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LGBTQ asylum seekers closer to a new life but challenges remain

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A volunteer and and an asylum seeker hug at a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 26, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Natasha is a transgender woman from Honduras’ Olancho department.

She arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, on Oct. 12, 2019. Natasha, who fled persecution because of her gender identity, asked for asylum in the U.S., but the Trump administration forced her to pursue her case in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program it implemented in June 2019.

Natasha lived in a migrant camp near the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros and Brownsville for 11 months until last November when she moved into a shelter run by Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants that Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create.

“We can’t live in our countries,” Natasha told the Washington Blade on Feb. 27 during an interview at the Rainbow Bridge shelter, which is less than a mile from the Gateway International Bridge. “That’s why we entered the United States, to ask for refuge, and they sent us here to Mexico.”

Natasha entered the U.S. on March 10. She is now in North Carolina.

Natasha is a transgender woman from Honduras who has asked for asylum in the U.S., in Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 27, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden administration in January suspended enrollment in MPP.

The first asylum seekers with active MPP cases arrived at ports of entry in Brownsville and El Paso, Texas, and San Ysidro, Calif. on Feb. 25.

Estuardo Cifuentes, a gay asylum seeker from Guatemala who ran the Rainbow Bridge shelter, lived in Matamoros for 19 months under MPP until he entered the U.S. on March 3. Two other asylum seekers who lived at the shelter — including Janeth, a trans woman from Cuba who arrived in Matamoros on May 27, 2019 — are now in the country. Janeth is now living with relatives in Miami.

“Discrimination, transphobia, homophobia, police abuse, police persecution and all these aggressions that are directed toward my community are the reasons that force us to leave,” Janeth told the Blade at the Rainbow Bridge shelter, referring to what prompted her to leave Cuba. “They almost expel us.”

The Biden administration allowed asylum seekers with MPP cases who lived in the Matamoros camp to enter the U.S. at the Brownsville port of entry first.

The process to enter the U.S. begins when an asylum seeker signs up online via a U.N. Refugee Agency website. A UNHCR representative then calls them to verify their personal information and provides them with a time to present themselves at the Gateway International Bridge.

The International Organization for Migration tests asylum seekers for the coronavirus, and they must test negative before they enter the U.S. They then board a bus that brings them to the Brownsville port of entry on the other side of the bridge. U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel process them before they are brought to Brownsville’s main bus station, which is a couple of blocks away from the CBP station.

Gaby Zavala, a bisexual woman who founded Resource Center Matamoros, and other local activists who include Cindy Candia of Angry Tias and Abuelas, a group that assists migrants and asylum seekers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, offer the asylum seekers legal advice and help them buy bus tickets once they arrive at the bus station. Michael Benavides, a gay man who co-founded Team Brownsville, and Felicia RangelSamporano, founder of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, which taught children who lived in the Matamoros camp, have also helped the asylum seekers once they entered the U.S.

“It’s surreal to think that it’s actually happening,” Zavala told the Blade on Feb. 26 during an interview at a Mexican restaurant near the Brownsville bus station. “[It is] something that we hoped for.”

Resource Center Matamoros founder Gaby Zavala, right, assists asylum seekers at a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 26, 2021, moments after they arrived in the U.S. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Zavala noted the border “is still closed to new immigration,” even though MPP has been suspended and the Biden administration has begun to allow asylum seekers with active cases under the Trump-era program into the U.S. Zavala on Wednesday acknowledged asylum seekers and migrants will continue to travel to the border, regardless of the policies the U.S. puts in place.

“The border between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Tamaulipas, has always been a major route for immigrants in search of asylum in the United States of America,” she said. “The service of NGOs, those that sponsor projects like Resource Center Matamoros, is detrimental for asylum seekers as they arrive to the border because we are constantly conforming to ever-changing US immigration policies.”

The Associated Press on Tuesday reported more than 4,000 migrant children are currently in U.S. Border Control custody, as the number of migrants at the Southern border continues to grow.

The Department of Health and Human Services has announced it plans to open shelters in Texas and California in the coming days to allow migrant children to leave ill-equipped Border Patrol stations. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba, on Tuesday in a statement acknowledged the Biden administration continues to “expel” most single adults and families “apprehended at the southwest border” under Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic.

“We are expelling most single adults and families,” said Mayorkas. “We are not expelling unaccompanied children.”

“We are securing our border, executing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) public health authority to safeguard the American public and the migrants themselves, and protecting the children,” he added. “We have more work to do.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and 12 other House Republicans on Monday traveled to El Paso, which is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The delegation did not include U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso.

McCarthy and other Republicans have sharply criticized President Biden for beginning the process to reverse the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies. Activists who work with LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants told the Blade on Tuesday the situation on the Southern border remains complex.

“Republicans want this to be scary Brown people about to invade, which it’s not,” said Emem Maurus, a supervising attorney for the Transgender Law Center, told the Blade during a telephone interview from the Mexican border city of Tijuana where he works with LGBTQ asylum seekers. “But you got to figure that Trump effectively blocked migration for upwards of three years and Title 42 has been incredibly successfully in really stopping people, so you have a huge number of people.”

“If there’s a crisis, it was very meticulously created by Stephen Miller,” he added. “It was very intentionally created.”

Maurus told the Blade that two of his gay clients in Tijuana with active MPP cases have been “able to get out, but we’ve got a couple others who really need to and haven’t been called yet.”

“The two that I’m waiting on have just gone through hell,” said Maurus. “They should have been first.”

Maurus highlighted the case of 17 LGBTQ Jamaican asylum seekers in Tijuana whose request to enter the U.S. on humanitarian parole has been denied. Maurus told the Blade that each of them has a sponsor, lawyer and a place to live once they arrive in the country.

“I can bring all of them in with a COVID test,” he said. “All of them are represented. There is no reason they couldn’t be let in tomorrow.”

A portion of the fence that marks the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 25, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Abdiel Echevarría-Cabán, a South Texas-based immigration attorney who is also a human rights law and policy expert, on Tuesday said he welcomes “the end of MPP by the Biden administration.” Echevarría-Cabán nevertheless added “the process has been hectic and there is a lot of confusion among refugees that lost their cases while in MPP who didn’t have access to an attorney or couldn’t gather the evidence they needed to prove their cases living under severe danger and inhumane conditions.”

Echevarría-Cabán said one of his clients, a gay Cuban man, entered the U.S. on the same day the Biden administration announced it had suspended MPP.

Drug cartels, according to Echevarría-Cabán, threatened to kill his client if he didn’t pay them extortion money. Echevarría-Cabán told the Blade that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained his client for three weeks until they released him under supervision.

“The process of letting them cross after two years has been disorganized and there has been poor communication and coordination between UNHCR, immigrants and attorneys,” he said. “Many refugees that crossed the border out of fear ended in detention and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is releasing them under an order of supervision.”

Steve Roth, executive director of the Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration, a Minnesota-based organization that works with LGBTQ refugees and migrants around the world, told the Blade the situation on the Southern border is “complicated” and “a bit of a mess.”

“Some of these policies were designed to prevent legitimate asylum seekers from making their claims,” he said, referring to the Trump administration.

“We recognize that it’s going to take some time to undo that,” added Roth. “But at the same time, it’s really important that the process reopens for asylum seekers to be able to present their case at the border.”

Valery, a trans woman from the Honduran city of Comayagua who arrived in Matamoros last March, and other asylum seekers continue to wait for their chance to enter the U.S.

“I am very happy that people are leaving, but what about us,” she told the Blade at the Rainbow Bridge shelter in Matamoros. “Where do we go? Where?”

Joaquin Castro: MPP dangerous for LGBTQ people

Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro last week said the situation for asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border remains perilous, even though President Biden has begun to reverse some of the previous administration’s hardline immigration policies.

“There is a real humanitarian need among the people who are seeking asylum at the southern border,” Castro told the Blade during a telephone interview. “And unfortunately, over the past few years Donald Trump created a bubble of very desperate people who were unable to have their asylum claims processed and now are anxious to have their day in court, to have their asylum cases heard.”

Biden in January suspended enrollments in the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program.

“MPP is dangerous for many folks … and that includes LGBTQ and trans folks,” said Castro. “These folks have sometimes become targets on the other side of the border.”

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 that Democrats introduced in Congress last month would, among other things, create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country.

The Biden administration shortly after it took office directed ICE, CBP and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop the deportation of “certain” undocumented immigrants for 100 days, but a federal judge in Texas last month blocked the moratorium. The White House earlier this week announced it would request $4 billion in aid to mitigate the causes of migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“MPP of course was lifted by the Biden administration, but you still have a lot of people who are in and around the border cities in Mexico,” said Castro. “And for all folks what we are seeking to do is put people on a path to citizenship.”

Castro acknowledged Congress has debated immigration reform for years, but he said, “we finally have an opportunity with this president and this Congress to get it done.” “It’s still going to be tough because of the numbers in the Senate, but I think there is a greater window here now than there has been in a very long time,” he said.

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D.C. mayor to lift all restrictions on bars, nightclubs on June 11

‘We will definitely be celebrating Pride’ next month

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Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday that she will fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a news conference on Monday that a continuing trend of significantly lower numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in the city has enabled her to fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21.

The mayor said bars and nightclubs will be allowed to increase indoor capacity from the current 25 percent to 50 percent on May 21, with all capacity restrictions for bars and nightclubs to be removed on June 11.

The mayor’s announcement came after representatives of the city’s nightlife businesses, including the city’s gay bars and restaurants, expressed concern that D.C. had yet to lift its capacity restrictions beyond 25 percent while surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia had already lifted most restrictions.

“On May 21, restrictions on public and commercial activity, including capacity limits, types of activities, and time restrictions, will be lifted,” the mayor’s directive says.

It says restrictions for bars and nightclubs would continue at a 50 percent capacity from May 21 through June 11. The directive says restrictions for large sports and entertainment venues would also continue from May 21 to June 11, which includes a requirement such events apply for a waiver of the restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

“On June 11, capacity limits and restrictions will be lifted on those venues that cannot fully reopen on May 21,” the directive says.

In response to a question at the news conference, Bowser said the June 11 date would essentially end all restrictions on nightclubs and bars, including the current requirement that they close at midnight rather than the pre-epidemic closing times of 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

In a development that could have a major impact on plans for D.C.’s LGBTQ Pride events, the mayor’s revised health directive announced on Monday includes the lifting of all capacity restrictions on large outdoor and indoor sports and entertainment events beginning on June 11.

That change would remove restrictions that have, up until now, prevented D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance from holding its annual Pride Parade and Festival in June during Pride Month.

Capital Pride Executive Director Ryan Bos told the Washington Blade shortly after the mayor’s announcement that Capital Pride is assessing its options for expanding its current plans for in-person events in June.

“We will definitely be celebrating Pride in June,” Bos said. “We just received this information as well. So, we will be getting further information,” he said. “We have not been informed that they will be issuing any permits yet, so at this time we are moving forward with our original plans for doing things.”

Bos was referring to a city requirement for obtaining permits for street closings and use of other public spaces for events such as a parade or street festival. He said existing plans, among other things, call for an informal parade of cars and other vehicles on June 12 that will drive throughout the city to view homes and businesses that will be decorated with Pride displays such as signs, photos, and other symbols of Pride.

Those familiar with the city’s past Pride events don’t think there will be enough time for Capital Pride to organize the traditional large parade and street festival in time for June. But Capital Pride officials have talked about holding a possible parade and festival in October, and the lifting of the capacity restrictions announced by Bowser on Monday would likely make that possible.

In addition to lifting all capacity restrictions on May 21 for restaurants, the mayor’s May 21 timeframe for lifting restrictions includes these additional venues and events:

  • Weddings and special events
  • Business meetings and seated conventions
  • Places of worship
  • Non-essential retail
  • Personal services
  • Private at-home gatherings
  • Libraries, museums, galleries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Pools
  • Office space
  • Schools
  • Childcare

“We’re very pleased that over the last several days, we have seen our case spread, our community spread numbers, venture out of the red into the yellow and fast approaching the green,” Bowser said in referring to a health department chart that shows the changes in coronavirus cases in the city.

“You might remember that our daily case rate peaked in January at 45.9. And today you can see it’s down to 6.6,” she said at her news conference on Monday.

“Throughout this process I have said how proud I am of D.C. residents and businesses who have responded, who have followed health guidance and have worked together to help protect our community throughout the pandemic. And we see it in these numbers today,” she said.

“Containing the virus will continue to require all of us to be focused on maintaining a robust health system,” the mayor said, adding that while over 200,000 D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated since December 2020, “many more thousands” still need to be vaccinated. “Vaccines are free and available on demand at walk-up sites across the District,” she said.

The mayor also noted that the city will continue to require residents and visitors to use a mask in accordance with existing and updated guidance set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mark Lee, coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, an association that represents restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, said the mayor’s directive on May 10 leaves some details to be addressed but will open the way to bring nightlife businesses back to life.

“What we do know is that on Friday, May 21, businesses begin returning to normal operations and, three weeks later, on June 11, all restrictions for all businesses in the District will end,” Lee said. “It’s a day we’ve long awaited and one that will save much of our community enterprise from financial ruin.”

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Family code bill to be introduced in Cuban Parliament in July

CENESEX made announcement during May 4 press conference

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Mariela Castro at a CENESEX press conference

 

Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba. A Spanish version of this story was published on May 6.

HAVANA — The National Center for Sexual Education on May 4 during a press conference in which it unveiled the program for the 14th annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia events in Cuba announced a bill to amend the family code will be introduced in Parliament in July.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro Espín said during a meeting with official and foreign media outlets at the International Press Center that this year’s events are part of the process of amending the family code.

She added that this legal change will reflect several rights guaranteed in the constitution, which is why it is necessary to sensitize and educate the Cuban population to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference.

The official referred to the results of the National Survey on Gender Equality in Cuba, conducted in 2016 and published in 2019. According to this official study, 77 percent of the Cuban population between 15 and 74-years-old said that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people should have the same rights as any other citizen.

CENESEX’s director, however, did not use this information in the 2018 parliamentary debates sparked by Article 68 of the bill to amend the constitution. The idea that it was not the appropriate time to implement same-gender marriage in Cuba eventually won out.

Mariela Castro told Tremenda Nota a few days before the referendum in which Cuban voters approved the current constitution that she was aware of the survey, but she did not explain why she did not use the data it revealed as an argument (in favor of marriage equality.)

“It was a wasted tool that now we can only use in the next referendum,” then-MP Luis Ángel Adán Roble told Tremenda Nota during a February 2019 interview, as did Mariela Castro.

The moment that Adán Roble mentioned has arrived.

It became known during the May 4 press conference that the family code will be introduced in the scheduled parliamentary session in July. The Council of State on March 22 appointed a commission that will be in charge of preparing the bill, but the list of its members was not made public until April 30. None of them are openly LGBTI+.

Activists over the last few weeks have demanded that Parliament reveal the identities of those who make up the commission and the deadline they have to prevent the Family Code. The May 4 press conference resolved the last outstanding point.

The Cuban IDAHOBiT program

Mariela Castro and CENESEX Deputy Director Manuel Vázquez Seijido explained that numerous activities with the goal of making visible and fighting against all types of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will virtually take place from May 4 through May 30.

The IDAHOBiT events in Cuba have a program that includes academic dialogue, social activism and artistic presentations from virtual spaces.

Forum debates are among the activities. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper will host the first one with the theme “Deconstructing myths around same-sex families and partners” and Cubadebate will hold the second called “Constitution and Sexual Rights in Cuba: Progress and Main challenges.”

They also announced at the press conference the books “Paquito el de Cuba: A Decade of Online Activism” and “Non-Heteronormative Sexualities and Gender Identities. Tensions and Challenges for Human Rights” will be presented.

There will be virtual panels titled “Diverse Families: Histories of Non-Hegemonic Lives,” “National Program for the Advancement of Women: Opportunities to Confront Homophobia and Transphobia,” “Keys for Inclusive Communication” and “Sexual Rights and Religious Fundamentalisms.”

Castro Espín explained that CENESEX will use its social media accounts to promote the program, contribute to the sexual education of Cubans and the recognition of rights for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

A show against homophobia and transphobia that will officially end the events will be broadcast on social media and on television.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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