on Sept. 24 during a Zoom interview told the Washington Blade he spent a few days in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody before he was sent back to Matamoros under the Trump administration’s “return to Mexico” (MPP) policy that forces asylum seekers to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico.
“I went back to Matamoros without knowing anything, without knowing anything about the process,” said Cifuentes.
Cifuentes told the Blade he met Gaby Zavala, founder of Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to migrants who live in Matamoros soon after he returned to the Mexican border city.
Cifuentes said Resource Center Matamoros and other U.S.-based organizations helped him find housing and legal assistance for his asylum case. Cifuentes told the Blade that he, Zavala and others also began to discuss ways to help LGBTQ migrants who live in a sprawling migrant camp adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros with Brownsville.
Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers was born.
“We managed to coordinate it, we set goals and we ran with the project,” said Cifuentes.
Cifuentes said some of the 14 LGBTQ migrants with whom Rainbow Bridge works live in the Matamoros camp. He told the Blade that Resource Center Matamoros, among other things, provides the migrants with whom he works access to health care providers and lawyers who can help them translate their asylum forms into English.
“Rainbow Bridge is a bridge between other organizations,” he said.
“Since the onset of the refugee encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (the Mexican state in which Matamoros is located), the need for safe spaces for asylum seekers living in the camp from the LGBTQ+ community became a top priority for Resource Center Matamoros,”
Zavala told the Blade. “After several attempts to provide that space within the encampment, it became more obvious that creating a specific program whose only focus was the LGBTQ+ members was necessary, so I put the effort in obtaining significant funding to initiate a first-of-its-kind program in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, which is now known as Rainbow Bridge.”
Zavala said she found a “private donor” who provided financial support for the project.
“Once I achieved that, we selected an inspiring asylum seeker, also a member of the LGBTQ+ community with extensive experience in program development as an owner of his own ’empresa’ or business back in his country of Guatemala to direct the program,” she said.
Guatemala gangs, police targeted Cifuentes, partner
Cifuentes, 32, and his partner of six years ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City.
He said gang members extorted money from them. Cifuentes said they closed their business after the gang members attacked them.
Cifuentes said Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes told the Blade the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him indirectly. He said the police placed him under surveillance under the incident and private cars drove past his home.
“This forced us to leave Guatemala,” said Cifuentes.
Cifuentes told the Blade he decided to ask for asylum in the U.S. because he has relatives in this country and “I can continue my life there.”
“That was the idea … I can go there with them,” he said. “I learned about the asylum process later.”
The State Department advises Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas state because of “crime and kidnapping.” The Mexico-U.S. land border remains closed to non-essential travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cifuentes’ next hearing in his asylum case is scheduled to take place on Oct. 30, but he said it “is dependent” upon coronavirus levels in Matamoros and if the immigration courts in Brownsville will be open. Cifuentes nevertheless said he will continue to help LGBTQ asylum seekers such as himself who remain in Mexico.
“I have the opportunity to understand, to know what it is like to be there, to understand what it is like to be a member of the community, to understand and know what it is like to be a migrant under MPP,” said Cifuentes. “There are many challenges and there are still more vulnerable people who have had less opportunities.”
“I have the opportunity to provide this help,” he added.
Alinson is one of the asylum seekers with whom Rainbow Bridge works.
He is a 41-year-old gay man of African descent from Colombia who has asked for asylum in the U.S. because members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attacked him because of his sexual orientation and race. The U.S. sent Alinson back to Mexico under
MPP in order to await the outcome of his case.
Alinson on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview from Matamoros that Rainbow Bridge brought him to the hospital last week for a brain scan and an electrocardiogram after he suffered a brain hemorrage. Alinson said Rainbow Bridge has also provided him with food and housing outside of the camp.
“It is supporting me,” said Alinson, referring to Rainbow Bridge.
Cifuentes has created a PayPal account that accepts donations for Rainbow Bridge. The link is here.