More than 30,000 asylum seeking migrants have been returned to Mexico to await their day in immigration court — a process that can take months. This is part of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy. The program says vulnerable populations may be excluded from the program, but many migrants who are considered vulnerable populations, including LGBTQ asylum seekers, are still being sent back to Mexico.
In Matamoros, a 25-year-old Salvadoran woman in a black dress with white polka dots sat with a group of women. They met as strangers but over the past few weeks, they grew close.
“It was like finding my family outside of my country. It’s really beautiful,” she said. “They saw that I was sleeping outside on the floor. We share the same blood and the same experiences. If I don’t have something they’ll give me [some,] and if they don’t have something, I’ll give them some.”
The women were all LGBTQ asylum seekers who were sent back to Mexico to wait for their day in immigration court in the U.S.
The Salvadoran woman is trans. She said she left her home country several years ago because gangs constantly extorted her, and she feared for her life. Her family at one point said she had to leave. They promised to support her until she got to the U.S.-Mexico border, and she left with another trans woman.
But they ran into problems when they arrived at Mexico’s southern border and got into a taxi.
“This man had informed someone that he had picked up two people, but he didn’t know we were trans,” the Salvadoran woman said. “I was kidnapped in Mexico with a gun to my head. I was raped. I also knew my friend was being raped because of her screams.”
She said they were able to escape one night when the men got drunk. They returned home but then they tried again. That second time, they made it to the U.S. But she was deported, and so she tried again. That time she was told to wait in Mexico because the Remain in Mexico program, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, was in effect.
During her wait, she faced several problems.
“I was at the edge of the river taking a bath, and then a truck showed up and offered me money to go work at a show bar, and he wanted me to go with him to see where he wanted me to work,” she said. “They see me as a point of prostitution.”
She said she also faced discrimination and transphobia from other migrants and governments on both sides of the Rio Grande.
Dani Marrero Hi is with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a statewide nonprofit alliance of lawyers who serve Texas communities. She works at the Rio Grande Valley office. She said all asylum seekers are vulnerable while waiting in Mexico, but there’s an added layer of danger for LGBTQ migrants.
“They didn’t trust that their home country could keep them safe. They didn’t trust the journey, but they made it anyways, and now that they’re here they don’t trust the Mexican government, they don’t trust the U.S. government and it’s not because of some conspiracy, it’s because of this reality that you see this policy,” Marrero Hi said. “You see these official documents, and they say, ‘Here are the steps to do X’ and then you take those steps, you follow the process and nothing happens.”
The Texas Civil Rights Project recently worked with other Texas and Chicago based organizations to try to get six LGBTQ asylum seekers admitted into the U.S. and removed from the MPP program.
Marrero Hi said the migrants were admitted into the U.S. for review but were sent back to Mexico, even though MPP said vulnerable populations may be excluded on a case by case basis.
She said she doesn’t know what else U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs to hear to finally understand that these migrants are vulnerable because they must remain in Mexico.
“At this point it just feels that there’s no way CBP to not know that. It’s a willing and conscious choice that they’re making that they know that this entire group of people, LGBTQ or not, all the hundreds of people here are vulnerable,” said Marrero Hi. “They are willingly and choosing to violate their legal and human rights to seek asylum.”
A Cuban woman who identified as lesbian was among the group who was recently returned. She fled her home country because a professor back home was extorting her and a police officer would threaten her about four times a week. The woman said she recently heard about Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker escorting several asylum seekers across the international bridge in El Paso.
“He crossed a couple of women and said they were not going to wait in Mexico, so why not us too?” she asked. “We’re a bit more vulnerable. Why can’t someone do the same for us?”
She said she would like to see local representatives, or any other elected official, do the same for them.
But for now she and the other LGBTQ asylum seekers were going to stick together.
The Salvadoran woman said despite everything she's been through she’s going to continue to fight and push forward because she wanted to be an example of resilience.
“Above all I want to be free and live in peace, to be able to lay in my bed and be able to say I’m not going to pay anymore to live,” she said.
The Texas Civil Rights Project and other organizations have launched a campaign to raise awareness about this group of asylum seekers in hopes of getting them admitted into the U.S.
The groups also called on U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, who represents Brownsville, to get involved and walk the LGBTQ asylum seekers across the international bridge to ensure their asylum claims are accepted.
“Once again the Trump administration has created a crisis where one did not previously exist,” Vela said in a statement. “Asylum seekers have a right to apply for protection, and the Remain in Mexico policy of turning back vulnerable migrants, especially this young group from the LGBTQ community, needlessly exacerbates an already dire humanitarian situation.”