August 28, 2018 at 9:40 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Trump immigration policy sparks concern on US-Mexico border

A pickup truck drives on a road in Mexicali, Mexico, on July 21, 2018. The road abuts the fence that marks the Mexico-U.S. border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MEXICALI, Mexico — The temperature was nearly 100 degrees shortly before 1 a.m. on July 22 when a stripper who was wearing a baseball hat, an unbuttoned black shirt and blue jeans stepped onto the stage at Porky’s Divine, a gay club in the Mexican city of Mexicali, and began to dance.

A California woman and her bachelorette party, several drag queens and strippers were among the hundreds of people who were at the club that is three blocks from the Mexico-U.S. border. Patrons at Taurinos Bar, a gay bar that is a few blocks south of Porky’s Divine, were playing pool and drinking beers as they listened to songs from Ricky Martin and other Latino pop stars.

“[The LGBTI community in Mexicali] is very big,” Axxel Rodríguez, the manager of Taurinos Bar, told the Washington Blade from behind the bar.

Porky’s Divine is a gay club in Mexicali, Mexico, that is located three blocks from the Mexico-U.S. border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mexicali, Tijuana and other Mexican border cities and towns have longstanding economic and cultural ties with neighboring communities in the U.S. President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has not severed them.

The Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center in El Centro, Calif., a city in the Imperial Valley which is roughly 12 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, provides services to upwards of 300 people each month. These include support groups for transgender people that are in English and Spanish and the annual Imperial Valley Pride that takes place in El Centro each October.

Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center CEO Rosa Díaz told the Blade on July 20 during an interview at her office that many students with whom her organization works live in Mexicali but go to school in the Imperial Valley.

Díaz and Rev. Ron Griffen of the El Centro First United Methodist Church, who works closely with the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center, also noted many people who live in Mexico work in California. Migrant workers who are permanent residents of California and can work legally in the U.S. are eligible to receive state Medicaid and other public assistance.

“People in Mexicali or Tijuana work in California and then they go back,” Griffen told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from El Centro.

Businesses that advertise immigration-related services are a common sight throughout the Imperial Valley.

The offices of a lawyer who provides immigration-related services are located inside a restaurant in Calexico, Calif. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Americans who cannot afford prescription drugs, dental or eye care in the U.S. frequently travel to Tijuana, Mexicali and Los Algodones, a small Mexican town on the Colorado River that borders Andrade, Calif., to visit pharmacies, dentists and optometrists.

A pharmacy in Los Algodones, Mexico, advertises medications for sale on July 22, 2018. The town, which is across the Mexico-U.S. border from Andrade, Calif., is a popular destination for Americans who are looking to purchase medications that cost less than they do in the U.S. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Long lines of traffic were waiting to enter the U.S. at the San Ysidro and Calexico ports of entry throughout the day on July 20 and July 21 respectively.

U.S. Border Patrol has set up a permanent checkpoint on the westbound lanes of Interstate 8 near Pine Valley, Calif., which is roughly 45 minutes east of San Diego. Another permanent Border Patrol checkpoint is located on the eastbound lanes of the same interstate outside of Yuma, Ariz.

A Border Patrol agent at the Pine Valley checkpoint on July 20 asked this reporter whether he was a U.S. citizen before she allowed him to drive through. Another Border Patrol agent a couple of hours later briefly interrogated this reporter after he took pictures through the border fence at Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif.

LGBTI migrants chosing to stay in Mexico

Activists on both sides of the border with whom the Blade spoke last month said Trump’s immigration policy that includes the separation of migrant children from their parents has sparked fear among migrants, regardless of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Comunidad Cultural de Tijuana LGBTI, an LGBTI community center in Tijuana that is located a few blocks from the San Ysidro port of entry, and Espacio Migrante, another Tijuana-based organization, work to provide shelter and other resources to LGBTI migrants in the city. The groups also offer assistance to members of the LGBTI community who have been deported from the U.S.

The Blade has also spoke with an activist in Mexicali who works with LGBTI migrants.

Jorge Luis Villa, coordinator of Espacio Migrante’s Proyecto Diversidad Migrante, said during an interview in downtown Tijuana on July 20 that four trans women between the ages of 16 and 22 and a young gay man were part of a caravan of migrants that arrived in the city in 2017. Villa also pointed out a 300-person caravan of migrants that traveled to Tijuana in late April included 30 people who were LGBTI.

Villa said two of the four trans women who arrived in Tijuana in 2017 have asked for asylum in the U.S. He told the Blade the two other trans women — siblings from Honduras — are currently working in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, a neighborhood near the Mexico-U.S. border in which sex workers frequently work.

Villa said the gay man who traveled to Tijuana with the four trans women is now in the Mexican state of Veracruz and trying to normalize his immigration status in the country.

Rodríguez told the Blade there are trans sex workers in Mexicali who are from Honduras, a Central American country in which violence and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation is commonplace. He also told the Blade there are migrants from Haiti and from “all over” gather at a park that is four blocks from Taurinos Bar and in other areas of the city’s downtown area.

Axxel Rodríguez manages Taurinos Bar, a gay bar in Mexicali, Mexico, that is less than a mile from the Mexico-U.S. border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Roxana Hernández, a trans Honduran with HIV who was among the group of 300 migrants who arrived in Tijuana in late April, was taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on May 9 after she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry. Hernández was held at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico before she died at a local hospital on May 25.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told the Blade in June after he traveled to South Texas there are no policies in place that specifically address the needs of LGBTI migrant children who have been separated from their parents.

Villa has developed relationship with officials in the state of Baja California’s government who work with migrants.

He said the Mexican federal government’s immigration policy “has been created with the LGBT community in mind,” but he conceded “there is much work to be done.” Villa also echoed activists in Mexico City with whom the Blade spoke in July who said more LGBTI migrants have decided to stay in Mexico because of Trump’s immigration policy.

Cruz added smugglers, known as “coyotes” in Mexican Spanish, are fighting each other because fewer migrants are entering the U.S.

“This man speaks and people stay where they are,” he said, referring to Trump.

From left: Jorge Luis Villa of Espacio Migrante talks with Andrés Cruz Hernández of Comunidad Cultural de Tijuana LGBTI in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 20, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Griffen’s church provides legal services to low-income immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through Justice for Our Neighbors, a United Methodist Church ministry. Díaz works with Binational Health Week, a consortium that promotes improved access to health care for disadvantaged Latinos in the U.S. and Canada, and has referred clients to the Mexican consulate in Calexico, a city in the Imperial Valley that is across the U.S.-Mexico border from Mexicali.

Griffen told the Blade he has seen “a lot more fearfulness and a lot more uncertainty” since Trump took office.

“We have clients that have waited over 20 years to get their court date,” said Griffen. “They’re kind of scared to death that something’s going to go wrong.”

Imperial Valley LGBT group trains ICE, Border Patrol

ICE since 2015 requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. This guidance also instructs personnel to consider placing trans detainees in facilities that have experience providing hormone therapy and other trans-specific care and advises against placement segregated housing units unless its a last resort.

Díaz told the Blade she received a call from the Transgender Law Center in late 2014, a few months before the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center officially became an organization, about a trans woman in ICE custody who was not receiving hormones while in ICE custody and was not being housed with female detainees. Díaz said the trans woman eventually received hormones before her release.

“She was homeless,” she said. “She was on the streets in Calexico, so she feels they let her go because they didn’t want to pay for her hormones.”

The Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center now conducts trainings with ICE and Border Patrol that focus on improving the treatment of LGBTI detainees.

Díaz told the Blade a Border Patrol officer who attended one of these trainings was a trans woman. Díaz also said one of the facilitators of the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center’s trans support groups is a trans man who works for Border Patrol.

She conceded ICE and Border Patrol weren’t “prepared” to handle the increased number of trans migrants who have entered the U.S. Díaz nevertheless said she feels the organizations are making a “good faith” effort to improve conditions for trans and lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex migrants in their custody in spite of the criticism they continue to face from advocates.

“As long as they are allowing us to come in there and talk about this and let them know they’re not they’re not identifying as the opposite sex to hide, this is who they are and this is why they are running for their safety and for them to implement policies to better care for them, I think that we’re making an impact in that way,” she told the Blade.

Díaz, like Villa in Tijuana, also said immigration was a contentious issue in the U.S. long before Trump took office.

“Immigration has been an issue for years,” said Díaz. “Children being separated from their parents; it’s been an issue for years. We are talking about it now.”

“It’s getting the attention it should have gotten years back,” she added. “Now we have to concentrate on what is the best thing we can do not only for the immigrants, but for our citizens. What can we do to protect our citizens as well as protect those that are coming over here running away from the violence in their countries.”

From left: SMART Recovery USA Imperial County Regional Coordinator Susan Roberta Ireland Mears and Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center CEO Rosa Díaz at the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center’s offices in El Centro, Calif., on July 20, 2018. The city, which is located in California’s Imperial Valley, is roughly 12 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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