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Texas Group Advocates for LGBTI Migrants

by Michael K. Lavers

A Texas-based immigrant advocacy group continues to provide assistance to LGBTI migrants who hope to find refuge in the U.S.

Cristian Sánchez of the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Serviceson July 18 told the Washington Blade during an interview at his San Antonio office that RAICES last fall sent staffers to Mexico City to meet a “self-formed” group of LGBTI migrants from Central America. Sánchez said RAICES bought the migrants bus tickets to Tijuana, a city on the Mexico-U.S. border, and secured housing for them once they arrived.

“We made the decision to help them the rest of the way because they were suffering some discrimination within the caravan and just felt their needs weren’t really being listened to in the group decisions,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez told the Blade he soon found himself running two shelters for LGBTI migrants: One in Playas de Tijuana and a second close to downtown Tijuana.

“I basically jumped into it,” said Sánchez. “The next four, five months of my life was running that shelter (in Playas de Tijuana) and another shelter.”

Sánchez said the group of LGBTI migrants who RAICES helped in Tijuana “all made it to the U.S.” and are now “detained” throughout the country, including in Louisiana where Yariel Valdés González, a Blade contributor from Cuba who has asked for asylum in the U.S., remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Dozens of trans women remain in ICE custody at the South Texas Detention Complex, a privately-run detention center in Pearsall, a town along Interstate 35 that is roughly 60 miles southwest of San Antonio.

Sánchez has created what he described to the Blade as a “temporary transition house” in San Antonio for trans women who were previously in ICE custody at the South Texas Detention Complex. Sánchez said RAICES provides them with a place to sleep, eat, shower and “feel like a human again after a very dehumanizing few months of attention.”

“We have clothing and makeup to feel like yourself again, to self-actualize,” he said.

Sánchez added many of the trans migrants with whom RAICES works “have been rejected by their families and don’t have a place to go in the U.S.”

“The level of violence has pushed them to make this journey and seek asylum, even not knowing what their future is going to hold,” he said.

The organization has 130 staffers who work from offices in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Corpus Christi. RAICES is among the myriad organizations that strongly oppose the Trump administration’s overall immigration policy, which includes the “remain in Mexico” program that forces migrants to remain in Mexico as they await the outcome of their asylum cases and a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala.

Sánchez said RAICES works with the American Immigration Council to help detained migrants find lawyers who will represent them pro bono.

Sánchez told the Blade that more than a dozen trans women who RAICES has represented have won their asylum cases. Sánchez also said RAICES is able to use donations it receives to pay migrants’ bonds that secure their release from ICE custody.

Sánchez said 25 trans women were in ICE custody at the South Texas Correctional Complex when he spoke with the Blade.

He told the Blade they called him regularly, “which is really intense because situations are really bad inside.” Sánchez, who was at the facility a few hours before he spoke with the Blade at his office, said trans detainees are often kept in segregation and staff are not properly trained on trans-specific issues.

“It’s been some real trials and tribulations,” he said. “I don’t think that the officials there were prepared to have a trans pod, to host a trans pod.”

Sánchez spoke with the Blade less than two months after Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans Salvadoran woman, died in an El Paso hospital three days after ICE released her from their custody. Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV, was in ICE custody when she died at a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018.

Immigrant rights advocates have said Hernández and Medina did not receive adequate medical care while in ICE custody.

The trans women’s families have filed wrongful death lawsuits. ICE has previously told the Blade it spends more than $250 million a year on healthcare for detainees and regularly points to a 2015 directive that requires personnel to, among other things, provide trans detainees with access to hormone therapy while they are in their custody.

“The conditions they are facing at Pearsall are the exact same conditions where that happens,” Sánchez told the Blade, referring to the Hernández and Medina cases and to trans women who remain in ICE custody. “A lot of them are sick. They don’t get attention until things have escalated.”

“It’s just not how somebody should live,” added Sánchez.

Sánchez further described the situation for trans detainees at the South Texas Correctional Complex as “really, really bad” and “scary.”

“A lot of the women are really demoralized and that’s really the whole point, to get you to give up,” he said.

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