Lined up along the narrow, shaded passage south of the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales, Sonora on Thursday afternoon, 16 gay and transgender migrants held thick packets of paperwork detailing their claims for political asylum as they waited to present themselves to U.S. immigration authorities.
With dozens of reporters and activists pressed along the other side of the corridor snapping photographs and calling out words of encouragement, the four gay men and 12 transgender women from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico faced an uncertain end to a months-long journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation and gender identity that they said poses a credible threat to their lives and well-being if they are sent back to their home countries in Central America.
Calling themselves the first Caravana Trans-Gay Migrante, or LGBTQ migrant caravan, the group joined together as they traveled north through Central American and Mexico. Escaping physical, sexual and emotional violence in their home countries, the migrants said they also experienced persecution, discrimination and abuse at the hands of Mexican police, military and immigration officials en route to the United States.
“Our mistreatment starts in our families, who don’t accept us as transgender women. We’re targeted by gangs, and even the very police who should protect us,” said Estefany, a 22-year-old transgender woman from Honduras, speaking during a press conference in the shadow of the border wall on Thursday morning. “Many of us have been kidnapped, forced into prostitution. We come from our countries full of so much pain and suffering, and we experienced the same things here in Mexico, too.
“We now have the option of going to the United States looking for safety, that safety and protection that they, the United States, can give us,” she added.
The group arrived in Nogales, Sonora on July 25, where they began meeting with lawyers to prepare their asylum cases in the hopes that immigration authorities would not only accept their pleas for refuge, but also that they would be released from detention on humanitarian parole while their cases are processed because of the trauma many of them have already faced as victims of kidnappings, torture and other abuse, Estefany said.
Donning dresses, high-heels and tiaras as they walked nearly two miles from a soup kitchen run by migrant aid organization Kino Border Initiative to the Mexican side of the DeConcini port, the 16 migrants carried banners and chanted slogans calling for justice and freedom for LGBTQ people in Latin America.
A few blocks from the port, standing in the shadow of the border fence holding up banners and surrounded by dozens of activists and reporters, the group paused to talk about their journey and meet with their lawyers, making the final preparations to turn themselves over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But even on the verge of reaching their destination, many doubts remained, said Kevelin Nahomi, 32, from Honduras.
“I’m feeling a little sad, we don’t know if they’re going to separate us when we’re inside,” she said. “But we’ve given our word to be together always. We’re all nervous, hopeless, not knowing what’s going to happen to us. But we’re fighting for transgender women because in our countries, they’ll kill all of us. Every month 10-15 trans women are killed.”
Natalia, 31, also from Honduras, added that she worried about being detained with men, where transgender migrants often face abuse and sexual assault.
“This is my second time crossing, and I’m scared,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen to us.”
There are currently 47 self-identified transgender individuals in immigration detention across the country, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe. But what will happen to the group that crossed the border Thursday remains to be seen.
Though ICE could not say where any of the 16 gay and transgender migrants might be sent, Pitts O’Keefe added that custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis and that “the decision to detain or release an individual under the agency’s alternative to detention (ATD) program is made based upon the individual facts and circumstances of the case.”
But as she prepared to cross, Estefany said she was feeling calm.
“I’m not even nervous,” she said. “I know that everything is going to turn out okay.”
She and the other migrants exchanged tearful farewells with friends and supporters who were unable to accompany them as they crossed into the United States and made their way into the port, where they were taken into custody around noon.
A request for further information about the migrants’ cases with CBP’s Tucson Sector was not returned by the NI’s print deadline.