How do you protect yourself against a virus when you exist completely outside the margins? In places like New York City (specifically Queens) immigrants are dying at a higher rate. If you take a closer looks though, undocumented immigrants are even higher hit. VICE Correspondent Paola Ramos is taking a closer look at how these people are surviving in the midst of a pandemic, specifically, transgender sex workers on the streets of New York City. I sat down to talk with Ramos, who, whether she is discussing the dangers of sex work and STI infection during a pandemic or what it is like to be released from, but still under the eye of ICE, is shining a light on a community that consistently deserves to have their voice heard.
Michael Cook: The topic that you are tackling is both a unique and and an extremely important one to take on right now. What made you want to shine a light on this community during the current pandemic?
Paola Ramos: The pandemic has forced all of us across the country to really think about what it means to survive and what survival means. I think looking at those people that are thinking about it In a different way, who cannot stay home or rely on the safety nets that many of us can, I think it was about exposing that. Exposing what it means to not only be undocumented within that community, what it means to be truly outside of the margins. That is why we thought that telling the story through the eyes of the most vulnerable, transgender undocumented sex workers-it forces people to look at this pandemic in a completely different way.
MC: When you got into the subject matter deeply, what are some of the truly sobering facts that you discovered?
PR: I am speaking to you from Brooklyn. Not far from where I am in Queens, people are not just having to be outside; they are relying on sex work to survive. Obviously we know that sex works exists and that people rely on it to survive, but in a pandemic that is their only source of income. Not just reading about it, but being face to face with it and understanding why people are doing it and why they are okay with exposing themselves, that is sobering; to see that face to face. As we were having those interviews, I looked down and notice that these people that have been released from ICE, but they are constantly under ICE’s watch; they have that ankle bracelet on. They have to wear that no matter what. The idea of what it means to be free in this country when you are escaping violence and persecution in your own country, in this case Central America, it really puts everything into perspective.
MC: The trans community and those that still rely on sex work are many times, very open about it. What do you think shocked you the most as the person sitting down and profiling these people and their stories?
PR: Honestly, it was the opposite. It was the resilience that I saw and the organizers that are stepping in to fill the voids that the government is not capable of filling right now. The story started with interviews with people that are forced to do sex work to survive. You start to wonder, they don’t have any of the basic resources that any of us do because of their status and also just because of some of the discrimination that trans people face; so who’s looking out for them? There are people out there; it was shocking to me that there are people, every single day, that these folks are taken care of. The resiliency that I saw in the midst of so much pain that undocumented folks, latino folks, and trans folks are going through, every single day people are going to work, organizing, creating food banks, going to the grocery store, just to help them out. There is a lot of talk right now about the importance of essential workers and I think that the mainstream is missing those stories, the ones of people who are stepping up to help people like undocumented transgender workers.
MC: Within the community, it is probably hard to consider the layer of STI infection as part of the story and as part of the concerns that sex workers have to face. COVID-19 adds only another layer of concern and protection for these people to have to consider. Its adding to the conversation greatly and making us have to have a covnversation very similar to one we have not had since the 80’s during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
PR: Absolutely. This is happening in the backdrop of the criminalization of sex work, so it is definitely a whole added layer. That was always my first question to them-are you aware of the risk? Are your clients aware? The main answer is, we have do to do it. It goes back to the fact that they are willing to expose themselves and in their cases, it is really a life or death situation. They are willing to expose themselves to just make it. Going back to the ankle bracelet; they wake up, go to bed, and have sex with that bracelet on. One of the things that they told me was that people look at them like they are criminals. That bracelet is a reminder that the system has painted and portrayed them in a way that they are looked at as criminals, including by their clients. It also adds to the conversation of sex work within the immigration system.
MC: Have you always been someone that wants to talk to and delve into “the other”?
PR: Always. There are so many people doing it, but for me it was always important. For example, when mainstream media picks a topic, like COVID-19 for example, I try to see who is being left out of the conversation and what angles have been left out. To be able to talk about undocumented transgender sex workers like this, on a platform like Showtime, I really hope that it opens a lot of people’s eyes.
VICE-UNDOCUMENTED airs on Sunday, May 31 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.