Vulnerable LGBTQ Migrants Left to Wait in Mexico
By Wendy Frye & Molly Hennesy-Fiske
Pedro Luis Perez arrived at the northern Mexico border in early 2019 looking for safety and asylum in the United States, but instead he spent about 10 months waiting in Tijuana where he said he felt threatened because of his sexual orientation.
Perez was 13 when his parents threw him out of his family home in Guatemala for being gay. He spent much of his youth living on the streets, hunkering down under bridges when it rained.
“My family doesn’t love me,” the 27-year-old asylum seeker said.
In November 2016, he was leaving work late at night after a shift in a restaurant when Guatemalan police stopped him and searched him. He said he recognized the officers from a police station close to his home.
“I hadn’t done anything,” he said. “They were homophobic and they didn’t want to see me.”
Perez said they kidnapped and tortured him for about 24 hours.
“The next day, they threw me out in the street, nude, at six in the morning,” he said. “They had abused me, sexually. I had blood dripping down, and I was crushed and naked. I started walking; looking for help.”
Authorities in violence-ridden Central American countries have done little to protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other LGBTQ communities, causing many to flee, according to Amnesty International.
High levels of corruption in their countries mean authorities rarely punish those responsible for crimes, especially crimes against people in the LGBTQ community, and particularly when police are responsible for the attacks, the organization said.
Studies show LGBTQ migrants are among the most vulnerable, more likely to be assaulted and killed, especially trans migrants. Of Central American LGBTQ migrants interviewed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2017, 88 percent were victims of sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin; two-thirds suffered similar attacks in Mexico.
Yet the Trump administration is returning LGBTQ migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to face assaults, kidnapping and death in Mexican border cities while they await U.S. court hearings.
It is also detaining lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer migrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, despite mounting evidence that the agency fails to provide proper medical and mental-health care.
An ICE spokeswoman provided the Union-Tribune a list of medical protocols for transgender migrants that includes providing them physical and mental evaluations within two days of entering an ICE facility, a medical treatment plan if necessary and access to health services.
Migrant advocates are troubled by what they are seeing.
“Terrorized at home, and abused while trying to seek sanctuary abroad, they are now some of the most vulnerable refugees in the Americas. The fact that Mexico and the U.S.A. are willing to watch on as they suffer extreme violence is, simply, criminal,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
While the Trump administration has severely limited asylum qualifications for Central Americans fleeing gang violence and domestic abuse, migrants can still request asylum based on persecution because of their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation. But their path is far from easy.
“Here, the same as at home, the police discriminate against us,” said Perez in early October.
“We’re very vulnerable. I don’t feel safe here in Mexico.”
Transgender women, especially, have experienced violence in Tijuana as they waited for processing by U.S. immigration authorities.
Pedro’s roommate in Tijuana, Katherine Hernandez, 24, a transgender migrant from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said she rarely leaves her room for fear of being harassed.
In May 2018, six armed men robbed the Tijuana shelter where transgender women and other members of LGBTQ community were staying.
Days later, someone barred the door shut with a mattress and lit it on fire.
The assaults targeted the modest Catholic-run Caritas Tijuana shelter, located in a low-income neighborhood perched on a hillside near a narrow street that runs south of downtown.
In Tijuana, Perez lived in Casa de Luz, a casa collectiva or a shared living space in Playas de Tijuana. He said he stayed inside most days, for fear of being picked up by Mexican immigration authorities or being attacked for being gay.
“Truthfully, this is what we do all day long, just passing the time until my number comes up,” he said in early October, as he and his friends checked his number online, debating what day he would finally cross after 10 months of waiting in Mexico.
In the corner of a small room Perez shared with five other LGBTQ friends in Tijuana, he doubled over laughing with his friend Perla, a 28-year-old transgender Mexican from Guerrero deported to Tijuana after four months in U.S. immigration detention.
The experience in U.S. immigration detention was so horrific; Perla says she wouldn’t ever go back to the United States, even if she could. She now dreams of immigrating to Canada.
She worried that Perez was not fully prepared for the nightmare that awaited him.
“I was telling him, you have to be prepared. I almost died. When people were messing with me for being gay and they wanted to cause violence to me and cause me pain, I almost committed suicide,” said Perla about her time in U.S. immigration detention.
She asked the Union-Tribune not to use her full name for fear of being targeted for further violence in her home country of Mexico.
When she saw the worry on Perez’s face, she quickly reassured him, “they’re going to let him pass because he has a lot of proof,” she said.
But immigration officials did not parole Perez. He is currently being held in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, an agency that has repeatedly been accused of inhumane treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer migrants.
Several human rights groups demanded in September that ICE release all LGBTQ detainees and anyone with HIV in the agency’s custody, saying the U.S. government has proved incapable of providing adequate medical and mental-health care to them.
The 14 advocacy groups say ICE detention facilities have faced repeated complaints about treatment of LGBTQ detainees. In June, a transgender woman from El Salvador died after becoming sick at a private ICE detention center in New Mexico. In 2017, a 34-year-old HIV-positive trans woman whose medication was withheld during her six-month detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Center was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and fell seriously ill without her proper medication.
Numbers for how many LGBTQ migrants are kept in ICE custody are not available — nor has the Department of Homeland Security released figures for how many migrants with HIV it has detained.
It is also unclear how many LGBTQ migrants have been returned to Mexico to wait for their court hearings under the government’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, known as Remain in Mexico or how many are waiting in Mexico, like Perez did, to claim asylum under a U.S. policy known as “metering.”
When migrants arrive at Mexico’s northern border, they are given a number to wait for their turn to approach U.S. border officers and ask for asylum. The process, known as “metering,” limits the number of asylum seekers that border officials will accept at ports of entry each day.
Early every morning, people from all around the world gather at “the line” near the El Chaparral Plaza in Tijuana to hear numbers called from the wait list, hoping to hear it’s their turn to cross.
On Friday, Oct. 11, after 10 months of waiting, volunteers finally called Pedro’s number, number 3,157, indicating it was his turn to cross. With the phone numbers of advocates written in Sharpie on his forearm, Perez crossed into the United States.
It’s not clear how many of the more than 50,000 asylum seekers returned to Mexico or the 26,000 more on border waiting lists are part of the LGBTQ community.
When congressional lawmakers wrote to Homeland Security in June demanding they clarify the Remain in Mexico policy for LGBTQ migrants border-wide and release statistics showing how many had been returned, the agency refused, citing ongoing lawsuits filed by migrant advocates. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal advocacy group based on the border, started a petition to help LGBTQ asylum seekers and reached out to lawmakers in Texas.
“They’re not responding to help,” said Dani Marrero Hi, a fellow with the group.
In October, they hosted presidential candidate Julian Castro, who accompanied eight LGBTQ migrants across the border bridge in Matamoros — only to see them returned hours later to Mexico by U.S. Customs officers.
Border Patrol officials initially said “vulnerable” asylum seekers would be exempted from the Remain in Mexico program, including those who are LGBTQ, pregnant or disabled.
The program returns migrants to Mexico to wait out their immigration proceedings. Numerous trans asylum seekers have been allowed to enter the U.S. and either been released or placed in detention. But many more LGBT asylum seekers have been placed on waiting lists or returned to Mexico for months.
In interviews during the past month, dozens of LGBT asylum seekers in Juarez, Matamoros and Tijuana said U.S. immigration officials insisted that their sexual orientation did not exempt them from metering or Remain in Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) wrote a letter to then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan back in June, co-signed by 44 other House Democrats, requesting how many LGBTQ asylum seekers had been returned to Mexico, how they were screened and what legal services they had been provided.
“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.
The following month, they received a reply from Deputy Undersecretary James McCament, who declined to release details, citing ongoing lawsuits challenging Remain in Mexico.
“But I want to reiterate DHS’s commitment to the responsible implementation of this program as it applies to all populations, including (LGBTQ) asylum seekers and other vulnerable populations,” he wrote.