For LGBT asylum-seekers, coming to the U.S. is hardly the end of a harrowing journey
Located in the suburbs of Tijuana, Mexico, the Casa Arco Iris migrant shelter is unassuming.
That's on purpose.
Not so long ago, its exterior was graffitied with a homophobic slur. Casa Arco Iris, or Rainbow House, offers refuge for gay and trans migrants headed to the United States.
Thousands of migrants have sought asylum in America in the last few years, fleeing violence and persecution. LGBT refugees are often more low profile, and advocates say there's a reason for that: while other migrants find support in their respective communities here in the U.S., this is a group that often gets shunned and attacked.
At Arco Iris the environment is cozy, but the mood is apprehensive. Sitting in the living room, curtains drawn, a group — mostly from Central America — is watching a video tutorial on how to get an interview to request asylum with U.S. Customs And Border Protection. The idea is to encourage people to come to the U.S. legally, rather than just cross the border.
"On average," the speaker says, "people have to wait a few weeks."
This elicits laughter.
Everyone here has been waiting for months. One guy, named Rivas, has been waiting for half a year.
"I feel desperate. Desperate," he says. "It's like playing the lottery with your life."
Rivas asked that we not use his last name because he was threatened in his native Guatemala for being gay. It got so bad, he tried living in neighboring Mexico. But as drug cartels moved in, the harassment got unbearable.
He heard he could get asylum in the U.S.
Rivas says he would never cross without papers. The thought of getting caught and deported back home terrifies him. "I would never do that."
Andrea Gonzalez Vera, the co-founder of Arco Iris, says Rivas' story is common. She says drug cartels and gangs tend to be deeply homophobic.
"The LGBT community is a very specific target for organized crime," she says.
Like Rivas, most LGBT asylum-seekers she's worked with don't want to cross the border undocumented. "If you fail and you get deported, that could mean losing your life in your country of origin."
But that slur graffitied on the outside of Arco Iris is a reminder that it's not safe for people like Rivas to stay put for very long.
Persecution due to sexual orientation is grounds to apply for asylum in the U.S., although there is almost no official data on how many asylum-seekers make that claim. But there are non-profits working with this group of people.
The LGBT Asylum Task Force provides housing and a stipend until asylum-seekers can get work authorization. This is key, says co-founder Pastor Judy Hanlon, because by the time LGBT asylum-seekers come to her, they've often been ostracized and even brutalized in their own communities in America.
"They have beaten them. They have raped them. Here in the United States. I can't even tell you the stories. So they're not safe with their people. So it's just triple marginalized," Hanlon says.
People coming from more places
Years ago, folks were mostly coming with visas, and then requesting asylum. Many were from from Jamaica and Uganda, where homosexuality is criminalized and severely punished. But increasingly, Hanlon is hearing from folks from around the world who are waiting on the border, or have already crossed it and are detained.
"I've got people calling me from detention every day", says Hanlon, from Hadwen Congregational Church in Massachusetts. "Asking me to write letters to get them out of detention. They went over the border. They're LGBT."
The United Nations says there's been a historic rise in displaced people in the world, and on the border, and it shows: these days it's filled with migrants from China, Turkey, Russia and the Caribbean. In the course of a weekend NPR met LGBT asylum seekers hailing from Central America and Colombia.
People like Dylan Villa. I met Villa in California, she had crossed just a few minutes ago, through a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall. She was resting up against one of its rust-colored beams. She had long black hair down to her waist and her eyes were bloodshot with exhaustion.
Dylan is 22. She called me 'mor, or love, as people from northwest Colombia often do. She told me when she was 11, her family kicked her out for being gay, and that she'd been living with friends and on the streets ever since.
"I've had to run, and hide", she continued, "because someone would tell me, 'So-and-so is looking for you. He says there's no room for f****** in this town."
But she wasn't always able to get away. She shows me scars from stab wounds all over her body. She just couldn't do it anymore, she says. Then someone told her the U.S. was safer for people like her. She has a cousin in Boston, who was nice to her when she was a kid.
Our conversation was cut short by Border Patrol agents rounding migrants up to bus off to a processing center. I assumed I wouldn't see her again.
But a few weeks later, Villa texted me. She had made it to Boston. To her cousin's house.
We met at a Colombian fast food joint, filled with families eating arepas and drinking tinto. Villa already seemed to be a regular here. I noticed that despite her appearance, some people called her boy.
It was noisy, but when Dylan talked, she lowered her voice a little. She said she was embarrassed by this next part. At the border, after we spoke, she said, Border Patrol separated men and women. She told the agent she was a woman. She says he responded, "In the U.S., unless it's cut off, you're a man, and you go with the men."
Villa says she had a panic attack. She was placed in detention alone. She says the cleaning staff would call her homophobic slurs, and make vomiting noises when they saw her. A few days later, she was released with a notice to appear in immigration court in March.
In response to inquiries, Customs And Border Protection directed NPR to its National Standards On Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search. They instruct that before placing people in detention, they assess: "whether the detainee has self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or gender nonconforming; Whether the detainee has self-identified as having previously experienced sexual victimization; The detainee's risk of being sexually abused by other detainees."
Basically, to initiate deportation proceedings.
I asked if she was going to try to get asylum.
"Asylum." She repeats. She says she doesn't know what that is, or how you get it.
People like Rivas might be stuck waiting indefinitely on the Mexico side of the border, but some like Villa are caught in a legal limbo. Her deportation proceedings could take years. She can still apply for asylum, but her chances are slimmer because she crossed undocumented.
But Villa says she not going to bother applying. She needs to focus on finding work. Starting a life.
Even if it's only for a while.
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