THE THREE HOUSES OF HOPE – ORAM REFUGEE
Steve Roth, ORAM’s Executive Director traveled to Tijuana, Mexico to meet LGBTIQ asylum seekers on the border. Here is what he had to say:
I traveled to Tijuana, Mexico twice in the last month to gain more insights into the challenges facing LGBTIQ asylum seekers on the border and to see how ORAM and our partners can begin to help addressing the needs there. With all the talk in the U.S. about immigration, “the Wall” and asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, there has been very little discussion about LGBTIQ asylum seekers among them. But there are many, and they’re some of the most vulnerable people on the border. Like many other migrants along the border, they are escaping from gang violence, economic and political instability but also extreme persecution, violence and discrimination for simply being who they are. And they face special challenges being LGBTIQ on the border.
During my time, I had the opportunity to meet and work with three different community houses that have a particular focus on LGBTIQ asylum seekers. On my second trip, I traveled with a colleague from our parent organization Alight (formerly the American Refugee Committee) and we implemented a number of different projects to help the shelters address some basic needs and also bring a little joy to their residents. The newest house we visited was Casa de Luz, a strong, vibrant collective with thirty house members, ten of which were children. We were excited to be able to help them with some items and tools to organize their new home (pictured right), exercise equipment to stay healthy and some toys and games for the kids.
I also met with the residents and staff of El Jardin De Las Mariposas (The Garden of the Butterflies), an LGBTIQ focused drug rehabilitation home in Tijuana which has recently opened its doors to offer temporary housing to LGBTIQ asylum seekers. It was here that I met with the inspiring founder of the center, Yolanda Rocha (pictured below with Steve, Jaime Marin and Monica) . Yolanda mentioned that with the increasing number of migrants arriving, the center struggles to meet the rising costs and address all the residents’ needs. With Alight, we helped install a computer and printer for the center’s office – much to the delight of all the residents and staff (pictured below right). Having also experienced recent vandalism and anti-LGBTIQ harassment on the streets outside the house – safety was a daily concern for the residents. Yolanda had recently bought security cameras, however did not have the funds to properly install them, so we lent them a hand to get them set up. We were also happy to be able to buy them new tables and chairs so that all the residents have a place to sit during meals, 12 Step meetings and other house gatherings.
Nearby is another shelter serving a similarly marginalized community of LGBTIQ migrants called Casa Arcoiris. The grassroots shelter was opened last year by a group of activists, providing shelter while also offering access to legal services, healthcare and counselling for their residents. Despite having only recently opened, I was amazed by the vibrancy, strong sense of community and overall efficiency of the shelter. Casa Arcoiris could not run without the dedication of the three-person team, Nicolasa, Chris and Andrea who work hard to ensure that everyone at the house is supported and has what they need to be successful in their journeys. However, due to the increasing demand, resources are being stretched to the maximum and they are looking for ways to fix up the house and accommodate more people. ORAM stepped in and was able to help repair the kitchen floor and counter surface and buy some new bunkbeds for the shelter to expand their capacity and welcome more residents.
Is the wait time in Mexico is approaching six months or more for LGBTIQ asylum seekers to be given their first interview with U.S. immigration officials, I witnessed the extreme urgency for shelters like Jardin De Las Mariposas, Casa de Luz and Casa Arcoiris- safe places which work hard to provide nourishing food, comfortable shelter, address mental health and livelihoods needs, and also bring LGBTIQ migrants some joy amidst the challenges of daily life. Residents still need help building their asylum claims too. There are no available statistics around the estimated number of LGBTIQ migrants on the border however, we know the numbers are large and services are scarce. Therefore, we are now developing programs and delivering some immediate resources to help and support LGBTIQ asylum seekers in Mexico on the U.S. border, particularly when it comes to the asylum process.
I was also very excited to recently participate in a border design trip with our partners at Alight and a number of other great organizations to develop new solutions for the challenges facing asylum seekers and migrants at the border, and we’re looking forward to working with them to implement some of those solutions in the coming months.
The challenges for LGBTIQ migrants and asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border are great, but working together with committed partners we know we can help make the journey a little better for these brave individuals.
U.S.– MEXICO BORDER TODAY
In 2018 Mexico saw a 103% rise in asylum claims over 2017.1 There are no statistics on how many of these are LGBTIQ, but experience tells us there are many. LGBTIQ people are fleeing persecution in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and embarking on the dangerous journey to the US border in search for a better and safer life. And they are joined by many others from even further away – Jamaica, Cuba, Russia and Africa – fleeing extreme violence and persecution in their homelands. But what awaits them is more uncertainty, discrimination and violence. Before entering the U.S., asylum seekers are made to wait in Mexican cities along the U.S. border before their claims are processed and they are given permission to enter U.S. territory.
Furthermore, on the 11th of September 2019, the Supreme Court of the U.S. permitted the Trump Administration to enforce further restrictions on asylum seekers at the southern border, allowing them the right to refuse to consider an asylum claim of any asylum seekers who previously passed through a so called ‘safe third country’ and didn’t request protection in that country. Consequently, asylum seekers fleeing persecution and traveling to the U.S. via Mexico maybe denied the right to seek asylum in the U.S. if they did not seek protection first in Mexico. While the restriction has been legally challenged in the lower courts, the Supreme Court’s order to allow the immigration restriction upholds the policy while the court case against it continues.
Whether Mexico can be considered ‘a safe third country’ under any standards is questionable. High levels of crime and human rights violations are reported against migrants generally, perpetrated by organized criminal gangs, as well as different kinds of abuse of authority by the security forces and other Mexican migration services. The migratory routes cross many drug cartel routes, posing additional danger to vulnerable migrants. LGBTIQ migrants are additionally vulnerable and are subjected to stigma and discrimination from both the local host community as well as fellow asylum seekers.
Depending where they are, some try and seek asylum in Mexico, however there is a severe lack of information to access the asylum procedure in Mexico.
Detention centers in Mexico fail to meet the specific protection needs of LGBTIQ people, exacerbating their symptoms of depression, anxiety and the effects of post-traumatic stress. Despite progressive laws passed in some states in Mexico, intolerance towards LGBTIQ people is still extremely high in many parts of Mexico.