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Houston’s LGBTQ Immigrants Need Your Help

A resource guide to assist undocumented persons who are in danger of deportation.

Undocumented LGBTQ people—especially trans women of color—are at higher risk of suffering from the unsafe conditions of detention centers. In this photo, Ali Djabiri, a queer refugee from Congo, stands with a rainbow flag during a protest against their treatment by authorities (photo by Ben Curtis/AP).

With Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids occurring in cities across America—including several in Houston—it is imperative that we learn how to support undocumented individuals as best as we can.

The intersection between the undocumented and LGBTQ communities has become increasingly clear. Following the death of Johana Medina Leon, a transgender woman from El Salvador who died in ICE custody earlier this summer after falling ill, there have been numerous reports of other trans immigrants being abused and assaulted in detention centers.

“Undocumented LGBTQ—and especially trans—individuals are at a higher risk of suffering from the unsafe conditions of detainment centers,” says Abraham Espinosa, assistant director of Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (FIEL), an organization that provides legal and educational resources to immigrants. Espinosa asserts that becoming an informed ally is a crucial step in protecting members of our respective communities, especially with the recent nationally reported ICE raids in mind.

Stephen Cherry, an immigration professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, states the reality of what happens after being detained mirrors a bleak history of denying marginalized communities—especially LGBTQ ones—their rights in America. “Once in detention centers, there are no protocols to protect them or to assess their conditions,” he says. “This is particularly true for [transgender immigrants] who face many of the same micro-aggressions and ill sentiments they faced at home.”

So what can you do to help? Below is an overview of things to know in order to act as an ally to the undocumented community, compiled by OutSmart with the assistance of LGBTQ-affirming immigration organizations.

Know Your Rights—And Theirs

Whether you are documented or undocumented, you have certain constitutional rights when dealing with ICE agents. According to FIEL, this is how to assert those rights if confronted by an ICE agent:

“I do not wish to speak with you, answer your questions, or sign or hand you any documents based on my Fifth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution.”

“I do not give you permission to enter my home or search any of my belongings based on my Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution unless you have a warrant to enter, signed by a judge or magistrate with my name on it, that you slide under the door.”

In addition to these rights, it is important to know what other avenues are available to the undocumented community. Spencer Tilger, public-affairs manager at Immigration Equality, states that if an LGBTQ immigrant “fears violence or persecution in their country of origin,” they may be eligible for asylum in the U.S.

Such was the case for Denise Chambers, a trans woman from Trinidad who was undocumented for 10 years before winning asylum with the help of Immigration Equality, an organization that offers an in-house legal team and a national network of pro-bono attorneys to LGBTQ immigrants seeking asylum. You can learn more about the asylum process on the Immigration Equality website.

Spread the Knowledge

Spreading timely, accurate, and relevant information online and in person can help undocumented immigrants avoid coming face-to-face with an ICE agent. Whether that is by posting the current location of ICE agents on social media—as the New York Times reported that 19-year-old Kaylin Garcia did when she spotted them at her Houston apartment complex—or by sharing “Know Your Rights” infographics, spreading helpful information is important.

But Espinosa notes we should avoid spreading unnecessary fear by making sure the information we are sharing is accurate. One way to confirm whether an ICE sighting is valid is by contacting FIEL, as they have a Rapid Response Team dedicated to verifying and dealing with ICE raids. You can sign up to join their Rapid Response Team on FIEL’s Facebook page.

Use Your Power to Vote

If you are able to, exercise your right to vote for local and national representatives that support positive immigration reform. As the 2020 presidential election nears, this means staying informed and advocating for candidates who aim to protect the rights of LGBTQ immigrants and reduce the power of ICE. The Washington Post has compiled a list of the current Democratic candidates’ stances on immigration policy in an article titled “Where 2020 Democrats Stand on Immigration.”

If you are unable to vote, engaging in political discourse can help reduce the stigma surrounding the undocumented community.

Mobilize and Protect

Engage as an ally by participating in activist marches and protests.

“We need to organize and march in support of immigration organizations,” says Elia Chinó, founder and executive director of Fundación Latinoamericana de Acción Social (FLAS), a local organization for immigrants at risk or affected by HIV/AIDS and other STDs. “We need to fight, and we must be united to do so.”

In addition to collaborative, organized protests, Espinosa says you can use your power as a documented citizen to help protect undocumented immigrants. If you are able to, speaking with an ICE agent before an undocumented person does can spare them the unnecessary anxiety and fear that comes with such a confrontation.

Support Organizations in the Fight, However You Can

Chinó knows just how difficult it is to secure funds for nonprofits that support marginalized communities. “As a trans woman trying to provide immigrants with information and treatment for HIV/AIDS, I struggled for almost seven years with no funding at all,” she says.

Her story reflects the experiences of many nonprofits, highlighting the importance of volunteers and donations for these organizations. While monetary donations can help organizations greatly, many nonprofits also accept food and basic necessities.

By acting on the information in this article, you can establish yourself as an ally to the undocumented community and those who assist them. The following local and national organizations can also provide assistance for undocumented individuals:

• Carecen (carecendc.org)
• FIEL (fielhouston.org)
• FLAS (flasinc.org)
• Immigration Advocates Network (immigrationadvocates.org)
• Immigration Equality (immigrationequality.org)
• New York State Leadership Council  (nysylc.org)
• Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (latinatranstexas.org)
• Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) (raicestexas.org)
• United We Dream (unitedwedream.org)

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Martin Giron

Martin Giron is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine. He is currently a resource navigator for the SAFE Office at Rice University.
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