LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles


By Michael K Lavers, Washington Blade

Two transgender women who were forced to pursue their asylum cases in Mexico entered the U.S. on Wednesday.

Janeth, a trans woman from Havana, flew from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago on Jan. 26, 2019. She spent the next four months traveling through more than a dozen countries in Central and South America until she reached the U.S.-Mexico border on May 27, 2019.

Natasha, a trans woman from Honduras’ Olancho department, arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, on Oct. 12, 2019.

The Washington Blade interviewed Natasha and Janeth on Feb. 27 at a Matamoros shelter that Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants that Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create. Natasha and Janeth both said they asked for asylum in the U.S. because of persecution they suffered in their home countries due to their gender identity.

“Discrimination, transphobia, homophobia, police abuse, police persecution and all these aggressions that are directed towards my community are the reasons that force us to leave,” said Janeth. “They almost expel us.”

Natasha told the Blade she left Honduras because there is “a lot of discrimination against us.”

“I left because I want to be a free person, I want to be myself, to be who I am … to feel liberated,” she said.

Violence based on gender identity remains commonplace in Honduras.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, over the last decade has spearheaded LGBTQ-specific issues on the Communist island. Mariela Castro’s supporters, among other things, note Cuba offers free sex-reassignment surgery under its health care system.

Independent activists with whom the Blade has spoken say trans Cubans continue to face persecution and harassment, especially if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro and/or the Cuban government.

Biden suspended MPP enrollments in January

Janeth and Natasha are among the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who the Trump administration forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program it implemented in June 2019.

A State Department advisory urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Mexico’s Tamaulipas state in which Matamoros is located because of “crime and kidnapping” and “organized crime activity” that includes “gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion and sexual assault.” Sources in Matamoros and in other Mexican border cities with whom the Blade has spoken say drug cartels in these areas also target trans women for human trafficking and force them into sex work.

“[Mexico] is a racist, xenophobic, transphobic country with a lot of aggression, and it is worse in the state of Tamaulipas,” Janeth told the Blade.

Natasha had lived in a migrant camp near the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros and Brownsville for 11 months until she moved into the Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers shelter last November. Janeth moved into the facility at around the same time.

The Biden administration in January suspended enrollment in MPP.

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By Michel K. Lavers, Washignton Blade

MATAMOROS, Mexico — A gay man from Guatemala who the Trump administration forced to pursue his asylum case in Mexico is scheduled to enter the U.S. on April 30.

Estuardo Cifuentes in June 2019 asked for asylum in the U.S. because of the anti-gay persecution he suffered in his country of origin.

Cifuentes on Saturday told the Blade during an interview at the offices of Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in Matamoros, a Mexican border city across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, that he was one of the first asylum seekers in Matamoros enrolled in its Migrant Protection Protocols program, which is also known as the “remain in Mexico” program.

Many of the hundreds of people who were living in a camp near the Gateway International Bridge that connects Matamoros and Brownsville on Saturday have asked for asylum in the U.S., but they were forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under MPP.

The Biden administration in January suspended enrollment in the program.

The U.S. since last week has allowed asylum seekers in Matamoros with active MPP cases to enter the country. Cifuentes said the U.N. Refugee Agency called him on Friday and told him when he could come to the U.S.

“At the very least I have a date,” he said. “But it is difficult to know there are two more months … two more months in Matamoros.”

Cifuentes told the Blade in a previous interview that Resource Center Matamoros and other organizations in the U.S. helped him find housing and legal assistance for his asylum case. Cifuentes also runs Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers in Matamoros.

Rainbow Bridge runs a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants to which Cifuentes brought the Blade on Saturday. Rainbow Bridge also works with Resource Center Matamoros to provide LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants access to health care providers and lawyers who can help them with their cases.

Cifuentes told the Blade that LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants in Matamoros remain vulnerable to persecution and violence that includes members of the Gulf drug cartel who force transgender women into sex work. Cifuentes said kidnappings also take place in Matamoros, although there are not as many as in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities.

The State Department urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Mexico’s Tamaulipas state in which is Matamoros because of “crime and kidnapping.”

“Organized crime activity — including gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion and sexual assault — is common along the northern border and in Ciudad Victoria,” reads the advisory.

Ciudad Victoria is Tamaulipas’ capital city.

“Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments. Heavily armed members of criminal groups often patrol areas of the state in marked and unmarked vehicles and operate with impunity particularly along the border region from Reynosa northwest to Nuevo Laredo,” adds the State Department advisory. “In these areas, local law enforcement has limited capability to respond to crime incidents.”

The land border between Mexico and the U.S. remains closed to nonessential travel because of the pandemic.

The Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, looking towards Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 26, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cifuentes had planned to live with an uncle in Las Vegas once he received asylum, but he now plans to stay in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

“I have people now,” Cifuentes told the Blade. “I now have a plan.”

Cifuentes conceded it will take time for the Biden administration to fully undo MPP and other aspects of its predecessor’s hardline immigration policies. Cifuentes nevertheless said he remains hopeful about his future in the U.S.

“I keep believing that it is doing its job,” he said, referring to President Biden and his administration. “I know that it is not easy.”

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By Nicole Narea

The Biden administration is reopening temporary facilities to hold an increasing number of migrant children arriving on the US southern border, reviving concerns about their welfare after immigration agents forcibly separated families and kept children in prison-like conditions under former President Donald Trump.

The Biden administration is still expelling all children who arrive with their parents on the border under pandemic-related restrictions enacted by Trump. But it is taking children who arrive unaccompanied into custody, straining the capacity of permanent shelters that have been forced to halve their bed space amid the pandemic.

Those facilities, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), are distinct from the “cages” in US Customs and Border Protection holding facilities that generated widespread outrage under the Trump administration. In those holding facilities, children slept with nothing but mylar blankets to keep them warm at night on concrete floors. Some immigrant advocates argue the ORR facilities are also unsuitable, but they are set up to administer care to children, complete with schooling and recreational amenities.

With those ORR facilities now at capacity, the Biden administration is opening temporary overflow facilities, including a tent facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that can hold up to 700 teenagers. The Miami Herald reported that the administration is also slated to reopen a for-profit emergency influx center in Homestead, Florida that once held up to 3,200 children and came under fire in 2019 following reports of sexual abuse, overcrowding, and negligent hiring practices.

The Biden administration has maintained that it has no choice but to reopen the facilities in light of capacity restrictions during the pandemic and more children arriving on the border, but that the welfare of the children remains a primary concern.

“What we are doing is working as quickly as possible to process these kids into these HHS facilities ... so we can then transfer them to families,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “This is a difficult situation. It’s a difficult choice.”

CBS reported Wednesday that the administration has allowed HHS shelters to pay for unaccompanied children’s travel expenses so that they can be more quickly released to sponsors, who are typically family members, but can also include foster parents. That could free up space in the permanent shelters and shorten the children’s time in confinement.

But immigrant advocates remain concerned that the children will be subjected to inhumane treatment and prolonged stays in these temporary facilities, as well as across the HHS shelter system, demanding that Biden take steps to avoid their confinement altogether.

“We must not repeat these mistakes and expose more children to the long-term physical and mental health effects of detention,” Oliver Torres, a senior outreach paralegal for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said in a statement. “To simply return to the failed model of child detention of the pre-Trump era is a missed opportunity to meaningfully reimagine our immigration system, particularly with respect to immigrant children.”

Conditions in temporary facilities to hold migrant children have raised concerns for years

There have been reports of abuses in both permanent and temporary HHS shelters for migrant children over the years, even predating Trump.

In one of the most egregious cases, migrant children were administered powerful psychotropic drugs at one shelter south of Houston, Texas in 2018.

The Homestead facility’s history of sexual abuse, neglect, and dangerous living conditionshas also made it a target of immigrant advocates. Following public pressure, the Trump administration closed the facility in October 2019 and did not renew a contract with the facility’s private operator, a Caliburn International subsidiary known as Comprehensive Health Services. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will contract with a different operator or conduct additional oversight of the facility, which became a symbol of the Trump administration’s cruel policies concerning migrant children.

The facility in Carrizo Springs, which was built in 2019 to prevent children from being detained in CBP holding facilities on a long-term basis, has a better track record compared to other facilities housing migrant children nationwide.

Operated by the San-Antonio based nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, it previously had a dining hall, assembly area, and dormitories with bunk beds decorated with colorful paintings, though the orientation of the facility will have to change to accommodate social distancing protocols.

However, it’s located in a remote location, about a two hour’s drive from San Antonio, the nearest major city. That makes it difficult for government watchdogs to conduct independent oversight and ensure that the children are being treated humanely and in compliance with legal requirements.

“External oversight is really important when it comes to any kind of facility in which people are forcibly confined,” César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver who has written extensively about the immigration detention system, said. “That need for external oversight is only increased when we’re talking about children, who are the most vulnerable and the least likely to be able to advocate on their own behalf.”

Advocates also remain concerned that the Biden administration won’t act quickly enough to release children in either the Homestead or Carrizo Springs facilities to sponsors. While the government considers them “unaccompanied,” many of them have parents, other family members, or non-biological guardians in the US. In those cases, the administration should be facilitating their reunification, but the Department of Homeland Security has a long history of impeding that process, typically questioning the validity of family relationships or a sponsor’s fitness to take care of a child.

There is a “small, but severe risk” that the children might be victims of trafficking or exploitation, but DHS has often invoked that risk as justification for detaining large numbers of migrant children and making it exceedingly difficult for them to reunify with their caretakers, Hernández said.

“In the very recent past, the federal government has separated kids from adult caretakers and then imposed a host of obstacles that either make it impossible or impractical for adult caretakers to actually welcome these kids into their homes,” Hernández said. “The administration needs to embrace the fact that it is dealing with a highly problematic agency with a troubled past.”

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