Africa Monroy was eight years old when her parents fled Guatemala and migrated to the U.S., in part to get away from a man who had been sexually molesting her.
Monroy, a transgender Houston woman, lived in the U.S. for 10 years before falling through the cracks of immigration law and getting deported in 2008. What she found when she returned to Guatemala was rampant corruption and violence.
“It was terrifying,” recalls Monroy, now 28. “I was constantly in fear of being singled out, beaten up, and killed. My only hope was to seek refuge in a country that would protect me.”
Monroy received asylum in 2017 and currently resides in Houston with her eight-year-old son. She works at a restaurant and is an activist for Houston’s undocumented and LGBTQ communities as a member of Organización de Latinas Trans en Texas (OLTT), a group that protects, supports, and advocates for trans Latinx people in Texas.
“I have a guilty conscience because I made it,” Monroy says. “There are so many stories about LGBTQ people dying because of immigration laws. People I know are dead or still in danger, but I am alive.”
Many LGBTQ Central Americans, such as Monroy, are desperate to escape persecution in their countries, and turn to the U.S. for help. While it is legal for migrants to request asylum on the basis of persecution related to their LGBTQ identites, President Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy could jeopardize their legal path to safety.
“I have a guilty conscience because I made it. There are so many stories about LGBTQ people dying because of immigration laws. People I know are dead or still in danger, but I am alive.”
In a June 11 decision, attorney general Jeff Sessions made it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers to gain legal entry into the U.S. by citing fears of domestic abuse or gang violence.
Sessions’ move could be catastrophic for LGBTQ Central Americans who are forced to remain in or be deported back to their home countries. Among countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America, 264 murders of LGBTQ people were reported in Honduras between 2009 and July 2017, 28 attacks against LGBTQ people were reported in El Salvador in 2017, and 40 trans people were reported killed in Guatemala in 2016, according to a 2017 International Amnesty Report.
Sessions’ ruling also penalizes Central Americans who do not seek asylum in Mexico first, even though LGBTQ people in Mexico also face violence and death. There were 202 reported murders of LGBTQ people in Mexico between 2014 and 2016, according to a report by El Día.
The latest group of LGBTQ Central Americans seeking asylum is unsure whether they will receive a fair hearing under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, according to Jackie Yodashkin, public-affairs director at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to establish grounds for asylum based on persecution due to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“They don’t know whether the one place that is supposed to be safe will actually be safe,” Yodashkin says. “Once they get to the U.S., they are locked up [during] criminal proceedings. And now it is almost impossible for them to make a case for asylum.”
Yodashkin believes LGBTQ refugees will continue to seek asylum in the U.S. because they have nothing to lose.
“Getting asylum is life-or-death for refugees,” Yodashkin says. “If they know that they are definitely going to be killed in their countries, and may or may not get asylum in the U.S., [the choice] is pretty easy for them to make. They will risk everything.”
Once at a border point, refugees are often placed in detention centers if authorities are unable to establish their identities or immigration status. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ refugees are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other detainees.
In May, a trans woman from Honduras named Roxana Hernandez died in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after experiencing HIV-related complications and cardiac arrest.
Ana Andrea Molina, founder and director of OLTT, is in contact with LGBTQ migrants who were in the most recent caravan that carried them to Arizona from Tijuana, Mexico.
“Their experiences have been very bitter and painful,” Molina says. “Many of them were violated in the shelter they were placed in. That shelter was later almost burned down because they did not want trans people in it.”
The “zero tolerance” policy affects a large number of people that OLTT supports, Molina says. She believes that the tightening of immigration laws is unjust and designed to benefit the U.S. government at the cost of a vulnerable community.
“America profits from the immigrant’s vulnerability,” Molina says. “Undocumented children are being kidnapped by the U.S. government and separated from their parents. Hard-working fathers and mothers who want to give their children a chance are being sent to jails. LGBTQ asylum-seekers are being locked up. All of this happens while detention centers make hundreds of thousands of dollars to house desperate people who just want to survive.”
After being deported to Guatemala, Monroy became homeless because neither her family nor her community supported her. After living in a shelter for 20 days, she says she knew her only option was to seek asylum in a country that would protect her.
In 2013 Monroy returned to the U.S., where she was held in a detention center for four years. For three-and-a-half of those years, she was segregated from other women and housed in confinement with people who had committed crimes.
One night, a detention officer came into Monroy’s cell and touched her inappropriately. She reported the guard, but he was never disciplined.
“These situations happen in detention centers every day,” Monroy says. “Trans refugees are not criminals, but we get treated like them. They force us to suffer alone in those cold rooms.”
One of Monroy’s friends, a trans woman, was murdered after being deported back to Honduras after unsuccessfully seeking asylum in the U.S. Monroy’s cousin, a closeted trans woman who lives in Guatemala, fears that the same will happen to her.
Although Monroy feels safe in the U.S., she is worried that immigration laws will continue to change, and that she will again be deported. For the time being, she is grateful that she lives in a place where she can be her true self.
“I thank God that I made it,” Monroy says. “In the U.S., I am independent from a country that persecuted me. I can pursue my dreams here. I am alive, and I am free.”
This article appears in the August 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.