Editor’s note: The Washington Blade published a Spanish version of this story on April 27.
Around 20 LGBTQ immigrants, the majority of whom are transgender women from countries throughout Latin America, are isolated and protected from the threat of the coronavirus in the Jardín de las Mariposas shelter in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
Jaime Marín Rocha, the shelter’s legal representative, told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview the shelter has implemented new hygiene and cleaning procedures that include the use of masks, gloves, antibacterial gels, disinfectants and bleach in order to stop the spread of the virus and to protect the health of its residents and clients.
“The local government in Tijuana has not supported us a lot,” lamented Marin. “Only Tijuana’s Health Department came to inspect the facilities. They recommended ways for us to improve, but they left very pleased with its cleanliness.”
All of the refugees who live at the shelter are currently in good health and take all social distancing measures very seriously.
One can appreciate the cleaning procedures the shelter’s residents have done by looking at some of the posts on its Facebook page. Marín also explained the shelter has set aside a part of the house in which anyone who develops coronavirus symptoms can be isolated.
“We would keep them there until we can bring them to the hospital if necessary,” he said.
Marín is nevertheless worried because the shelter does not have a doctor. Refugees only have health insurance coverage for the first three months after their arrival to the country.
“What we want to do is create a fund for people who don’t have health insurance, because when that period ends we have no way to deal with a situation that could develop,” said Marín. “We have to look for support from other organizations in the medical field that can assist us. We really need help with that.”
Jordi Raich, director of the International Committee of the Red Cross for Mexico and Central America, confirmed it is often difficult for immigrants, who are exposed to the disease like any other person, to access the public health care system or humanitarian assistance. They are often unable to receive help because they are victims of violence and discrimination.
“It is important to highlight the fact that the presence of migrants does not generate a higher risk for the disease,” said Raich. “They are exposed to the virus in the same way as nationals from any country.”
Marín said a psychologist worked with the shelter until they had an accident a few days ago.
“We have also been a bit helpless in that regard,” he said. “We would ideally have a psychological program to help overcome many of the traumas that these immigrants have because of the persecution that they have suffered in their countries of origin because of their sexual orientation.”
Most shelter residents live with HIV
Alerts that coronavirus cases among LGBTQ people have skyrocketed since it was declared a global pandemic, combined with the fact this population has a higher percentage of people with HIV and cancer who are more susceptible to the virus, compound Marín’s concerns.
The National LGBT Cancer Network in an open letter signed by the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, GLAAD and other groups expressed their concern as the community confronts barriers when it tries to access medical care.
“Discriminatory attitudes are commonplace among medical professionals and some people avoid or delay visiting the doctor for this reason,” they said.
There is additional concern based on the rate of tobacco use among this population that is 50 percent higher than the general population. The coronavirus is a respiratory disease that has been shown to be particularly harmful to smokers.
Another factor that also increases vulnerability to the virus is the higher rates of HIV and cancer among LGBTQ people, which means there are more people with compromised immune systems that leave them more vulnerable to the pandemic. There are also many cases of people who don’t know they are living with HIV.
Marín says 95 percent of Jardin de las Mariposas’ residents live with HIV, which makes it necessary to take extra precautions. As a result, Marín said the shelter for the time being will not accept new residents.
“We hope to reopen our doors soon,” he said in a Facebook post. “We are following government guidelines to guarantee your personal safety.”
In order to counter all of these logical and economic challenges, Jardín de las Mariposas has received donations from several non-profit organizations that are supporting them during this health emergency. Families Belong Together; the Refugee Health Alliance; the Minority Humanitarian Foundation; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; Alight and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration have extended a supportive hand to those who need it most.
ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth pointed out to the Blade that his organization supports shelters like Jardín de las Mariposas in three ways: “With products to help protect against the coronavirus, information about the virus and how to protect oneself from it and programs to help residents during these difficult times.”
— ORAM (@ORAMrefugee) April 24, 2020
“We are working together with our partner Alight on this,” said Roth. “In the case of Jardín de las Mariposas we bought most of the products on Amazon and sent them directly to the shelter. We had already sent soap, disinfectant, gloves, disinfectant wipes, trash bags, first aid kits, toilet paper, etc. They more or less have enough for the next month and we are going to do another order soon.”
Jardín de las Mariposas is in a large and comfortable house with many bedrooms and is located about 10 minutes from downtown Tijuana.
Local media reports indicate the border city has more than 500 coronavirus cases. Marín said the city in Baja California’s northern state reacted very late, compared to the majority of countries that had already closed their borders.
“Mexico responded very late,” he said.
The city is now under lockdown and the U.S. has temporarily stopped asylum seekers from entering the U.S. The Mexico-U.S. border is open only for essential commercial traffic and authorized people.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, for his part, said that his country will not accept migrants and asylum seekers from third countries who are returned to Mexican territory from the U.S. by the Trump administration
Meanwhile, the nearly 20 LGBTQ immigrants must remain at Jardín de las Mariposas until the lockdown ends. Marín has described the shelter as “a dream we forged by the hard experiences of being different in a society that excludes and points out those who do not accept social labels because they know how to love differently.”
Jardín de las Mariposas is a non-profit organization founded by Yolanda Rocha, Marín’s mother and current director, on April 6, 2011. It always receives anyone who asks for help with addiction or emotional problems because of their sexual orientation with love, respect and without cost.
It is the only center in Tijuana that openly welcomes the LGBTQ community. The organization has lately focused on providing help to asylum seekers and refugees because of increased immigration to the U.S.