Hate crimes may be on the rise in the United States, but in some countries in Central and South America violence against LGBT people is acceptable. Transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming people, in particular, are at extremely high risk of death and persecution. Until the Trump administration—which is inclined to disavow even lawful asylum seekers—LGBT asylum seekers were recognized under the “particular social group” designation. However, at least two trans asylum seekers have died as a result of immigration callousness while trying to save their lives.
Roxana Hernandez was beaten and died of AIDS while in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center and Camila Diaz Cordova died after being deported to El Salvador. Other LGBT asylum-seekers are at high risk as they flee to the U.S. border, facing homophobia and transphobia and violence along the way, in the camps, and in detention centers when they arrive.
On April 16, a delegation of more than 30 LGBTQ elected officials, artists, athletes and activists traveled across the Mexican border to see for themselves the conditions faced by LGBT asylum seekers in Tijuana. Hosted by Equality California and This Is About Humanity, Border Angels at El Bordo and the shelter La Embajada del Migrante/Undocumented Café, the delegation also included TV designers Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent of TLC’s “Nate and Jeremiah by Design” to contribute a significant gift to keep Casa Jardin de las Mariposas — one of the city’s only shelters serving the LGBTQ population — open and allow them to move into a new, safer facility.
“When people know better, they do better,” said Berkus and Brent in a press release. “We’re committed to shedding a light on the injustices that members of our community face and helping to uplift the stories of those who have been forgotten.”
Also on the trip were California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, the state’s first openly LGBTQ statewide elected official, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Hansen, Los Angeles Board of Public Works President Kevin James, openly gay former NBA star Jason Collins and others.
The delegation heard horrific stories of LGBT people under dire circumstances.
“In my country, it is a crime to be a trans woman, or a gay guy…a horror,” said one transgender woman who fled violence in Honduras at the hands of a family member and local gangs.
The delegation also heard from a lesbian who had only arrived in Tijuana less than 24 hours earlier. She described a brutal rape and how she was pursued and persecuted by gangs. Another trans woman and her family tearfully recounted how they simply wanted safety and school for their kids, after losing everything in El Salvador.
On a more hopeful note, the delegation visited Movimiento Juventud 2000 in the Zona Norte, where they met families and children and handed out books and snacks. There was also a panel discussion about border issues.
“As LGBTQ Californians we have to be at the forefront of the human rights crisis at our southern border being fueled by our federal government’s policies,” Lara said in a press release. “I am inspired by the brave humanitarian leaders on both sides of the border who are helping to reunite families and protect the rights of asylum seekers fleeing homophobia, transphobia and racism.”
“Today’s trip across our Southern border reminded us just how inhumane the Trump Administration’s treatment of refugees is,” said Wiener, who serves as Chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. “LGBTQ asylum seekers face unique challenges as they attempt to find refuge, including increased violence due to homophobia and transphobia in their countries of origin and on the journey to the United States. It was both enlightening and heartbreaking to hear individuals tell their stories of identifying as LGBTQ and thus subjecting themselves to discrimination and violence. We must do more to stop this humanitarian crisis for our LGBTQ community and for all asylum seekers.”
“Immigration issues are LGBTQ issues. Hearing LGBTQ asylum seekers share stories of such profound violence, persecution and danger — some from gangs and some from their own family members — it’s heartbreaking to know that our government continues to violate our own laws and values to deny them safety,” said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur.
Immigration and asylum issues are of special concern to the state of California, which has declared itself essentially a “sanctuary” state. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first foreign trip was a three-day fact-finding visit to El Salvador. Newsom heard first hand about the gangs, police brutality and the discrimination experienced by LGBT people. In addition to the violence, he found that, according to the World Bank, nearly one-third of Salvadorans live in poverty.
In direct response to President Trump’s cancelation of U.S. aid to that country and his continued attempts to build a wall along the Mexican border, Newsom is hoping to stimulate the economy and create jobs in El Salvador.
“Helping stabilize El Salvador directly helps California by mitigating the border challenges, by mitigating migration, by tempering the rhetoric with the Trump administration,” Newsom told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about finding a different angle in the debate.”
No word if that also includes protecting LGBT people.