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LGBTQ asylum seekers persecuted at home and in U.S. custody

With more than 800,000 migrants currently applying for asylum in the U.S., a growing number of immigrants rights groups are calling attention to the plight of LGBTQ people, many of whom are seeking asylum because of persecution back home due to their gender identity and sexuality. Some also say they are facing similar abuse in U.S. immigration detention facilities. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There are currently more than eight hundred thousand migrants applying for asylum in the U.S., and most of the issues surrounding them have been well documented. But while much attention has been paid to the separation at the border of typical families, some migrant-rights advocates are calling attention to the plight of a group, they say gets lost in the immigration debate…NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    This past May, about 200 people from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico gathered in Philadelphia for a conference dedicated to migrant rights. The sentiments they

    expressed were a familiar part of America's immigration debate. But the people they were talking about were less so.

  • Jorge Gutierrez:

    Queer and trans folks are being impacted in many ways, in different ways than say, straight undocumented immigrants.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Jorge Gutierrez is the Executive Director of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, or TQLM, a volunteer-led group that advocates for Latinx immigrants who identify as lgbtq. According to the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, there are at least 267,000 undocumented lgbtq immigrants living in the U.S. Gutierrez says Familia: TQLM's goal is to put a national spotlight on their unique circumstances, both in the U.S. and back in their home countries.

  • Jorge Gutierrez:

    They're facing discrimination, racism, you know, transphobia, homophobia in their own communities in their own families and then they find themselves being detained for months and months, right? Trying to find– trying to get asylum, trying to get refuge.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Trans migrants, says Gutierrez, face a specific set of obstacles. Take the story of 28-year old Victoria Castro, a trans migrant from El Salvador. She says she applied for asylum in 2017 after being the target of violence back home.

  • Victoria Castro:

    We are being pursued and attacked. That is what motivates trans women to immigrate into this country and to seek whatever safety we can.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Castro used to run workshops on trans health and safety practices in El Salvador. She says one night while doing outreach with sex workers in the country's capital, San Salvador, she was beaten and shot in the shoulder by a group of gang members.

  • Victoria Castro:

    It's not just the blows they gave me and the gunshot, it's the offensive words they used when they were hitting me. The awful language that people use when they attack a trans person. And then to think that you have to go back out onto the streets where it happened. It was so difficult.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Castro went to Salvadoran authorities and identified the men who attacked her.

  • Victoria Castro:

    I wanted justice, which I thought would be possible because I recognized the men that did this to me, but that was not the outcome.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Police detained but eventually released the men with no charges. Castro says they knew she was the one who had complained, so they began to follow her and threaten her with death.

  • Victoria Castro:

    I said to myself, if I stay here in El Salvador, they will kill me. That is when I decided to take the long trip from El Salvador to the U.S.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Castro walked and hitchhiked for five months.

  • Victoria Castro:

    I suffered through what most immigrants suffer on the journey to this country in search of the American dream and stability. That is, going hungry, sleeping on the streets, trying to stay safe. You're navigating this huge country of Mexico and you don't know anyone, no one to help you or support you. It was a terrifying experience.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Castro says she was sexually assaulted twice on her journey. She finally crossed into the U.S. at El Paso, Texas, on January 1st, 2017, and shortly after was taken to a detention center.

  • Victoria Castro:

    That was the start of another horrible ordeal, which was going into ICE detention. It is difficult when you show up and your appearance is completely feminine but your document says you are a man. They brought me into the famous "ice-boxes" as they call them. And they were full of men, and they knew that because I was there, that I was trans. They started screaming at me and I began to panic. But the officer told me unfortunately that is where I had to go because they had no other place to put me. But I insisted that I didn't feel safe. So they handcuffed me to a pole outside the ice-box for about six hours.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Two weeks passed before she was sent to a special trans unit that immigration and customs enforcement operated at the time in Santa Ana, California. In the meantime, she says she was transferred to five other detention centers, where she was forced to shower in front of men, and strip-searched by male officers.

  • Victoria Castro:

    I was surrounded by men at points and felt constantly under threat. I could barely sleep because I was so worried.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Jorge Gutierrez of Familiar says Castro's story is not unique, and that the experience of being in detention often re-traumatizes trans migrants already fleeing violence back home.

  • Jorge Gutierrez:

    These are folks that are already being criminalized, or already being targeted, just by the way they look, their presentation, their gender identity, their sexual orientation. We have folks in our base that were detained years ago, and are still dealing with the trauma.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    So far this year, ICE housed 300 self-identified transgender detainees in its custody among 32 facilities, according to the agency. There is only one detention center with a special unit dedicated to trans migrants, which can hold up to 60 people.

    In 2015 the U.S. Government announced a new set of guidelines intended to improve detention conditions for trans migrants, making it a priority to place them in units that exclusively house trans women or men, and ensuring that trans detainees on hormone therapy receive continued treatment. There's also guidance on the appropriate language that should be used during intake and subsequent interviews.

    But a 2016 study by Human Rights Watch found there is little oversight to ensure the guidelines are followed. It also showed that more than half of transgender women interviewed were held in men's facilities at some point in their detention. And it listed trans women and men as among those who "are often placed in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time, as an alleged form of 'protection' that is often imposed against their wishes."

  • Lynly Egyes:

    We have a client right now that's been in solitary confinement for 17 months.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Lynly Egyes is Legal Director at the Transgender Law Center, the largest trans-led organization doing policy and legal representation work in the U.S. They've partnered with Familia: TQLM in holding press conferences and protests regarding the deaths of two trans women who died after being detained by ICE within the last year, and others who have attempted suicide while in solitary confinement.

  • Lynly Egyes:

    We see this over and over again, whether it's reports of sexual and physical violence, whether it's actual deaths in detention, or whether it's just access to medical care, that trans people cannot be safely housed in detention centers.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In an email to PBS NewsHour Weekend, ICE said decisions regarding the locations where individuals will be detained are made on a case by case basis and that it "is committed to upholding an immigration detention system that prioritizes the health, safety, and welfare of all of those in our care in custody."

    Still, the TLC wants ICE to end all detention of trans migrants, and for the Department of Homeland Security to use a spectrum of alternatives at its disposal in order to ensure individuals make their court dates.

    The organization also connects queer and trans migrants with pro-bono lawyers who understand the nuances of representing them in immigration proceedings, like looking at immigration options outside of asylum, such as visas that exist for immigrant victims of human trafficking.

  • Lynly Egyes:

    And that's a really big deal because human trafficking is rampant in the trans community. Criminalization is rampant in the trans community. And we need to be addressing these other issues, especially when we're trying to help people get immigration status.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    After three and a half months in detention, Victoria Castro was released and is currently waiting for a decision on her asylum case. In the meantime, she's sharing her story at events coordinated by Familia: TQLM.

    In February, a trans woman was murdered in El Salvador shortly after she was denied asylum in the U.S. and deported back. Castro worries if she is deported, the same might happen to her.

  • Victoria Castro:

    If I'm not approved for asylum, the danger is that I'm sent back to my country and am assassinated, because they've already tried to assassinate me. The police reports did not help, I know if I'm sent back they'll kill me. It could happen to me, and it could happen to others like me who have come here to escape violence. If they send us back to our countries, they are sending us to our deaths.

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