TIJUANA, Mexico – Advocates this week said the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies have not stopped LGBTQ people in Central America’s Northern Triangle from traveling to the U.S. to seek asylum.
“It’s not a deterrent in the sense of ‘Oh, I’m not going to do this right now. I’ll go next year,'” said Emem Maurus, an attorney with the Transgender Law Center who is based in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, on Wednesday during a virtual press conference that Human Rights Watch organized.
“It is certainly having a practical impact, I do want to say that,” added Maurus. “These policies are causing people to be hurt, they are causing people to die, truly. They are causing a lot of harm and in that sense, they are practically impeding asylum, but I don’t know that it’s causing people to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll wait until next spring’ necessarily.”
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador comprise the Northern Triangle. Human Rights Watch on Wednesday released a report that highlights persecution in the region based on sexual orientation and gender identity and Trump administration policies that have put LGBTQ asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador at even more risk.
The report notes the U.S. in March “entirely closed its southern border to asylum seekers, leaving them to suffer persecution in their home countries or in Mexico.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic served as the pretext for the closure, but for years, the Trump administration had adopted increasingly severe measures aimed at preventing asylum seekers from ever reaching the United States and expelling them quickly if they did cross the border,” reads the report.
Estuardo Cifuentes, a gay man from Guatemala, is among those who the U.S. has forced to await the outcome of their asylum cases in Mexico under the “return to Mexico” policy. Cifuentes, who asked for asylum in the U.S. at the end of July 2019, runs a project in the Mexican border city of Matamoros that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers as he awaits the final outcome of his case.
“I went back to Matamoros without knowing anything, without knowing anything about the process,” Cifuentes told the Los Angeles Blade during a recent Zoom interview.
Maurus on Wednesday noted Guatemala in 2019 signed a “safe third country” agreement with the Trump administration that requires migrants who pass through Guatemala on their way to the U.S. to first ask for asylum in the country. TransLatin@ Coalition Executive Director Bamby Salcedo during the press conference also highlighted the inadequate health care and other mistreatment that LGBTQ asylum seekers face while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
Roxsana Hernández, a transgender woman from Honduras with HIV, died in ICE custody in New Mexico on May 25, 2018. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman from El Salvador with HIV, died on June 1, 2019, at a Texas hospital three days after ICE released her from their custody.
Three police officers in El Salvador in July were sentenced to 20 years in prison for the 2019 murder of Camila Díaz Córdova, a trans woman who asked for asylum in the U.S. two years before her death. Díaz’s friend, Virginia Gómez, earlier this year during an interview with the Blade in El Salvador confirmed a judge denied Díaz’s asylum claim and the U.S. deported her back to the Central American country on Nov. 7, 2017.
Bianka Rodríguez, executive director of COMCAVIS Trans, a trans Salvadoran advocacy group, also participated in Wednesday’s Human Rights Watch press conference.
“As long as this kind of violence and discrimination do persist, LGBT people from the Northern Triangle will continue to travel north to the United States to attempt to seek asylum and what the Trump administration has done in the last two years—which is to make asylum so restrictive that there’s barely an asylum system left to speak of—is unconscionable and it puts LGBT people at great harm,” said Human Rights Watch Senior LGBT Rights Researcher Neela Ghoshal. “These policies should be reversed.”
Maurus during the press conference acknowledged “it was not people’s first choice to leave.”
“They had discrimination and abuse throughout much of their live and their first choice is not to leave their home, their family, their community, their friends. It is something happens that truly forces them—I leave or I will die,” they said. “It’s a last choice and it’s the only choice and to that extent it isn’t a choice. I do think people are concerned … about detention, who are concerned about what’s going to happen in Mexico.”
“People know, it doesn’t come as a surprise, that right now the policies are awful, but I think for many they need to leave,” added Maurus.
Ghoshal also specifically criticized the Trump administration’s rhetoric around the migrant caravans that in recent years have traveled from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We were disturbed to hear President Trump use very dehumanizing language to describe the people who were in these caravans, in particular dismissing them all as criminals and of course, we know that for many of the members of the caravans—including LGBT people within them—they were survivors of crimes and they were people who were trying to escape lifetimes of marginalization and dehumanization and they needed the opportunity to arrive at the U.S. border, seek asylum and be heard and protected,” said Ghoshal.