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Congressmembers highlight LGBTQ asylum seekers’ struggles in visit to border

José Geovanny Torres Morataya, 22, is from Guatemala and has been living at Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ migrants. Torres came to the shelter several months ago. She is currently transitioning and hopes to seek asylum in the United States.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Local representatives visited two Tijuana shelters that specialize in caring for LGBTQ asylum seekers while they wait to request protection in the United States

José Geovanny Torres Morataya cannot go back to her country because, as a trans woman in transition, she is sure that she will be killed.

“Guatemala is a very mentally closed society to LGBT people,” Torres, 22, said in Spanish.

Back home, Torres was raped and, in the process, was infected with HIV, she said — a story that is unfortunately quite common among trans women in Central America. Living with that reality has been difficult for Torres, but standing at Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ migrants in Tijuana where she has lived for the past several months, her words and facial expressions radiated the pride she has learned to have in herself.

She asked the Union-Tribune to print her full, original name — a rare request among asylum seekers — to embrace how far she has come.

She was one among many LGBTQ asylum seekers on Friday to welcome five California Democrats from Congress — Reps. Juan Vargas, Sara Jacobs, Raul Ruiz, Mark Takano and Katie Porter — to Tijuana shelters to learn about the kinds of challenges that these migrants in particular face. The Congressmembers also heard from people working to provide LGBTQ migrants with legal, medical and mental health services, among others.

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Residents at Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers in Tijuana, listen to congress members speak.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

None seemed surprised by what they learned. But several said they walked away with a clearer understanding that something must be done to make requesting protection in the United States a smoother and safer experience for people like Torres.

“We know it’s possible because we’re seeing people do it for the Ukrainians right now,” Jacobs said.

The visit comes as what’s next for U.S. border policy remains unclear and under debate.

People who are persecuted in their home countries because of sexual orientation or gender identity can qualify for asylum. But asylum seekers like Torres have been largely stuck outside the United States for more than two years because of a policy the Trump administration put in place at the beginning of the pandemic known as Title 42. That policy has meant that border officials can block asylum seekers from requesting protection at ports of entry, and if they cross onto U.S. soil without permission, officials can expel them to Mexico or their home countries without the normally required screenings to see if they qualify as refugees.

The Biden administration kept Title 42 in place for more than a year before announcing a plan to end it later this month.

A federal judge in Louisiana, in a lawsuit brought by several states, then issued a temporary block on the end of the policy. The judge will hold a hearing in the case this Friday.

In the meantime, Republicans and a few Democrats have argued to keep Title 42 in place — not as the public health measure that it is supposed to be, but rather explicitly as a tool to deter migration.

The members on the visit to Tijuana voiced strong opposition to Title 42. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led by Ruiz, has long pushed for the policy’s end.

From left, representatives Raul Ruiz, Sara Jacobs, Mark Takano and staffers tour Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ migrants in Tijuana.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Vargas called the policy a political weapon. He had a simple message for his Democrat colleagues who want to keep it.

“They’re wrong,” he said.

The pain that waiting indefinitely to request protection in the United States causes in particular to LGBTQ asylum seekers was apparent in the testimony that the Congressmembers heard on their trip.

At Casa Arcoiris, a 35-bed shelter in a rented house, several of the residents explained that in Honduras and other Central American countries, criminal organizations will often target people in the LGBTQ community to carry drugs because police are less likely to suspect them. For those who decline to participate, the decision can be deadly.

The residents asked not to be fully identified because of their vulnerable situations.

The journeys to flee their countries can also be especially dangerous for LGBTQ migrants. One trans woman from Honduras shared that while she was in southern Mexico, she was raped by three men, who then slit part of her neck and chin and left her for dead. Luckily, she received medical care and survived, but she still has a scar along her jawline to remind her of the experience.

Since arriving in Tijuana, people have approached her to try to get her to sell drugs, she said.

“I don’t want to be here,” she said in Spanish. “I don’t go out for fear of what will happen to me.”

Jacobs asked Chris Chambers, the shelter’s co-founder, about a Biden administration proposal to do asylum processing in other countries — right now asylum seekers must be on U.S. soil to request protection.

Chambers worried that people waiting to be processed south of the United States wouldn’t be sufficiently protected. Chambers recalled one asylum seeker the shelter helped who was receiving death threats that included pictures of Casa Arcoiris and its address in the messages.

The group of asylum seekers said they haven’t been able to look for work while they wait in Tijuana because they will face discrimination.

One Jamaican who identifies as gay said they dream of being a dancer and singer after they reach the United States.

“I hope to be in an environment where I can be myself,” they said.

Chambers isn’t aware of anyone who has passed through the shelter and lost an asylum case.

From left, Alexia, Marvin Dionicio Flores and Zoe Michelle embrace after participating in a skit to educate a delegation of congress members about what LGBTQ asylum seekers face in Tijuana.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At Jardín de las Mariposas, Jaime Marin, one of the family members that runs the shelter, led the group on a tour before bringing them out to a festively decorated patio with the pink, blue and white Trans Pride flag as a tablecloth. There a group of the shelter’s residents performed a skit about the violence that people in the LGBTQ community face as well as the community’s resilience with “Stand Up” by Cynthia Erivo as the soundtrack.

Emem Maurus, an attorney with Transgender Law Center, talked about the difficulty of dealing with policies that require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico.

Maurus proposed putting a program in place to fast-track the cases of people facing known dangers, such as trans women from Honduras.

Vargas said he thought that suggestion made sense for the types of cases that have high grant rates so that they don’t get stuck in the court backlog.

For Ruiz, the biggest takeaway was that the asylum system needs to fundamentally change, he said.

“There’s got to be a reimagined immigration system that incorporates a humanitarian response,” he said. That would include trauma-informed treatment of asylum cases, he added.

He said he hasn’t yet seen a plan or bill that would do that, but he hopes to bring people together to make one.


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