Why you should care
Record numbers of Central American transgender people are seeking asylum in the U.S. … only to be deported.
Joana, a trans woman from El Salvador, plays and replays the WhatsApp voice message, almost as if trying to go back in time. The voice is that of Camila, her best friend. In the recording, Camila, also a trans woman, says she will go back to the “streets” one last time to earn enough money to buy a couple of bus tickets to neighboring Guatemala. From there, they would cross the Suchiate River to Mexico and then find a way to the U.S., where they would claim asylum. A week later and after a relentless search, Joana this February found Camila’s dead body in a hospital in San Salvador. It showed signs of brutal violence.
Camila had been deported from the U.S. a few months earlier. She was one of a growing number of trans people from Central America hoping to escape death in their homeland by seeking asylum in the U.S., only to be detained for months before being sent back to the targeted violence they were trying to flee. Since October 2018, an estimated 300 trans migrants have been placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers along America’s southern border, the highest number since official reports started in 2015.
But as of July 1, 2019, only 145 of them remained in 32 detention centers, according to the latest ICE data, with the vast majority of the rest already deported: Syracuse University research shows that a record 70 percent of migrant asylum requests are being rejected now under the Trump administration. Only one detention center has a unit exclusively for trans women. In the rest, they are usually held alongside men, despite widespread reports of ill treatment and abuse.
I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette and that I’m next [on the hit list].
Joana, a Salvadoran trans woman
Increasingly, those conditions, combined with the poor odds of winning asylum, are making trans migrants withdraw their applications after months in detention, say human rights activists. At times, they do so unknowingly. Camila told Joana — who requested the pseudonym for security reasons — that after spending three months in a detention center among men, she was persuaded to sign complex papers written in English, a language she did not speak. She was giving up her asylum request to return to a land where she was soon killed.
This was the second time Joana had buried a friend. In 2012, Monica was also brutally murdered in San Salvador. “I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette and that I’m next,” she says.
Across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the area known as Central America’s Northern Triangle, homicide rates are among the highest in the world. But trans people face even more severe threats than the rest of the population in a conservative region where discrimination is rife against those seen as different from the mainstream gender norms. Often, trans women have few employment options except as sex workers. They’re subjected to astronomical extortions at the hands of gangs who fight for territorial control. Punishment for those who lag behind with payments is often brutal.
In El Salvador, the life expectancy of trans women is 33 years, compared to 73 years for the overall population, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Rihanna Ferrera, a leading human rights activist from Honduras, says her organization has reported a rise in attacks against trans women there too, with eight murders so far in 2019, following a regional trend.
“Trans women lack the most basic opportunities of work, education and even access to health services. We are also not a priority for the authorities, who often ignore reports of violence,” Ferrera explains.
Authorities in El Salvador are investigating three police officers for Camila’s murder, although those close to her suspect gang members who were threatening her after she failed to pay a high extortion are also involved. Authorities have not labeled the murder as a hate crime and insist on calling Camila a “he.”
After surviving years of extortion and death threats herself, Joana is weighing her own — very slim — options while living in hiding at a relative’s house away from the capital. After Monica’s murder, the gangs started demanding $10 a week to leave her alone. When she couldn’t pay, they first beat her and then raped her. “I didn’t report it because I was scared, for me and for my family,” Joana says. “They are still threatening me.”
It’s little surprise then that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2018 noted that trans migrants were a key component of the growing flow of refugees from Central America moving north. But under Trump, hopes for safety in the U.S. are also shrinking for many.
With little chance of winning asylum and faced with controversial measures such as the increased use of prolonged immigration detention, many trans women are now giving up their applications to stay in the U.S., say analysts. Brian Griffey, a researcher with Amnesty International, says he has documented a spike in cases where trans women are effectively pushed to “self-deport.”
“The very fact that people are being detained solely on their migration status is arbitrary and constitutes arbitrary detention under international law, which is absolutely prohibited,” Griffey says.
Yet the home they return to is no safer than the one they left, despite there being government programs that, on paper, are meant to help trans people. Left to survive on their own, many are moving into hiding, setting up small WhatsApp groups to keep track of each other’s movements. They avoid traveling alone to ensure that if one goes missing, others will immediately start a search.
Others rely on the help of nonprofit organizations. Comcavis Trans in El Salvador runs a protection program for those at severe risk, in alliance with local shelters. “We are definitely receiving more requests for help, and authorities are not doing much, so a lot falls on national and international organizations,” Comcavis director Bianka Rodriguez explains.
None of these measures guarantees safety, as Joana knows well. She wants more than a life in hiding but faces an impossible dilemma: stay in El Salvador and risk death or travel to the U.S. and risk abuse. “I do not want to leave my country, but I’m constantly scared that something will happen to me,” she says. “I don’t want to be another number on a list of murdered trans women.”