January 23, 2021 at 12:47 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Biden immigration directives ‘have given us’ hope
President Biden after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021. (POOL PHOTO courtesy of the United States Senate Press Photographers Gallery)

The Biden administration has begun to reverse some of its predecessor’s hardline immigration policies that activists say have made LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants even more vulnerable.

The Department of Homeland Security as of Thursday will no longer enroll additional asylum seekers in the “return to Mexico” (MPP) policy that forces asylum seekers to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico.

Acting Homeland Security David Pekoske on Thursday also signed a memorandum that directs U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop the deportations of “certain” undocumented immigrations for 100 days.

The directive does not apply to undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. after Nov. 1, 2020. It also allows for the deportation of anyone determined to have “engaged in or is suspected of terrorism or espionage, or otherwise poses a danger to the national security of the United States” or who “has voluntarily agreed to waive any rights to remain in the United States, provided that he or she has been made fully aware of the consequences of waiver and has been given a meaningful opportunity to access counsel prior to signing the waiver.”

“The United States faces significant operational challenges at the southwest border as it is confronting the most serious global public health crisis in a century,” writes Pekoske in his memo. “In light of those unique circumstances, the department must surge resources to the border in order to ensure safe, legal and orderly processing, to rebuild fair and effective asylum procedures that respect human rights and due process, to adopt appropriate public health guidelines and protocols, and to prioritize responding to threats to national security, public safety, and border security.”

Biden on Wednesday issued a memo that pledges his administration will “preserve and fortify” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows young undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and obtain work permits.

The new administration’s immigration plan, among other things, would pave the way for millions of undocumented immigrants to become citizens. Biden on Wednesday also issued an executive order that repealed the Trump administration’s ban on citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S.   

Estuardo Cifuentes in July 2019 asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he suffered in Guatemala because he is gay. Cifuentes spent a few days in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody before authorities sent him back to Mexico under MPP.

Cifuentes has lived in Matamoros, a border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, for more than a year and told the Washington Blade on Thursday the hearing in his asylum case has been delayed until March 4. He nevertheless continues to help LGBTQ asylum seekers in Matamoros through his group, Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers.

“We believe and we are confident that the measures (the Biden administration) is undertaking will be able to alleviate some of the pain that Donald Trump has caused,” said Cifuentes.

Fernanda, a transgender woman from El Salvador, is among the LGBTQ migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, that Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers helps. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes/Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers)

Resource Center Matamoros, another group that provides assistance to migrants who live in Matamoros, helped Cifuentes find housing and legal assistance for his asylum case. Gaby Zavala, founder of Resource Center Matamoros, is among those who worked with Cifuentes to launch Rainbow Bridge.

Zavala on Thursday acknowledged to the Blade that immigrant advocacy groups spoke with Biden’s transition team before he and Vice President Harris took office.

“We were able to express out deepest concerns for immigrants, specifically regarding the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy and provide suggestions as they try to tackle these issues,” said Zavala.

Zavala added the Biden administration’s executive orders and directives “have given us a new sense of hope that asylum seekers of all backgrounds will no longer be subjected to such undignified treatment caused by harsh immigration policies like MPP and fear of deportation.”

Abdiel Echevarría-Cabán, a South Texas-based immigration attorney who is also a human rights law and policy expert, told the Blade that he has several LGBTQ clients — many of whom are Cuban — in Mexico under MPP who have been waiting for their asylum hearings for more than a year. Echevarría-Cabán, like Zavala, welcomes the new White House’s directives.

“MPP is clearly a violation of human rights and U.S. domestic immigration law,” Echevarría-Cabán told the Blade. “Now we can expect a better outcome under Biden’s new policy.”

Biden immigration policies ‘restore humanity, dignity’

Other immigrant advocates have also welcomed the Biden administration’s actions.

“The fact that our new president is taking a stand against the awful immigration policies that the previous administration left us with is a great deal,” TransLatin@ Coalition President Bamby Salcedo told the Blade on Friday from Los Angeles. “Having put a moratorium to stop deportation is a step in the right direction.”

“In addition, having a bill ready to send to Congress on the first day is a great deal,” she added. “It is giving hope to the over 11 million people who live in uncertainty every single day.”

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration is a Minnesota-based organization that works with LGBTQ migrants and refugees around the world. Jardín de las Mariposas, an LGBTQ migrant shelter in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, is among those with which ORAM has partnered.

“Above all, President Biden’s new immigration policies restore humanity, dignity and a common-sense approach to immigration which will have a positive impact on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers both in the U.S. and around the world,” ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth told the Blade on Thursday.

Altagracia Tamayo is a lesbian activist in Mexicali, a Mexican border city that borders Calexico, Calif., in California’s Imperial Valley. She runs the Cobina Posada del Migrante shelter.

Tamayo on Thursday told the Blade that more than 70 migrants who currently live at the shelter have been forced to return to Mexico under MPP.

“We are hopeful that he (Biden) will keep his word,” she said.

The Mexico-U.S. border in Mexicali, Mexico, on July 22, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Activists along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere with whom the Blade has spoken over the years say LGBTQ migrants who the Trump administration forced to return to Mexico under MPP are more vulnerable to harassment, discrimination and violence from drug cartels, Mexican police officers and other groups.

Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV, died at a hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 25, 2018, while in ICE custody. Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans Salvadoran woman, passed away at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, on June 1, 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center in New Mexico.

Three Salvadoran police officers last summer received 20-year prison sentences after a judge convicted them of killing Camila Díaz Córdova, a trans woman, in early 2019. Díaz asked for asylum in the U.S. on Aug. 8, 2017, but she was deported back to El Salvador after a judge denied her claim.

Salcedo is among those who have sharply criticized ICE over its treatment of trans women in their custody. Lambda Legal, Immigration Equality, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups have also challenged the prolonged detention of LGBTQ asylum seekers — including Yariel Valdés González, a Blade contributor from Cuba who spent nearly a year in ICE custody until his release from a privately-run detention center in Louisiana on March 4, 2020 — and those with HIV/AIDS.

The immigration directives the Biden administration has issued do not specifically address the treatment of LGBTQ ICE detainees and the continued use of privately-run ICE detention centers, among other issues.

Eloy Detention Center, a privately-run ICE detention center in Eloy, Ariz. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Charlie Flewelling is a staff attorney for the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, an immigration advocacy group. Flewelling is based in El Paso, Texas, which is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

They told the Blade on Thursday the Santa Fe Dreamers Project is “of course encouraged by the day one executive orders from President Biden,” but they stressed concerns remain.

“It appears that folks who have been detained recently and those who have been waiting in Mexico, will remain a priority for deportation solely because they were not in the U.S. before Nov. 1 — without regard to circumstance,” said Flewelling. “While it is understood that the new rules and laws may come into effect quickly that change these circumstances, we remain concerned.”

They also highlighted continued concerns about LGBTQ people and people with HIV/AIDS who remain in ICE custody.

“We know that LGBTQI/HIV+ migrants, especially those who are Black or brown, are disproportionately targeted for violence and sexual violence in immigration detention,” said Flewelling. “ICE has never provided a safe setting for queer migrants in detention, and we do not believe that new regulations can change the situation.”

“In coalition with other organizations, we have urged the administration to immediately end detention for transgender and HIV positive migrants,” they added. “We know there is more work to do as we push to abolish ICE and immigration detention for all migrants. Steps that reduce harm in detention are necessary for, but not sufficient to, abolition.”

Salcedo largely echoed Flewelling, but added she remains hopeful about the new administration and its immigration policies.

“For the LGBTQ immigrant community, all of this is hope,” Salcedo told the Blade. “Hope for a better tomorrow, hope to have better policies. Hope that someday immigration detention and the dehumanization of trans people who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country will end, as trans people who are trying to save their lives should not be detained or caged simply for wanting to live.”

TransLatin@ Coalition President Bamby Salcedo. (Photo by Paolo Riveros)

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

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