In 2018, Roxana Hernandez, a 33-year-old trans woman from Honduras arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum. Back home in Honduras, she was known as the hardest working family member, a loving sister and tía. Every morning she’d wake up to start making tortillas and beans to sell on the street from 6 in the morning to 8 at night. For a couple of months, she also engaged in survival sex work to make ends meet. However, no matter how hard she was working; it just wasn’t enough to support her and her family. She then made the life-risking decision, not once, but multiple times to migrate to the U.S. in hopes of opening up a salon and sending back money to her family. It was her last attempt when she arrived at the U.S./Mexico border and ended up in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center.
By Samantha Lomeli
In 2018, Roxana Hernandez, a 33-year-old trans woman from Honduras, arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum. Back home in Honduras, she was known as the hardest working family member and a loving sister and tía. Every morning she’d wake up to start making tortillas and beans to sell on the street from 6 in the morning to 8 at night. For a couple of months, she also engaged in survival sex work to make ends meet. However, no matter how hard she was working; it just wasn’t enough to support her and her family. She then made the life-risking decision to migrate to the U.S. in hopes of opening up a salon and sending back money to her family. Not once, but multiple times. It was her last attempt when she arrived at the U.S./Mexico border and ended up in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center.
They then transferred her to a privately-run federal prison for men, which contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Not long later she was taken to the hospital and eventually passed away due to lack of adequate food, water, medical care, and harsh living conditions while under the custody of U.S. immigration officials. Unfortunately, this neglect ultimately leads to her death at the hands of ICE. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time this has occurred. There are numerous other cases of trans and gay immigrants reporting abuse while detained in U.S. custody. Few of these cases are investigated and even fewer are served justice. Since 2018, there have been 16 death detainee reports.
Trans Central Americans, particularly trans women, face high levels of discrimination and gender-based violence no matter where they are. They are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the Americas. Although they are vulnerable worldwide, they are especially vulnerable in their home countries which have led many to flee and seek protection in Mexico and the United States. The general Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan population live in countries where violence and death are extremely high but so being trans or gender-nonconforming makes them more susceptible to those outcomes. Roxana wasn’t just trying to escape financial hardship. She was also fleeing violence in Honduras after being gang-raped by MS-13 gang members. The experiences of trans-Central American women in their home countries, various stages of their migration journey, and their post-arrival are important to examine to understand the needs of trans-Central American migrants.
The experiences of trans-Central American women in their home countries, various stages of their migration journey, and their post-arrival are important to examine to understand the needs of trans-Central American migrants.
Situations in Home Countries
To understand why trans Central Americans are arriving further up North America, we have to examine their reasons for fleeing their home countries. Overall, there is a general lack of opportunities & resources available to the majority of people in Central America. This is the result of multiple U.S. interventions, failed neoliberal policies, several coup d’états, years of civil wars, and devastating natural disasters. The result of these situations is a failed and corrupt government and economy that leaves the general population in deficit. In the article “Central American Immigrants in the United States” by Jeanne Batalova, Jessica Bolter, and Allison O’Connor they state, “Displacement, economic instability, and insecurity followed, and although peace accords brought a formal end to civil conflict in all three countries the following decade, political and economic instability continued, and so did migration northward, with many arriving illegally.” Although the wars are over, the devastating effects still impact the well-being, safety, and lives of Central Americans, which cause them to migrate towards Mexico and the U.S. through any means. Migrating “the legal way” is a timely and costly process that the majority cannot afford or have the luxury to wait for. That means many must travel on foot. As of 2017, there were approximately 3,527,000 Central American immigrants in the U.S. Violence is also another reason why so many Central Americans are driven to leave.
High accounts of gender-based violence specifically are what cause trans Central American women to flee. In the report “No Safe Place: LGBTI Salvadorans, Guatemalans, And Hondurans Seeking Asylum In Mexico” done by Amnesty International, they interviewed LGBTI members stating the violence they experienced while in their home countries. One of the interviewees, Cristel, a 25-year-old Salvadoran trans woman, said she left due to the threats and attacks she received from local gang members for not being a “biological woman”. Camila, a 34-year-old Salvadoran trans woman, also fled from death threats, but these were received by local police officers. UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that “88% of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees from the Northern Triangle interviewed in the context of a study reported having suffered sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin.”
The majority of LGBTI Central Americans are fleeing based on survival. The Northern Triangle region is one of the most dangerous regions for trans women to exist. Based on data gathered from the NGO Cattrachas Lesbian Network, which documents LGBTI death, there have been 264 LGBTI murders in Honduras from 2009 to July 2017. 32.5% of those murders were of trans people. Based on data gathered from The Association for Communicating and Training Trans Women in El Salvador (COMCAVIS TRANS), 28 violent attacks (the majority being murdered) against LGBTI people have been reported just in eight months from January 2017 to September 2017 in El Salvador. Based on the NGO Transgender Europe, reported 40 trans people were murdered in Guatemala in the year 2016. Although these numbers are already alarming, a lot more deaths and attacks go unreported, which suggests these numbers are under the actual instances of violence committed against trans and other LGBTI people. However, trans people choose not to report out of fear and for their safety.
There is no justice nor visibility for trans people in Central America. When they do attempt to reach out for help, they’re faced with more problems than before. From a study conducted in El Salvador in 2015, 72% of trans women who had been attacked chose not to report the incident for two main reasons. The first reason was fear of revenge for the attacker. The second reason was fear of being ignored, discriminated against, and mocked by authorities. When Camila reported her attack to the police in El Salvador, they mocked her for her gender identity as a trans woman. When she insisted on her right to report it, the officers threatened to incarcerate her. Many trans women have similar encounters with the police, which is why many give up and don’t bother to report it or seek help. Due to these various issues and the lack of money and resources Central Americans have, caravans are formed. A caravan is a large group of people traveling together. In the context of the recent 2017 caravan in Central America, it is the tenth of its kind. Because most Central Americans do not have the money, resources, documentation, or sponsors to migrate individually, they travel together in groups as a form of protection and for guidance.
Migrating is already an excruciating journey. Migrants are prone to suffer from starvation, dehydration, disease, violence, exploitation, and other health complications and abuses. Yet the Mexican government makes it much more difficult for migrants from pressure from the U.S. government. In 2014, Mexico implemented the Southern Border Program which dramatically expanded Mexico’s immigration enforcement to target Central Americans and other migrants heading north. Mexican authorities target Central Americans based on their appearance, accent, belongings, mode of transportation, and proximity to borders and checkpoints. Their priority is to detain and deport migrants en route to the U.S. From the article “Paradoxes of Protection: Compassionate Repression at the Mexico–Guatemala Border”, there were 118 abuse complaints from migrants at the Mexico/Guatemala border region committed along with the migrant’s transit experience. Of the 118 people who filed reports, 33% were Honduran, 29% were Guatemalans, 26% were Salvadorans, and 7% were of different nationalities. 51% of the abuse complaints were committed in Guatemala and 36% of the abuse complaints were committed in Mexico.
However, the majority of these abuses were reported in Guatemala out of fear of Mexican authorities. But the fact that the majority of the abuses were committed in Guatemala shows that migrants are targeted before they even enter Mexico. The location of the abuses occurred throughout the migrants’ journey. Many of the abuses are committed by authorities extorting and robbing the migrants on buses or near rivers where they cross. In the abuse complaints, migrants said while moving through Mexico they were likely to be physically assaulted, extorted, and/or robbed. 29% of the abuses were extortion, 18% were human trafficking or kidnapping, 15% were assault, 14% were robbery or theft, 8% were fraud or scam, 5% were denial of livelihood, 5% were death threats, 3% were attempted homicide, and 3% were wrongful deportation or illegal detention. 37% of the perpetrators were government, 19% were common delinquents or drug dealers, 12% were transporters, and the remaining were others. The way victims are approached is highly gendered. Both men and women experience assault at the same level, but men are likely to receive physical assault and women are likely to receive various forms of sexual violence.
Nonetheless, trans Central American women face all of this plus more abuse from within the caravan itself from their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts to the point they and other LGBT members had to branch off and form their caravan in 2017. It was known as the “first trans gay migrant 2017 caravan”. On August 10th of 2017, a group of 16 trans and gay Central Americans arrived in Nogales, Mexico (a border town near Arizona) holding up signs with slogans and chanting for freedom. They traveled from Mexico City and arrived in Nogales seeking asylum. In an interview from the report “Point of No Return: The Fear and Criminalization of Central American Refugees”, a 25-year-old trans-Salvadoran woman, Natalie, shared her forced recruitment, transit experience, heavy burden, deportation back to El Salvador, and the risk she’s in being back in her home country. In her transit experience, she and 3 friends had to hide in a truck and had little access to food.
While driving they saw a raid and had to abandon the truck and travel by foot. They were completely unprotected and without any resources to help them along their journey. They were then kidnapped and two of her friends were tortured and killed. She and her last friend were able to escape, but once the police found them, they took them to a detention center. And while she was detained, she found out that her brother who was back in El Salvador was murdered by the people who had kidnapped them; it was a message to her and her family. After that, she asked to be deported back home instead of waiting to be granted asylum. She and her mother moved to a different neighborhood where there was less crime. From there she began to express her gender identity openly and became an NGO activist. Natalie’s story is just one of many who experience a horrendous journey as they try to seek protection. Very rarely do people make it to the U.S. and are granted asylum. Those who do make it to the U.S. border are not done with their journey. It’s usually the beginning of a different set of challenges that they have to face, such as being stuck in detainment.
Immigration detention centers began to be built in mass, they are just prisons for undocumented folks. They are an extension of the U.S. prison industrial complex, which was created to criminalize people of color and poor people. Trans Central American migrant women fit into both of those categories and end up in detention centers that are not equipped or informed on how to properly take care of trans immigrants.
Once arrived in the U.S., trans Central Americans wait to see whether they are granted asylum acceptance or denial. However, acceptance is low and every year the asylum denial rate climbs higher due to Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Under our current administration, refugee acceptance will be capped down to 18,000, which was 30,000 before. Of those 18,000 spots, only 1,500 will be reserved for Central Americans. And which trans people are considered for asylum is a selective process as well. In “On Transits and Transitions: Mobility, Displacement, and Trans Subjectivity in the United States”, Tristan Josephson interrogates the way state institutions regulate trans bodies, identities, and their transition process. He states, “...trans asylum seekers have to posit their sexual and gender identities as essential and fixed, even as their sexed and gendered embodiment may be shifting…”. This means transmigrants have to stick to a gender presentation when asking for asylum even though many tend to change their presentation to trans-Salvadoran survive in environments where it’s not safe to be openly trans. They also may not have access to hormones and clothes that correspond with their gender identity. When trans women are locked up in detention, many are denied access to their hormones and medication if they have HIV/AIDS. As a result, their physical and mental health deteriorates, and they often end up dying while in U.S. custody.
The mass incarceration of immigrants began during the Regan administration when thousands of Central Americans fled from their home countries in the 1980s. Immigration detention centers began to be built in mass, they are just prisons for undocumented folks. They are an extension of the U.S. prison industrial complex, which was created to criminalize people of color and poor people. Trans Central American migrant women fit into both of those categories and end up in detention centers that are not equipped or informed on how to properly take care of trans immigrants. Trans immigrants especially lack legal rights and protection since they are not U.S. citizens. Although detention centers are intended to “temporarily” imprison immigrants until they are deported, many of them spend their lives in detention. In May 2018, the Congress of the U.S. wrote to Secretary Nielsen about their concerns with the treatment of LGBT immigrants, transgender women in particular, while in ICE custody. According to data released by ICE earlier in 2018,” transgender detainees represent 12 percent of all sexual assault complaints filed from ICE detention centers, despite making up less than 0.1 percent of the total detainee population.” Trans Central American migrants are often criminalized by authorities and are profiled as sex workers.
However, sex work is the last resort they have since employers discriminate against them based on their gender and perceived sexual identity, and their family usually disowns them. In the article “Abuse against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention” by Brian Stauffer, 28 interviews with trans women from Central America documents the abuses committed against them in U.S. detention centers. One of the interviewees, Jacqueline, a trans woman from Honduras, reported being sexually assaulted by a male guard in the laundry room. He forcibly penetrated her with his fingers, groped her breasts, and forced her to touch his genitals. Another interviewee, Laura, a 19-year-old trans woman from El Salvador, also reported abuse from a male guard at a men’s detention center in Arizona. He made unwanted sexual gestures, made transphobic commentary, and inappropriately touched her when strip-searched.
Carolina, a trans woman from El Salvador, said it was a male detainee who had physically and sexually assaulted her on two occasions when she was held at a men’s detention facility in Florida. And when she did report the incident, the staff refused to investigate the allegations and let the perpetrator remain with her in the same housing unit. Sara, a trans woman from Honduras, was put into solitary confinement in a privately -operated detention facility in Arizona. She was put into solitary confinement after a guard had accused her of having consensual sex with another detainee although they didn’t allow her to see footage of the allegation. When she was isolated, she became depressed and didn’t eat for a week. She said she cut herself with an ID card and wanted to kill herself. A lot of trans-Central American women end up isolated in solitary confinement because immigration authorities think it’s safer for them, but in actuality, it causes a lot of psychological harm to them. Prolonged solitary confinement (an excess of 15 days) is a human rights violation, and it is not the proper way to “protect” trans women in detention from other instances of abuse.
It is important to look at the resources and lack of resources that are in place for trans-Central Americans and other LGBT Latinxs either in the U.S. or back in Mexico and Central America. Casa Jardín De Las Mariposas is one of the only shelters in Tijuana, Mexico specifically for LGBTI individuals. It also serves as a rehabilitation center for LGBTI folks who have an addiction or illnesses. And it is the only center in Tijuana that accepts LGBTI migrants deported from the U.S. However, the shelter does not receive any support or governmental financial assistance from the city. It is completely operated from donations. The co-founder, Jaime Marin, says it is a “sanctuary shelter for our brothers and sisters in Central America who are fleeing from their countries, afraid for their lives.”
Jaime and the other co-founder, Yolanda Rocha, created services that help trans-Centralold transn women with the political asylum process, job searching, and act as a homeless shelter for them. Casa Arcoiris is another shelter in Tijuana specifically for LGBTQI+ migrants. They have a 24/7 staff presence, a full-time psychologist and social worker, various workshops, artistic and educational activities, connection to legal services, and cover the medical costs for their residents. They also try to ensure that their members are protected from deportation. Cattrachas is an autonomous, independent, feminist, lesbian non-profit organization based in Honduras comprised of psychologists, advocates, academics, media communicators, graduate students, and activists whose main goal is to advance and protect the human rights of LGBTI people in Honduras. They focus on documenting cases of violence against LGBTI people, advocate at the national and international level for policy change, and create/build networks on all levels.
Financial insecurity, gender-based violence, and the lack of protection are push factors for the mass migration of trans-Central American women and other LGBTI folks. Their migration is a forced migration. If someone knowingly decides to migrate knowing the possible outcomes, it shows that their situation in their home country is no better. The transit experience to Mexico and the U.S. as trans Central American women has multiple layers of oppression. They have to deal with xenophobia from Mexican authorities and transphobia from cisgender/heterosexual Central Americans. Once they do arrive in their destined countries, the fight is not over. They are detained in men’s detention centers where they are subjected to sexual violence from the guards and other detainees and are revoked of their medication that either affirms their gender identity or manages their HIV/AIDS complications. Understanding the struggles trans Central American women face in their country of origin, en route to Mexico or the U.S., and their treatment in detention once arrived is important to analyze to trans begin to address the needs of this underserved and marginalized community.
The lack of a gender and a feminist lens when it comes to U.S. immigration policy, and the failed neoliberal policies in Central America lead to death. A call for human rights to be recognized and respected is needed. Detained trans-Central American women need sponsors to build networks, find attorneys, bonds, and resources. We must organize where we live but stay in solidarity in a transnational manner and not forget those abroad. Many things can be done to help, but I will highlight a few. One way is to brief trans Central Americans of their rights by nonprofit legal experts and access to legal representation before their asylum interviews. Another way to help is to offer alternatives to detention if the person has a credible fear of returning to their home country. Trans folk should also be given access to gender-affirming care. The U.S. should assist nations in the Northern Triangle to address the root causes of flight. Trans Central Americans should be given special consideration and protection. Finally, queer/trans immigration groups were the first ones to say, “abolish ICE”. It’s important to listen to and legitimize the ideas that queer and trans folk have been saying for years instead of dismissing them and laughing in their face only to hijack the movement years later.
Amnesty International. “No Safe Place: LGBTI Salvadorans, Guatemalans And Hondurans Seeking Asylum In Mexico.” Amnestry.org, 2017.
Batalova, Jeanne; Bolter, Jessica; O’Conner, Allison. “Central American Immigrants in the The United States.” Migration Policy Institute, 2019.
Center for Migration Studies and Cristosal. “Point of No Return: The Fear and Criminalization of Central American Refugees.” CMS-Cristosal report, June 2017.
DeVries, Kaelyn; et al. “Paradoxes of Protection: Compassionate Repression at the Mexico–Guatemala Border.” Journal on Migration and Human Security, 2019.
Josephson, Tristan. “On Transits and Transitions: Mobility, Displacement, and Trans Subjectivity in the United States.” University of California, Davis, Ann Arbor, 2013.
Stauffer, Brian. “Abuse against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention.” Human Rights Watch, 2016.