Transgender human rights activist Raiza Aparicio feared for her life when she fled El Salvador last year after being physically assaulted by four police officers in her home.
Like many other LGBT asylum seekers who are victims of sexual or gender-based violence, Aparicio’s destination was the United States. She made it through Guatemala and Mexico by crossing rivers and hitching a ride on what has been called the “train of death,” a network of cargo trains that hundreds of thousands of migrants risk their lives by riding on top of each year.
The harrowing journey was worth it as she was able to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Then with the help of Legal Services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, she requested asylum at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego.
“The immigration lawyer from the Immigration Project at the Center helped me with my case and my paperwork and also connected me with different LGBT resources to help me here in the U.S.,” says Aparicio, who won her case and is now living in Los Angeles.
“Leaving my country was such a hard decision,” says Aparicio (pictured, above). “I’ve seen a lot of friends die in this fight and people being beat and tortured. It’s sad, and it’s difficult, but you have to fight. We are literally fighting for our lives.”
But that fight could be much harder now that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions aims to block asylum seekers citing fears of domestic abuse or gang violence from gaining entry into the U.S. The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to present its proposed regulations soon.
Maria Melo, the Center’s policy and operations manager, says the proposed changes could essentially be a death sentence for LGBT people forced to return home without even having the chance to see an immigration judge.
“After a month or two-months-long journey facing all kinds of dangers along the way, they’re going to get to the border and they’re going to be turned away right then and there,” Melo warns. “Victims of domestic and gang-related violence won’t even have a chance to come in, make their case, and fight for their lives. It’s very dangerous because LGBT people are fleeing from this type of violence in their home countries and have experienced peresecution based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity.”
To qualify for asylum in the United States, migrants must prove they are subject to persecution in their home countries based on specific criteria. This not only includes identification with a particular social group, but a government that is powerless to stop the persecution or is complicit in it.
“They are talking about taking away gang-related violence and domestic violence as reasons to apply for asylum. It’s wrong,” Aparicio says. “Most people in Central America are affected by gang-related violence. Removing domestic violence or family violence as well is very bad for LGBT folks. Sometimes it’s our family or our partners that are the actual murderers of LGBT folks.”
Melo is calling on the LGBT community and its allies to make their voices heard to members of Congress. There will be a 90-day period for public comment on the website of the Department of Justice once the new regulations are published.
“I’m hoping the LGBT community can understand from a very deep level what it means to actually face the danger of losing everything that we hoped for,” she says. “That’s what they are facing right now – including the clients the Center sees through our legal services.”
“What we do will make all the difference,” Melo adds. ‘We need to get ready to make public comment, to resist. Together we can definitely make our voices heard.”
The Center is providing legal services and legal representation to LGBT people who are detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and was involved in 65 asylum-related cases in the last six months of 2017 and first six months of this year.
“We’re seeing asylum seekers that are coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries where they already faced discrimination, violence, torture,” Melo says. “Then when they come here they won’t see that beacon of hope that the United States had been for so many decades.”