Persecuted LGBTQ Asylum-Seekers Face “Similar Abuse” in U.S.

The Paso Del Norte border crossing, in El Paso, Texas. / Image via U.S. Department of Homeland Security

As PBS News Hour reported on August 10, “more than 800,000 migrants” have applied or are in the process of applying for asylum in the U.S. Among them are many LGBTQ people “seeking asylum because of persecution back home due to their gender identity and sexuality.”

But, as PBS’s Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green report, some advocates “say [these LGBTQ migrants] are facing similar abuse in U.S. immigration detention facilities.”

Harrowing Journeys End with “Re-Traumatizing” Conditions

The story cites data from UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute—whose research has been cited by Instinct on domestic LGBTQ+ rights indicators—suggesting “at least 267,000 undocumented LGBTQ immigrants [are] living in the U.S.” These individuals often face “unique circumstances,” according to advocacy groups which have sought to “put a national spotlight” on this population’s plight.

One such migrant, a trans woman named Victoria Castro, explained her journey to PBS after “she was beaten and shot in the shoulder” by gang members in El Salvador:

I said to myself, if I stay here in El Salvador, they will kill me. That is when I decided to take the long trip from El Salvador to the U.S.


I suffered through what most immigrants suffer on the journey to this country in search of the American dream and stability. That is, going hungry, sleeping on the streets, trying to stay safe. You’re navigating this huge country of Mexico and you don’t know anyone, no one to help you or support you. It was a terrifying experience.

Unfortunately, when Castro reached the U.S., the “terrifying experience” continued north of the Rio Grande. She was picked up by American authorities shortly after January 1, 2017—just before President Donald Trump was sworn into office—and “taken to a detention center.”

She described her experience as follows:

That was the start of another horrible ordeal, which was going into ICE detention. It is difficult when you show up and your appearance is completely feminine but your document says you are a man. They brought me into the famous “ice-boxes” as they call them. And they were full of men, and they knew that because I was there, that I was trans. They started screaming at me and I began to panic. But the officer told me unfortunately that is where I had to go because they had no other place to put me. But I insisted that I didn’t feel safe. So they handcuffed me to a pole outside the ice-box for about six hours.

As activists pointed out to PBS, Castro’s story is not unique and “the experience of … detention often re-traumatizes trans migrants already fleeing back home.”

So far in 2019, “300 self-identified transgender detainees” have been housed by ICE “among 32 facilities, according to the agency.” Just “one detention center” among these has “a special unit dedicated to trans migrants,” but its capacity is only “up to 60 people.”

Deteriorating Conditions in Central America, and Globally, Mix with Exclusionary U.S. Policies

Castro’s story is but one of many for LGBTQ migrants arriving in the U.S. Although federal guidelines were established in 2015, which “intended to improve detention conditions for trans migrants” specifically, implementation and oversight were problematic as early as 2016, according to a Human Rights Watch study.

One recurring practice has been placing trans migrants in solitary confinement, ostensibly for their protection. As the Transgender Law Center’s Legal Director Lynly Egyes explained, solitary confinement often mixes with other issues—such as “reports of sexual and physical violence” and limited “access to medical care,” among others—which place detained trans people at extreme risk. One of Egyes’s clients has reportedly “been in solitary confinement for 17 months.”

Castro underscored the almost certainly lethal risks of her being forced to return to El Salvador, a place where she already survived one attempted murder for her outspoken activism.

Throughout Central America—and around the world—such risks to LGBTQ people are incredibly high.

According to Out’s reporting on a Reuters study of Caribbean and Latin American anti-LGBTQ violence, “at least 1,300 LGBTQ+ people have been murdered [in the region] over the past five years” – an average of “about four people per day.” The two groups at greatest risk of violence are “young gay men between the ages of 18 [and] 25 as well as trans women,” like Castro.

Out also noted rising violence against LGBTQ communities globally, as in Russia and Poland, and which have been reported on here at Instinct. Even amid a dim global outlook, the changing policies and recent elections across the Americas cast an especially long shadow over prospects for LGBTQ people seeking safety in the U.S.

One case in point might be the recent electoral victory of intensely socially conservative Alejandro Giammattei, who ascended to Guatemala’s presidency after this past weekend’s presidential runoff, as TIME Magazine reported. Giammattei’s politics—and his evident appeal to voters—are described as a combination of a “get-tough approach to crime and … socially conservative values,” such as “strident opposition to gay marriage and abortion.” 

In a country that has lost “at least 1%” of its total population to out-migration this year alone, “attempting to stem the large flow of migrants headed toward” the U.S. will be one of Giammattei’s greatest challenges in office. The election also comes just a month after a “widely condemned ‘safe third country’ agreement” signed between outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and the U.S. “that would require asylum seekers traveling north through Guatemala to seek asylum there instead,” reported Al Jazeera yesterday.

Sadly, as Al Jazeera also pointed out, neither Giammattei nor his runoff opponent, Sandra Torres, offered remotely progressive visions for LGBTQ or women’s reproductive rights, and both proposed ultra-hardline security policies for restraining gang violence and corruption. 

Two Years Since the “Rainbow Caravan”

An in-depth BBC report over the weekend reiterated many of the concerns highlighted by PBS, Out and others, looking back at 2017’s “Rainbow Caravan.”

The “Rainbow Caravan” included 17 members, six gay men and 11 transgender women,” who crossed into the U.S. from Nogales, Mexico, into Nogales, Arizona, on August 10, 2017. These 17 travelers were “not expecting a warm welcome.” But, well aware of stark dangers back home, all were willing to take extraordinary risks to make the journey.

Many cited fears of gang “extortion” targeting their families; several had already lost loved ones, including parents and siblings, to widespread violence. Others had been outed at work or in social circles, escalating their exposure to targeted killings.

Once the “Rainbow Caravan” reached U.S. territory, though, patterns of mistreatment and punitive, discriminatory abuse similar to those highlighted by PBS and Out were directed at “Caravan” members. As BBC explained, detention conditions and prospects for release were grim, leading to disappointing outcomes for many. 

Of the 17 members of the Rainbow Caravan, four of the gay men and one trans woman self-deported, because they felt the conditions in detention were so miserable and hopeless.

Another gay man from the caravan was just about to start this process when he came into contact with a lawyer who insisted his case was strong. A judge later agreed and he was granted asylum. The 21-year-old remains traumatized by the experiences in his home country and in detention.

Two more gay caravan members were later granted asylum after a long period of detention; the rest of the trans women were eventually released on parole. Three of them … were later granted asylum, while the rest are still waiting.

While some have since been released from custody and begun new lives in the U.S., the safety of many LGBTQ migrants and asylum-seekers remains tenuous at best — regardless of whether they reach U.S. territory. 

(Source: PBS News Hour)

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