Undocumented and transgender, Karolina Lopez was held at an immigrant detention center near Tucson, Ariz., for three years while awaiting asylum. Originally from Acapulco, home to the highest murder rate in Mexico, Lopez came to the United States to escape discrimination from her family and community. She landed in a detention center after reporting a robbery to the police, who arrested her when they discovered her illegal status.
During her years in detention, Lopez suffered abuse from both fellow detainees and guards. “It was constant—verbal, physical, psychological,” she remembers. But she emerged ready to help those in similar situations. “I am resilient,” she says proudly. “I know that I have a voice and that I can have influence if I raise that voice and speak out.”
Lopez’s situation is not unusual. Held in detention while awaiting a hearing or deportation, an LGBTQ immigrant must choose between being closeted or becoming vulnerable to abuse and violence. Upon release, they often lack the personal and professional support systems that other immigrants find among fellow nationals.
LGBTQ refugees attempting to enter the United States from the six countries banned by President Trump’s executive order are in particular danger. Ty Cobb, director of HRC Global, explains, “So many LGBTQ asylum seekers enter the refugee process in a country of origin where they are especially vulnerable. There are refugee camps in Kenya, in Turkey, in areas that are particularly hostile. Now they’re stuck there.”
In recent years, organizations have emerged across the United States to address the specific needs of LGBTQ immigrants and refugees. Upon her release from detention, Lopez helped form the Tucson-based Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Butterflies Without Borders). Taking its name from the beauty and freedom of the butterfly, the organization simultaneously reclaimed the word mariposas from its slang usage, a Spanish equivalent to “faggot.”
At Mariposas, Lopez works alongside a team that writes letters of support, visits detention centers, helps address legal issues, and raises public awareness. Since its founding in 2011, the organization has raised bond payments totaling more than $100,000, providing freedom to LGBTQ detainees while they await court hearings.
One of the recipients of those funds is Yessenia Palencia. Detained for a year and three months, Palencia, a lesbian from El Salvador, was apprehended while crossing the Mexican border with her partner. “When they realized that we were together, they moved me to another part of the detention center,” she explains.
While still in detention, she was referred to Mariposas Sin Fronteras by the Florence Project, which provides legal and social services to immigrants detained in Arizona. “It helped a lot to have visits from people on the outside,” Palencia remembers. “You realize you’re not alone. Someone knows where you are.”
After posting bond, Mariposas helped Palencia find a job in Tucson. She’s now one of the organization’s core members. “I visit with people in detention and try to give them strength,” she says. “One guy was about to give in and ask to be deported. I told him I’d been in for the same length of time and knew how he was feeling. I tried to give him the strength to keep going. Sure enough, now he’s out of detention.”
Operating on a broader scale, Immigration Equality is based in New York City but serves LGBTQ immigrants in 39 states and Washington, D.C., using a network of 100 law offices that offer pro bono services.
The national scope of the work allows staff to spot trends and to identify potential “impact litigation”—cases that challenge unjust laws and practices. During a 2015 hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Executive Director Aaron Morris gave testimony that helped overturn the ruling of a judge who had failed to consider an asylum seeker’s transgender identity, and who had conflated issues of sexual orientation and gender expression, as though challenges faced by gay men and lesbians were interchangeable with those faced by people who are transgender.
A lack of cultural competence among asylum officers and judges presents an ongoing challenge. “We train new officers on LGBTQ issues,” says Jackie Yodashkin, Immigration Equality’s public affairs director. “For example, to receive asylum you might be asked to prove that you’re LGBTQ, but what if you come from a country where you’ve had to be closeted? It’s not like you’re going to have selfies of you and your partner kissing.”
Closeted asylum seekers often have only their personal testimonies to offer. Others prove their sexual orientations or gender identities with screenshots of Facebook chats, social media exchanges, or dating apps. Some might share arrest orders from their countries of origin, which name their orientations or identities as the crime.
Newly arrived in the United States, an immigrant often enters a community that shares a country of origin, benefiting from connections to employment, housing, and legal assistance. For the LGBTQ immigrant living in a homophobic or transphobic culture, such benefits are contingent on staying in the closet. It can be especially difficult to find a lawyer with the understanding, and the will, to argue an asylum case.
Like others in the field, Yodashkin highlights the threat to transgender men and women. Detention officials, recognizing that transgender detainees are vulnerable to violence and abuse, sometimes isolate them from the larger community. A 2015 memorandum from Immigration and Customs and Enforcement details the care of transgender detainees, including the possible need for “medical and administrative segregation,” for their protection. However, a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office points out that such isolation makes transgender detainees especially vulnerable to abusive guards.
Yodashkin explains that guards and staff are seldom trained in the issues facing the transgender population, including health care needs. “Detention centers are run like prisons for people who have done something wrong rather than for people who are coming to our border and saying, ‘My life is in danger,’” she says.
That danger has been well-documented. A 2015 report from the United Nations Human Rights Council reports that 76 countries “retain laws that are used to criminalize and harass people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” In seven countries across the Middle East and Africa, those laws stipulate the death penalty for consensual same-sex relationships. In other places, “anti-propaganda” laws become the basis for harassment and discrimination. Such laws also limit health care education, putting youth at particular risk for HIV infection.
Dangers faced by the LGBTQ community in Guatemala were enough to prompt Javier Cifuentes’ mother to emigrate with her family when he was 6. “My mother realized at a young age that I was different,” says Cifuentes, who is now 20 and identifies as queer. “She knew it wouldn’t be safe for me to grow up in Guatemala.”
Cifuentes became a citizen in 2010 to participate in a high school trip to South Korea. He now lives in Washington, D.C., and interns at the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights in the United States and around the world. He’s become a popular spokesperson for immigrant justice.
Like Cifuentes, Ruby Corado, a transgender immigrant from El Salvador, has turned her personal trials into a passion to serve. “It’s a place of love,” she says of Casa Ruby in Washington, D.C.
Founded by Corado in 2004, the organization supports struggling LGBTQ people, with an emphasis on immigrants and refugees. Housing opportunities range from a single night’s shelter to short-term stays to permanent residences available to those who can pay rent.
“When I was homeless, I would go to shelters and find they didn’t want me,” Corado says. “So I created a place that was loving, accepting, and embracing. It’s a place with real solutions for a community that has unique needs.”
Corado has a firsthand understanding of her clients’ needs. “I live at the intersection of many labels,” she says. “I’m a transgender woman of color who is HIV-positive. I’m previously undocumented and homeless, and I’m the survivor of sexual assault and hate crimes.” She laughs. “I’m also heavyset and short! I’ve been told I have a pupusa face, which is supposed to mean that I look too El Salvadoran. I think it means I’m a delicacy!”
In addition to its housing initiatives, Casa Ruby trains community health workers, provides case management for those who are HIV-positive, and connects immigrants and refugees with legal services. “We’re not at the border,” Corado points out. “But every year we serve almost 600 LGBTQ immigrants from around the world.”
Corado has noticed a distinct change since the inauguration of Donald Trump. “There’s fear,” she says. “And those fears are valid.”
In February, the Department of Homeland Security expanded its goals for deportation, calling for the funding of 10,000 added ICE agents. For LGBTQ immigrants and refugees, the prospect of deportation is especially alarming.
According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, 1,573 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed in Central and South America between 2008 and 2015, accounting for 78 percent of transgender killings worldwide. Because many incidents are not reported as hate crimes, the actual numbers are estimated to be much higher. “The passport I carry has a male name,” Corado says. “So I don’t go to El Salvador anymore. I’m not going to die.”
She’s happy to share stories of clients who have remained in the United States and gone on to careers in health care, education, information technology, and government. “People want to hear the story that ends with the $100,000 salary,” she says with a shrug. “To me the best success stories are the ones when the person comes to Casa Ruby thinking, I’m ready to leave the world, and, when we finish talking, they say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ or they just stay.”
Every client receives a guarantee. “I don’t promise that I’ll get them housing, and I don’t promise they’ll get a green card,” Corado says. “What I do promise is that they won’t struggle alone. They will have love.”
Norman Allen is an award-winning playwright. His work has appeared at theaters ranging from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the Karlan Music Theatre in Prague. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Smithsonian, and he blogs for On Being and Tin House. Reprinted from YES! Magazine (Summer 2017), a publication that reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions.