After nearly two years of working at a pharmacy, Jerson—whose last name won’t be disclosed for safety reasons—was fired after telling his employer’s doctor that he is gay. Shortly after, Jerson’s brother was murdered by a local gang. Death threats followed Jerson and his other siblings, driving his family to move from their home in San Pedro Sula to another region of Honduras.
In Honduras, Jerson explains that most gay men “live hidden.” He says, “I don’t want to live a life where I’m in the closet. My only difference is that I like men. But I can study. I can work. I can have a family. I want to be someone in life. My country has taken away that opportunity, so I have to find it elsewhere.”
German Mendoza, a San Pedro Sula-based LGBTI+ human rights advocate and core member of CATTRACHAS, a Honduran lesbian-feminist grassroots organization, explains that when a person can no longer live a dignified existence in their home country, their only alternative is to migrate. “Health care, education, work, family … when each of those roots disappear, you start losing your attachment to a place,” Mendoza says. “When you stop having a purpose for staying, you leave.” For LGBTI+ people living in conservative countries like Honduras, where most hate crimes go unpunished, the risks of unemployment, homelessness, lack of access to health care, and education are even greater.
In fact, CATTRACHAS’ research shows that from 2009 to mid-2018, 296 LGBTI+ people were killed in Honduras. This rate is up from just 20 documented killings between 1994 and 2009, according to research by Honduran LGBTI+ activist Nelson Arambú, who himself died in 2015. Increasingly since the 2009 U.S.-backed coup in Honduras, Indigenous activists, land and water protectors, women, and LGBTI+ communities have been brutally targeted by the violence and militarization unleashed in Honduras.
Organizations like CATTRACHAS and the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), founded by Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016, are at the forefront of social and political change in the country. As violence has intensified since 2009, so has resistance.
Jerson did not want to leave his home country. He wanted to nurture life amid familiar streets and faces. But the radical act of leaving was his only remaining choice, an act of survival. Jerson left for the first time in 2015. He was apprehended in Texas, where he tried to apply for asylum in the United States. Instead, he found himself in immigration detention for nearly a year and was then deported. Upon his return to Honduras, he learned his father had been killed.
When Jerson tried to apply for asylum in the U.S. again, in 2017, it was with Arcoíris 17 (Rainbow 17), the first caravan of trans-gay migrants from Central America (and one from southern Mexico.) The caravan members nicknamed Jerson el guerrero—the warrior.
Most members of Arcoíris 17 met at La 72, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, on the Mexico- Guatemala border. La 72 is one of the only migrant shelters in Mexico that welcomes LGBTI+ people and dedicates specific resources for them. Nakai Flotte and Irving Mondragón, volunteers at La 72, were the main organizers of Arcoíris 17 and co-founders of the LGBTI+ collective Diversidad Sin Fronteras (Diversity Without Borders).
Arcoíris 17 faced multiple dangers in Mexico. Yet by July 2017, after weeks of travel, Jerson and the other members of the caravan arrived to Nogales, Sonora.
On August 10, they presented themselves to U.S. immigration officials to apply for asylum.
As Jerson prepared to turn himself in with Arcoíris 17, memories of his first time in a U.S. detention center resurfaced. “I wouldn’t even leave my cell. They mess with your mind,” he says. “Knowing this process could last six months, up to three years. Three years of my life doing what? Not doing anything? What about my goals? What about my dreams? [The lawyers] explained [to] us the process, but I still wanted to do it, because I want to live.”
When a person turns themselves in at a U.S.-Mexico port of entry to apply for asylum, they are immediately put into immigrant detention. If they pass a credible fear interview, which determines whether a person can prove that their life is at risk for their political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity, asylum hearings eventually begin. On average, the asylum process takes six months to complete, according to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, if the person applying has legal representation. However, for some, the process can take years.
Asylum seekers can request parole in order to fight their cases outside of detention. This usually requires that the person has a sponsor in the United States who can provide them with a temporary home while their asylum case is resolved. If they are denied parole, some are able to request a bond hearing after six months in detention. These decisions roll out in a case-by-case basis and are up to the discretion of immigration judges and officials.
By 1 PM on August 10, 16 members of Arcoíris 17, including Jerson, were in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Nogales, Arizona. (A last member, Edwin, didn’t arrive to the border until a few days later.) The caravan members were transferred from Arizona and split up across two separate detention centers in New Mexico. Jerson and the other five gay men in the caravan—José, Josué, Jaime, Edwin and Miguel—were sent to Otero County Detention Center, about an hour and a half north of El Paso, Texas. The caravan’s 11 transgender women— Kevelin, Joselyn, Kataleya, Génesis, Estefany, Natalia, Valeria, Monika, Sharom, Eléctrica and Adriana— were sent to Cibola County Correctional Center, an hour west of Albuquerque.
“To us, seeking this protection is not a crime,” says Joselyn, who is from the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua. [Her last name will also be withheld for safety reasons]. “The day we turned ourselves in … we were treated like animals. Put in a cold room with only an aluminum blanket to cover ourselves. We were handcuffed at the wrists, the hips and ankles. We didn’t eat all day.”
While in detention, Joselyn says she was placed in solitary confinement twice, once for eight consecutive days. For Joselyn, a survivor of a kidnapping in Mexico, being locked up in a windowless cell was especially traumatic.
A nationwide campaign led by Arcoíris 17 organizers Flotte and Mondragón, immigration attorneys who provided legal aid, and sponsors who wrote countless letters of support, succeeded in helping get most of the caravanners out of detention. Within a month, 10 of the transgender women of Arcoíris 17 were released on parole. Although caravanners and supporters were hopeful in the beginning of the process, this success seemed unimaginable in the era of Trump. “The caravan’s impact was huge, even more so when our chicas trans accomplished their objectives, to get parole,” says Mondragón.
Jerson and the other five gay caravanners held at Otero were denied parole. “Their spirits were crushed,” Mondragón says. Within days, three of them were forced to sign their deportation orders. Jerson and Edwin stayed to hear the results of their asylum cases.
Unity Builds Strength
Back in 2007, Kevelin, one of the members of the caravan, made it to U.S. soil from Honduras for the first time. She wanted to apply for asylum but was denied after not passing her credible fear interview because she couldn’t “prove” her gender identity or sexual orientation. She was sent to a detention center, where she says she was placed into solitary confinement for months without explanation. “It’s a living hell,” Kevelin says.
Kevelin, like Jerson, was fearful about facing a second asylum process. But on that warm August day in 2017, Kevelin marched side-by-side with her companion of more than five years, José, her Arcoíris 17 family, and a group of caravan supporters who marched on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border. Undocumented allies who couldn’t cross into Nogales, Sonora, marched across the fence in Nogales, Arizona. As she marched, Kevelin held a sign that read, “las mujeres trans pertenecen aquí” (trans women belong here). A white flower adorned her hair. José wore a tiara.
Kevelin and José had fled death threats in Honduras. They first crossed into Guatemala, where they faced verbal abuse and were denied employment for being trans, gay, and undocumented. They eventually made it to southern Mexico. “We were assaulted when we first arrived to Mexico,” Kevelin says. “Three individuals beat us. We were stoned in Tapachula. A stone hit me in the back, I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I didn’t think Mexico was the same as [Honduras], but it’s terrible.”
One of Kevelin’s breast implants burst after the beating. Oil leaked inside her body for months. When Kevelin arrived to Nogales, Sonora, she urgently needed surgery. But aside from a bag of medicines at the local pharmacy, Kevelin was denied medical attention in Mexico. She was also denied health care at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. In detention, the oil leaked and leaked, as her health deteriorated.
Merely days before the rest of the chicas trans, as they refer to themselves, were freed on parole, Kevelin signed her deportation order. In the U.S. detention center, Kevelin felt that the only way to save herself was to return to a place where she also faced threats to her life. She also has two young children and a supportive mother, whom she terribly missed. José went back too. The last that was heard of them was that they were hiding in a basement in Honduras, as rumors of their return spread quickly to the men who threatened their lives.
CATTRACHAS member German Mendoza investigated the number of killings in Honduras of LGBTI+ asylum seekers who have been deported from the U.S. between 2013 and 2017. He found 34 cases.
A Wall in Mexico
While the members of Arcoirís 17 faced threats in their home countries, in U.S. detention centers, including the possibility of being deported, the bulk of the dangers they encountered occurred while crossing through Mexico. The immense Mexican territory has served as a barrier between Central American asylum seekers and el norte.
Programs like Plan Frontera Sur, enacted in 2014 and partially funded by the U.S. government, have led to a stronger presence of military and immigration checkpoints throughout southern and central Mexico, forcing people to take remote and more dangerous routes, as organized crime attempts to exploit them.
As of 2018, there are an estimated 70,000 Central American disappeared people in Mexico, according to Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano (Mesoamerican Migrant Movement), which also organized the Caravana de Madres de Migrantes Desaparecidos (Caravan of Mothers of Disappeared Migrants)—caravans of Central American mothers who, since 2004, have demanded answers from the Mexican government of their children’s whereabouts. Facing immigration enforcement in Mexico is as deadly for Central Americans as crossing the Sonoran Desert with limited water and three-digit summer temperatures.
A 2017 Amnesty International report states that human rights violations are often reported against migrants and asylum seekers, including robberies and kidnappings by organized crime, sometimes in collusion with security forces and Mexican migration agencies. The report, citing research by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, finds that two-thirds of LGBTI+ asylum seekers coming from the Northern Triangle suffered sexual and gender-based violence in Mexico after crossing the border.
For Joselyn, crossing Mexico on her own meant facing the dangers of sex trafficking. Joselyn left Nicaragua in 2012. She journeyed through Central America on her own, until reaching the Guatemala- Mexico border. Joselyn crossed into Chiapas with a small group of Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers. At one point, Joselyn’s partner, Miguel, who she met at the Guatemala-Mexico border, and the rest of the group separated. Miguel headed north and successfully crossed into the United States, Joselyn says, where they planned to reunite. Joselyn lived in Mexico City for a couple of years, she says.
When she was able to reunite with Miguel, Joselyn traveled west to the state of Jalisco, where she was kidnapped and sex trafficked for three months. “They would prostitute me. They would give me drugs. They would force me to sell drugs,” Joselyn says. In fact, the state of Jalisco has often been labeled by Mexican media as a “paradise” for human trafficking. Cities like Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta are known destinations for sex tourism, with local and migrant women, transgender women, and youth the most vulnerable to trafficking. Sadly, cases like Joselyn’s are not uncommon.
After a few months, Joselyn says she was able to communicate with Miguel. He came back to help her, thereby deporting himself. Law enforcement raided the house where Joselyn was held, inadvertently rescuing her and a handful of other women, she says. Joselyn says the men who kidnapped her are “looking for us … they said they would shoot us in the head.”
María Inés Taracena is an award-winning print and radio journalist from Guatemala City. She currently roams Tucson and the surrounding Arizona-Sonora borderlands, where for more than six years she has written about the border, migration and displacement, LGBTI+ resistance, gender issues, and education.