LGBTI migrants from Central America find refuge in DC

By : Michael K. Lavers Of The Washington Blade, Courtesy Of The National LGBT Media Association
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Dariana Méndez and her partner, Rony Alexander, were sitting next to each other on a large couch at Casa Ruby in Northwest D.C. shortly after 7 p.m. on March 26.

Méndez, a transgender woman from San Salvador, El Salvador, told the Washington Blade that she and Rony Alexander, a gay man from Honduras’ Lempira department, became a couple when they arrived in D.C. earlier this month. Méndez also talked about the discrimination and violence she said she suffered in El Salvador because of her gender identity.

“The truth is you cannot live in El Salvador like this,” she said as Rony Alexander listened. “You don’t have work opportunities. You don’t have opportunities to study. In my case the police bothered me a lot.”

Méndez and Rony Alexander, who did not provide his last name, are two of the 15 LGBTI migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua who are seeking asylum in the U.S. that Casa Ruby brought to D.C. earlier this month after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released them from their custody in Texas.

The Blade on March 26 sat down with nine of them for an exclusive interview.

From left: Dariana Méndez with her partner, Rony Alexander, sit on a couch at Casa Ruby in D.C. on March 26, 2019. Méndez, 24, is a transgender woman from San Salvador, El Salvador. Rony Alexander, 22, is a gay man from Honduras’ Lempira department. Méndez and Rony Alexander said they became a couple once Casa Ruby brought them to D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Joseline Urbina is a trans woman from Honduras’ Yoro department who joined a migrant caravan that left from the city of San Pedro Sula’s main bus station on Jan. 14.

Urbina, 42, said she was an elementary school teacher until she was fired “for being gay.” Urbina told the Blade she left Honduras because “she did not feel protected by the government.”

“They discriminated against us,” she said. “Soldiers, the police tortured us and it is because of this that we decided to leave the country.”

Perla, a trans woman who traveled with a migrant caravan that left from San Pedro Sula’s main bus station on Jan. 15, also told the Blade that Honduran police target people because of their gender identity. Perla also said many trans Hondurans have been killed.

“The police, to be honest, make the decision to persecute us and arrest us … they even rape us and kill us,” she told the Blade.

Rachell, a 19-year-old trans woman from San Pedro Sula who did not use her last name, on Jan. 14 joined a migrant caravan that passed in front of her home. Rachell told the Blade she too decided to leave Honduras because of discrimination and violence she said faced from police officers and others.

She said a man once ripped her wig off of her head and took her high-heel shoes away from her.

“They gave me dirty looks when I was dressed up in the street,” said Rachell.

Rachell is a transgender woman from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Eduardo Díaz, a 28-year-old gay man from San Salvador, left the Salvadoran capital with a friend on Oct. 31, 2018. They spent nearly three months in the Mexican city of Tapachula, which is a few miles from the Suchiate River that marks the Mexico-Guatemala border before joining a migrant caravan on Jan. 15.

Díaz told the Blade that Salvadoran police officers once beat him in front of his home. Armando Linares, a 19-year-old gay man from Santa Ana, El Salvador, said harassment from police officers and gang members prompted him to flee the country.

“They humiliated us,” Linares told the Blade as he sat next to Díaz and Jacobo, a 19-year-old gay man from Honduras’ Cortés department who did not use his last name. “They mistreated us.”

Rampant violence and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has prompted tens of thousands of migrants from the three countries to travel to the U.S. and Mexico over the last two years.

Activists in the region with whom the Blade has spoken in recent months say the Trump administration’s immigration policy has done little to deter migrants who hope to reach the U.S. They, along with their U.S. counterparts, continue to criticize ICE over the conditions in which LGBTI migrants who are kept while in custody.

An autopsy for which the Transgender Law Center asked indicates Roxsana Hernández, a trans woman with HIV from Honduras, was beaten before she passed away in ICE custody in New Mexico on May 25, 2018.

Armando Linares and Jacobo sit on a couch at Casa Ruby . (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Perla and the other migrants at Casa Ruby with whom the Blade spoke on March 26 said they entered the U.S. in January by crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico. They said they spent a week in cold holding cells, known as “hieleras,” which is the Spanish word for “freezers,” after they were taken into custody in Texas.

“We suffered a lot,” said Perla, noting they only received thin metallic sheets to keep them warm. “Seven days in the ‘hielera’ is not easy. It is not easy.”

Perla is a transgender woman from Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Urbina said she and the other migrants did not have access to a shower and were unable to brush their teeth while in the holding cells. Urbina, Méndez and other migrants with whom the Blade spoke said the only food they received were cookies, juice and cold mortadella sandwiches.

“We suffered a lot because we didn’t bathe for seven days,” said Jacobo.

Some of the LGBTI migrants who Casa Ruby brought to D.C. earlier this month joined caravans that left from the main bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in January. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Casa Ruby CEO Ruby Corado met the group of migrants in San Antonio after ICE released them from their custody and drove them to D.C. They arrived in the nation’s capital on March 4.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Jackie Reyes, director of the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs; Rev. Thomas Bowen, director of the D.C. Office of Religious Affairs; Bishop Allyson Abrams of Empowerment Liberation Church in Northeast D.C. and other local activists met with the migrants at Casa Ruby the following day.

“You will find people from your country,” said Norton. “You will find them living here among us.”

LGBT refugees from Central America speak with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) at Casa Ruby on March 5, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Some of the migrants will leave Casa Ruby as they await the outcome of their asylum cases.

Meanwhile, Jacobo told the Blade he has enrolled in an English class. Linares said he hopes to be able to support his family in El Salvador once he receives asylum in the U.S.

Joseline and several of the other trans migrants with whom the Blade spoke said they are able to live in D.C. without fear of violence or discrimination because of their gender identity.

“It is a city in which I can imagine myself being able to live,” said Méndez. “I feel comfortable here.”

Eduardo Díaz, 28, is from San Salvador, El Salvador. He is one of the 15 LGBTI migrants from Central America that Casa Ruby brought to D.C. earlier this month. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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