Extra Kindness for the Most Vulnerable (and Resilient) Mariposas

LGBTQ refugees and immigrants often lack a supportive network of fellow nationals – but now that’s changing.

| Fall 2017

  • Mariposas Sin Fronteras runs an in-house kitchen to give immigrants like Yessenia Palencia, a place to work and the means for economic stability.
    Photo by Raechel Running
  • Karolina Lopez, a transgender undocumented immigrant from Mexico, leans on Yessenia Palencia, a lesbian from El Salvador.
    Photo by Raechel Running

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.

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