To Protect the Lives of LGBTQ Asylum Seekers, the Biden Administration Must Fully End Title 42
By Julia Neusner, Human Rights First
Emem Maurus, Transgender Law Center
The Biden administration continues to misuse the Trump administration’s Title 42 policy to expel people trying to seek asylum protection in the United States to Mexico. The policy is blocking many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals from refuge and leaving them vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, bias-motivated abuse, food and housing insecurity, and other forms of violence. Recent reports indicate that while the Biden administration may exempt families from Title 42 expulsions starting in July 2021, it will continue to block and expel adult asylum seekers for months longer. This unacceptable delay would prolong disparities in access to protection and disproportionately impact LGBTQ individuals, many of whom are not traveling with children or who are not recognized as legal parents or guardians due to discriminatory laws in their home countries.
Emem Maurus is an attorney with the Transgender Law Center, which is part of a broad coalition of LGBTQ organizations providing legal services to approximately 150 LGBTQ asylum seekers stranded in Mexico due to Title 42. Julia Neusner, a legal fellow at Human Rights First, has interviewed hundreds of asylum seekers in Mexico remotely and in-person in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez this year.
We have both heard shocking stories of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ asylum seekers stranded in Mexico.
Many LGBTQ asylum seekers are terrified to try to seek protection at the United States border for fear of being expelled to the danger they fled in their home countries. Some have been waiting for more than a year in Mexico to request U.S. asylum. There, they face serious threats to their lives and safety. A survey of asylum seekers in Baja California conducted by Al Otro Lado in February through early April 2021 revealed that 81 percent of LGBTQ asylum seekers were the victim of an attack or attempted attack in Mexico in the past month, including rape, human trafficking, kidnapping, and other violent assaults. Violence against LGBTQ asylum seekers is so prevalent that Hollie Webb, a Tijuana-based lawyer with Al Otro Lado, could not recall a single LGBTQ client who had not been attacked while in Mexico. Human Rights First has tracked at least 3,250 attacks and kidnappings suffered by asylum seekers turned away or stranded in Mexico since President Biden took office in January 2021.
These horrifying incidents are the direct consequence of the U.S. government’s continued use of Title 42 to block access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. For more than a year, under the pretext of protecting public health, the U.S. government has been preventing asylum seekers from approaching U.S. ports of entry to seek protection and expelling those who cross the border elsewhere, sending them either to the countries they fled or to dangerous border regions in Mexico. LGBTQ asylum seekers attacked while blocked or expelled to Mexico under Title 42 include:
- In May 2021, a transgender woman who had fled Honduras was kidnapped and raped while waiting in Piedras Negras, Mexico for U.S. asylum processing to resume. She escaped her kidnappers by jumping out a window but fell into a cactus plant, sustaining injuries. The woman had fled Honduras after a gang attacked her for her sexual orientation and beheaded her brother.
- Mexican police attacked a group of Jamaican LGBTQ asylum seekers in downtown Tijuana in June 2021. The police threw three of the group to the ground and tased one person. The asylum seekers said that the police targeted them because of their race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
- In June 2021, a transgender Honduran woman was kidnapped in Tijuana by a man who had promised her a place to stay. He locked her inside a house with other captive migrants for two days before she managed to escape out of a window. She is now hiding at a Tijuana shelter, terrified to go outside for fear of reencountering the kidnapper.
- A gay Central American man who’d fled his home country after being persecuted for his sexual orientation was kidnapped and trafficked for months around Mexico, where he was beaten, assaulted, and forced to perform sex acts. Since escaping his captors in late 2020, the man has suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, tested positive for HIV, and required surgery for injuries from multiple rapes in captivity. He is still waiting in Mexico for the opportunity to seek U.S. asylum; hiding in a border city where he has endured harassment by other shelter residents due to his sexual orientation.
- In early 2021, Mexican police in Tijuana raped a Guatemalan Indigenous transgender woman who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation in Guatemala. At the time, she had already been waiting nearly a year to request U.S. asylum due to Title 42 restrictions at the border, according to Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado.
- In April 2021, an 18-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador who had fled death threats in her home country was kidnapped, assaulted, and robbed in a Mexican border city by men who told her they planned to “disappear” her. The woman managed to escape and as of June 2021 remained in the same city as her assailants, blocked from requesting U.S. asylum due to Title 42 and terrified to leave her shelter.
- A gay Honduran man escaped a kidnapping attempt in Piedras Negras in May 2021. He had been walking in a park when a man pulled up a car and demanded sexual services. When the Honduran man refused, the assailant jumped out of the car and grabbed him from behind, stabbed him in the arm, and tried to force him into the car.
- In late May 2021, a Mexican lesbian couple was attacked and beaten for their sexual orientation while waiting in Tijuana for U.S. asylum processing to resume.
- A Salvadoran transgender woman, who had fled El Salvador with her partner after gang members murdered her parents and tried to kill her, has had to move twice since February 2021 after her persecutors located and threatened her in Mexico, according to Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado.
In May 2021, the Biden administration established a limited exemption process to enable some vulnerable individuals to bypass Title 42. Some LGBTQ people have successfully accessed this process to reach safety in the United States. But the exemption process moves far too slowly to guarantee safety for the thousands of asylum seekers who remain in danger in Mexico. Moreover, the exemption process can only be initiated by certain nonprofit organizations, resulting in disparate access. For instance, few people from Haiti or African countries have been able to use the process, and it is inaccessible to those not in contact with advocates. For instance, an LGBTQ asylum seeker who fled Honduras after he was assaulted and his house was burned down has been waiting in Tijuana for the opportunity to request U.S. asylum for over a year. He told KPBS that he cannot access the exemption process because he does not have a legal advocate to help him. He said, “for many LGBT people, we don’t have representation. No one. It’s very difficult to be alone in this situation.”
On top of the risk of violent attacks, LGBTQ asylum seekers stranded in Mexico struggle to survive due to pervasive discrimination and lack of access to resources. Escalating violence and worsening access to already limited employment, housing, food, and medical care compound the trauma many LGBTQ asylum seekers face in their home countries, resulting in acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Without legal status in Mexico, many LGBTQ asylum seekers have difficulty accessing medical care, including psychiatric care for PTSD and depression. Medication for those who are living with HIV is very expensive in Mexico. The Transgender Law Center has worked with asylum seekers stranded in Mexico living with HIV who have struggled to obtain the medication they need. In one case, a Guatemalan transgender woman living with HIV was forced to wait more than six months in Tijuana due to Title 42. She could only obtain medical care from small clinics serving migrants, which lacked the capacity to treat her serious lung condition. When she entered the United States through an exemption process in June 2021, she spent two weeks in the hospital in San Diego receiving treatment for the condition, which by that point had substantially worsened.
LGBTQ asylum seekers impacted by Title 42 who lack legal status in Mexico cannot obtain formal employment and struggle to support themselves, and often face harassment and discrimination when applying for jobs or attempting to make a living. The pandemic exacerbated these issues as job opportunities dwindled.
- In late May 2021, a Tijuana restaurant owner told a transgender asylum-seeking woman from Honduras that she wouldn’t hire her because having a transgender person working there would “ruin the restaurant’s reputation.”
- Two transgender Honduran women were forced to quit their jobs in manufacturing plants in Tijuana in May 2021 due to abuse and harassment by coworkers, who insulted them and made sexual comments and other remarks that made them fear for their safety.
- A transgender Honduran woman who managed to secure a job in a Tijuana restaurant in late 2020 endured abuse and exploitation by the restaurant owner, who refused to pay her the wages she was owed. The restaurant owner told her, “nobody has to hire people like you because you’re all supposed to be sex workers,” and warned her against reporting the abuse, saying, “it’s easy to find someone to kill a transgender person.”
- In May 2021, two gay asylum seekers from Honduras, desperate for money to support themselves and without access to the formal job market, tried to sell candy in a Tijuana park. At a store where they went to buy candy to resell, the store owner called them offensive names and told them that nobody wanted gay people in Mexico, and kicked them out of the store. Though they were ultimately able to buy candy elsewhere, police officers ordered them to leave the park before they could sell enough to make a profit.
Exclusion from job opportunities forces some LGBTQ asylum seekers to engage in sex work to survive, leaving them vulnerable to attacks and abuse. A Venezuelan transgender woman who is still stranded in Ciudad Juárez waiting to be able to request asylum at a U.S. port of entry was repeatedly assaulted and once kidnapped during a year she spent doing sex work in Mexico.
Discrimination by landlords and in shelters leaves LGBTQ asylum seekers with few safe housing options, and many face precarious living conditions. In Tijuana, for instance, the few shelters that specifically cater to LGBTQ migrants are full beyond capacity. Multiple LGBTQ asylum seekers living in general migrant shelters told Human Rights First that they experienced discrimination or harassment by staff and other shelter residents. For instance, in April 2021, Al Otro Lado had to help a gay Central American asylum seeker move into a private hotel room due to harassment he was experiencing in a Tijuana shelter. Those attempting to rent private rooms also encounter discrimination. A same-sex couple had to move multiple times in Tijuana after landlords evicted them because of their sexual orientation, according to Hollie Webb of Al Otro Lado. In March 2021, a building owner attacked a transgender Honduran woman who had secured an apartment contract in her legal name. When she arrived to move in, he swung a large stick at her and chased her away.
Because of pervasive discrimination and lack of shelter capacity, LGBTQ asylum seekers are often left to sleep on the streets or in dangerous accommodations. Three Central American LGBTQ asylum seekers who have been waiting in Mexico without legal status for nearly a year have struggled to find stable housing. They spent weeks sleeping on the floor of a tire shop in Tijuana, which they must vacate when the shop is open during the day. One told Human Rights First, “we are afraid all the time because the place is not safe. We can no longer endure this situation.” Other LGBTQ asylum seekers are living in a makeshift tent encampment near the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, including a transgender Mexican woman who, after fleeing persecution due to her gender identity, was expelled by DHS to Tijuana in December 2020. She told Human Rights First that she has been harassed in the encampment and fears for her safety. The Transgender Law Center is currently working with more than 35 LGBTQ asylum seekers from Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras, and other countries who are living in the encampment. All of the transgender and openly gay asylum seekers report harassment by others in the encampment who have thrown objects at them, shouted insults, or made unwanted sexual solicitations. Many are afraid to leave their tents and avoid being alone in the camp for fear of being attacked.
The Biden administration must end Title 42 in its entirety and restore asylum protections at U.S. ports of entry and along the border to protect LGBTQ and other asylum seekers stranded in Mexico. A policy that would admit only families and leave adults to languish in danger is indefensible. Public health safeguards in no way justify disparate treatment between families and adults. Moreover, such a policy would continue to violate U.S. asylum law and the non-discrimination provisions of the Refugee Convention, leaving LGBTQ people to continue to face the grave dangers that we have seen during our work and interviews with asylum seekers blocked and expelled to Mexico.