The Nightmare Isn't Over for Trans Women on the Refugee Caravan

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It took 35 days and 2,434 miles across Mexico until the most vulnerable migrants on the refugee caravan were able to seek asylum in the United States.


The caravan that started with more than 1,200 migrants made the journey through Mexico to the California border, performing triage with last-minute transportation and housing solutions. The migrants walked or they hopped on buses and freight trains. They slept in public parks, under bridges, aboard the moving trains, in churches, and shelters.

Last week, 228 of the most vulnerable people in the group requested asylum at the port of entry in San Ysidro, just south of San Diego. Some of them camped outside of the port of entry for days until the Border Patrol would agree to hear their cases.

The loosely organized caravan had taken its toll on everyone after a month of camping and sleeping on floors. But there were migrants who faced an especially complicated journey: At least 37 of the migrants on the caravan were transgender. Eleven of these trans women in the caravan sought asylum in the U.S last week., according to the caravan organizers with the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras. (Other migrants on the caravan also identified as gay, bisexual, lesbian, and gender non-conforming.)

Some of the shelters members of the group stayed at were run by religious organizations where the trans migrants were turned away, or told to change clothes. Or they were misgendered. Or called by their dead names. The same thing happened at organizations that served food to migrants.

“If your documents say your name is Juan then then they call you Juan, even if you have a feminine body and appearance,” said Andrea Guadalupe, a volunteer with Comunidad Cultural de Tijuana LGBTQI, a local LGBTQ rights group.


There were few public restroom options for everyone outside the San Ysidro port of entry. The cisgender migrants had access to restrooms just 300 feet away from where the group had set up camp. But the trans migrants had to walk farther away, about half a mile each time they wanted to use a single stall restroom where they felt safer. They had to wait days until eventually caravan organizers brought in mobile restrooms for them.

In Tijuana, the trans women who weren’t waiting in front of the port of entry found trouble finding shelter, where housing assignments are often divided by gender. Guadalupe said the women were expected to sleep in a room with a dozen other men.


“Some people in charge of the shelters don’t see beyond their prejudice,” Guadalupe said, who added that ultimately a shelter for people with substance abuse was able to accommodate the trans women.

The trans women from the caravan who remain in Tijuana have been staying at a shelter that has seen repeated violent attacks this week. Early on Sunday, six armed men entered the shelter and robbed the migrants, according to XEWT. The following day, the shelter was set on fire, according to Telemundo. Advocates say the trans women have been harassed by neighbors and believe the shelter was attacked because it’s housing the trans migrants.


Even before the trans women made it to the border, they faced harrowing circumstances. Advocates said the migrants spoke about being pushed out of their countries by drug dealers, gang members, organized crime, pimps, traffickers, family members, and religious institutions.


Many of the trans women now seeking asylum in the U.S. never wanted to leave their home countries.

“If the violence stopped and there were opportunities for trans women in Honduras, many of us wouldn’t leave our country,” Shanne Smith told Univision’s “Aqui y Ahora.” Smith said she was a victim of physical attacks, and she said she doesn’t even know if the attackers were gang members or the military police.


“We have been fleeing our paradises because of discrimination and violence,” Marjorie “La Osa” Alexandra, a trans migrant from Honduras, told Mundo Hispanico. Alexandra said trans women in Honduras were often forced to do things that left them dead.

The 11 trans women who requested asylum last week now face another ordeal: immigration detention. Trans women are often held in men’s facilities and face an exceptionally high risk of sexual assault from other detainees or even guards. Of every 500 detainees in immigration detention, about one detainee is transgender. ICE detains an average of 75 transgender people in detention every night, according to a 2014 Fusion investigation.


Despite being a relatively small number of the immigration detention system’s overall 39,000 daily population, trans women make up a disproportionate number of confirmed cases of sexual assault. The Fusion study found that out of every five victims of confirmed sexual abuse in ICE detention, one victim is transgender. Officials are aware that trans detainees are vulnerable to physical attacks, so sometimes they’re detained in pods with other trans women—in men’s detention facilities.

“Others may be kept indefinitely in conditions of isolation simply because authorities cannot or will not devise any safe and humane way to keep them in detention,” a 2016 Human Rights Watch report found.


There have also been reports of trans women being denied timely and adequate access to medical care, including hormone replacement therapy and HIV-related care. Or they’re denied care altogether, according to the HRW report.

“In essence, many transgender women have simply traded one set of abusive conditions for another,” the report noted.

ICE officials declined to comment when asked about the detention setting for the 11 trans women who migrated in the caravan. ICE also could not confirm that these trans women are in custody. “We do not have statistics to offer at this time,” Lori Haley, a communications director for ICE, told Splinter in an email. Pueblo Sin Fronteras and advocates said they believe the trans women are still in detention.


Haley wrote that ICE “is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy, considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates.”

Isa Noyola, deputy director of the Transgender Law Center, met with the trans migrants in Tijuana before they presented themselves at the port of entry to seek asylum. “I had to tell them to prepare emotionally and physically,” she said.


Still, for many people the conditions in detention are safer than what they were experiencing in their native countries: “The fact that detention is looking good these days says a lot.”

Despite the widespread international persecution of LGBTQ people, particularly the trans community, the broader LGBTQ movement in the U.S. seems to pay very little attention to its own refugee population. Noyola said LGBTQ advocates and organizations have done “a horrible job at supporting vulnerable populations and survivors of trafficking and violence.”


More mainstream outlets, like NBC News and the New York Times, highlighted the LGBTQ migrants on the caravan than some of the nation’s leading queer news publications. In early April, posted about President Trump’s tweets about the caravan, but that was it. The Advocate devoted less than 500 words to the issue. A search on the website revealed nothing on this year’s refugee caravan at all.

Jorge Gutierrez, national coordinator with Familia: TQLM, an immigrant rights group that works with trans, queer, and gender nonconforming Latinx immigrants, said he had not seen any statements from national LGBTQ rights leaders or organizations.


“There needs to be an uproar from the both larger immigrant rights community and the LGBTQ rights movement,” said Gutierrez, who has been following updates about the caravan closely.

The silence is a glimpse into intersectionality’s state of affairs in the LGBTQ movement.


“I don’t think people understand how critical it is to support LGBTQ migrants and to understand why folks are fleeing and how violent this experience can be,” Noyola said.

At this point, she added, every LGBTQ community center in the country should have a programs that works with its immigrant community—or at least have a list of pre-vetted groups they can connect people with.


“The way the U.S. government is treating LGBTQ immigrants is exactly why were seeing the rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country. It’s the same reason,” Noyola said. “If we don’t stand up for our most vulnerable populations, then we’re not standing up for ourselves.”

Senior staff writer