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LGBTQ+ migrants at border face many challenges in quest for safety

Trans people often have no other recourse but to live on the streets because of the discrimination they face in their countries.
LGBTQ+ migrants at border face many challenges in quest for safety
Posted at 2:36 PM, Dec 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-12 18:06:34-05

The United Nations World Refugee Agency reported that by the end of 2022, close to 110 million people were forcibly displaced around the globe due to violence, persecution or human rights violations. 

Among them are lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender migrants fleeing for the same reasons and often the violence personally targeted against them because of their identities. Very little data exists on this subsection of asylum seekers who span across all nationalities, who are escaping societies that criminalize their identities or consensual same-sex conduct.

Of the thousands of migrants crossing illegally into the United States between legal ports of entry are LGBTQ+ migrants who retreat further into the shadows but hope America will accept them.

"A lot of people were saying they have opened the doors," said 49-year-old Cindi Murillo from Ecuador. He camped out in a makeshift tent near the border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, California with his friend, a trans woman.

They told us they fled extortion and gangsters threatening their lives, targeting them specifically because of who they are. He sold his hair styling business and car to finance their trip north.

"The mafia came to Ecuador. It was a peaceful country, but overnight, it was damaged," Murillo said.

Down the bollard fence line, Julian, a 23-year-old man from Colombia told Scripps News that police sanctioned violence against gay men in his hometown or even committed it themselves.

He said he feared groups that "discriminate against me physically and psychologically."

We met him along with a group of other men who told us they too were fleeing persecution against gay men in their home countries but found each other on the treacherous road migrating north from the Darien Gap in Panama all the way through Mexico.

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LGBTQ+ status alone does not qualify someone to win asylum in the U.S., but persecution because of it may be taken under consideration.

Unlike most Mexican border cities, Tijuana, Mexico, has a higher outreach to LGBTQ + immigrants and known shelters and safe houses.

At Casa de Arcoiris, which translates to "Rainbow House," migrants who have hidden their true selves as a means of survival can be comfortably open.

"Tijuana has very good neighbors on the other side in California, that historically has been very open to the rights of our community," said shelter operations director Andrea Gonzalez Vera.

Gonzalez says most shelters do not consider the specific needs of the LGBTQ + community.

"We offer comprehensive support with medical service, health and mental health and legal assistance," she said.

Alisson Cambell, a trans woman from Guatemala, told us she's been at the shelter for four and a half months.

"I faced discrimination in my country," Cambell said. "Firstly for the color of my skin, then for my sexual preference and discrimination because I'm a trans woman. Three classes of discrimination."

She told Scripps News about the constant abuse she endured back home including being stripped, berated and beaten by police. She says Guatemala society shuns people like her and that her family disowned her.

"They want to place us in a jail because of our sexual preference and because of who we are, without any reason," Cambell said.

The United Nations says the life expectancy for trans people in Central America is no more than 35. The U.N. says many face violence often sanctioned by the police. Trans people often have no other recourse but to live on the streets because of the discrimination they face in those countries. But life doesn't get any safer for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Mexico. Just because they've arrived at the border doesn't mean they're out of danger in Mexico.

"Machismo, gender-based violence, homophobia, transphobia and the violence against their community by police and other armed forces all exist here (in Mexico)," said human rights attorney Nicole Ramos. "And in fact, they are in some instances, stronger. Mexico is known as the second-most-dangerous country in the world for transgender women."

Ramos, who works with an immigration legal aid organization called Al Otro Lado says it is hard to find data on this community, because many remain in hiding.

"They need to take additional precautions for their safety, not only just for the homophobia and transphobia that exists in Mexican society," Ramos said. "They're abused by police and armed forces, but they're also more vulnerable to be trafficked by organized crime and to force them into some kind of sex trafficking or labor trafficking situation."

SEE MORE: Census Bureau projects US population decline if there's no immigration

In July, the advocacy group Washington Office in Latin America warned of increased threats and violence toward migrant shelters in Tijuana, saying organized crime often targeted the city's LGBTQ+ shelters while local police looked the other way.

The LGBTQ+ aid organization Rainbow Railroad has been helping people based on sexual or gender identity since 2006. It is a global non-profit. It began keeping data on its own mission in 2017 and told Scripps News 915 people from Latin America have asked help for support. 

In the United States, UCLA Law School's Williams Institute, which researches legal affairs affecting the LGBTQ community worldwide, says little is known about the size and scope of this refugee population. In an analysis of data, it found between 2012 and 2017 an estimated 30,900 LGBT people applied for asylum in the United States, with nearly 4,000 seeking asylum due to fear of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection nor the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) releases data on reasons why refugees seek asylum in the country

Alisson Cambell has been waiting for an appointment to declare asylum at a port of entry through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection mobile app called CBP One, adding that waiting at the shelter instead of crossing illegally was the safest option for her.

She hopes she can join her trans friend on the other side soon. Cambell says she was disowned by her own family.

"I've had a friend for many years and we share the same life story,"Cambell said. "I am happy to know she already has legal documents in order over there. So she is the one that will receive me with her husband."


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