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Shelters for LGBTQ asylum seekers on Mexico-US border ‘overwhelmed’

Nearly 50 people living at Jardín de las Mariposas in Tijuana

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The view from the backyard of Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, in late May 2021. (Photo courtesy of Jon Atwell/Alight)

Editor’s note: International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was on assignment for the Washington Blade in Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador from July 11-25.

TIJUANA, Mexico — Marvin is a 23-year-old gay man from Dulce Nombre, a municipality in Honduras’ Copán department.

He left Honduras with a migrant caravan on Jan. 13, 2020, in order to escape the discrimination he said he would have suffered if his family and neighbors knew he is gay. Marvin spent eight months in the custody of Mexican immigration officials until they released him last November.

He was in the Mexican border city of Tijuana in April when a cousin told him his younger brother had been murdered. Marvin, who is currently living at Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, began to sob when the Blade saw a picture of his brother’s body in the morgue in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city.

“He didn’t mess with anyone,” said Marvin.

Marvin is one of 47 people who were living at Jardín de las Mariposas when the Blade visited it on July 12. The shelter’s maximum capacity is 40.

A lesbian woman who asked the Blade not to publish her name said she fled El Salvador in January after MS-13 gang members threatened to kill her because she could not pay them the money they demanded from her. She said members of 18th Street, another gang, attacked her son after he refused to sell drugs.

“They hit him very hard; very, very hard,” the lesbian woman told the Blade at Jardín de las Mariposas, speaking through tears.

Olvin, a 22-year-old gay man from El Progreso, a city in Honduras’ Yoro department, left the country in January.

He said he and his partner of three years lived together in Tapachula, a city in Mexico’s Chiapas state that is close to the country’s border with Guatemala, for several months. Olvin said gang members threatened them and they suffered discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

Olvin told the Blade he rescued his partner from an apartment building one night after he refused to sell drugs, and they ran to a nearby park. Olvin, who was crying when he spoke with the Blade at Jardín de las Mariposas, said he left Tapachula a few days later without his partner.

Olvin arrived at the shelter a few hours before the Blade visited. He said he wants to ask for asylum in the U.S.

“I want to live in a safe place,” said Olvin.

Kelly West is a transgender woman who fled discrimination and persecution she said she suffered in Jamaica.

She flew to Panama City and then to Mexican city of Guadalajara before she arrived in Tijuana on June 16. West said she and a group of eight other LGBTQ asylum seekers tried to “run over the line at the border” between Mexico and the U.S., but Mexican police stopped them.

“We had to run for our lives,” West told the Blade at Jardín de las Mariposas. “I even ran without my shoes. I jumped over a bridge.”

She said she and three of the other asylum seekers with whom she tried to enter the U.S. went to another shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, but it was full. West said the shelter referred them to Jardín de las Mariposas.

“I really like it here,” she told the Blade. “Here I can be who I want, I can dress how I want to. I can wear my heels, I can wear my hair. I can just be feminine everyday.”

Kelly West, a transgender woman from Jamaica who has asked for asylum in the U.S., speaks at Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 12, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Jaime Marín, who runs Jardín de las Mariposas with his mother, Yolanda Rocha, noted some residents were sleeping in a tent in the backyard because the shelter is over capacity.

“We’re overpopulated with a lot of residents,” Marín told the Blade.

Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Vice President Kamala Harris and other administration officials have publicly acknowledged that violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is one of the “root causes” of migration from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The White House has told migrants not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border, but Marín said the number of people who have traveled to Tijuana since President Biden took office has increased dramatically.

The previous White House forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to pursue their cases in Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols program. The Biden administration on June 1 officially ended MPP.

“The process has been easier, which means they’re no longer staying months or years,” Marín told the Blade. “They submit their application, let’s say today, and they get a response for a date in two weeks. They’re basically in the United States within a month.”

Marvin hopes to use the picture of his brother’s body in the morgue and Honduran newspaper articles about his murder as evidence to support his asylum case. Marvin, however, has yet to find someone to sponsor him.

“My goal … is to go to the United States,” he said.

Marín told the Blade the two other shelters for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana are also at maximum capacity. Marín said U.S. immigration officials are also “overwhelmed” with new asylum applications.

“It might take a little bit longer than a month because of the number of people that are basically coming and we just have to increase the work we do as well because we are getting a lot more work too,” he told the Blade. “We are overwhelmed as well.”

Fire destroyed lesbian-run Mexicali migrant shelter on July 9

Centro Comunitario de Bienestar Social (COBINA) in Mexicali, a border city that is roughly 2 1/2 hours east of Tijuana, is a group that serves LGBTQ people and other vulnerable groups.

It runs three migrant shelters in the city, which borders Calexico, Calif., in California’s Imperial Valley. An electrical fire that destroyed COBINA’s Refugio del Migrante on July 9 displaced the 152 migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries who were living there.

An electrical fire on July 9, 2021, destroyed a migrant shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, that Centro Comunitario de Bienestar Social (COBINA), a local LGBTQ group, runs. (Photo courtesy of Juan Gutiérrez)

Some of the shelter’s residents were living in COBINA’s offices when the Blade visited them on July 12.

“We need resources to rebuild the shelter, to buy wood, to buy everything that is needed,” COBINA President Altagracia Tamayo told the Blade.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration has raised $2,600 for COBINA to use to buy clothes, food and diapers for the displaced migrants and their children. The ORAM funds will also allow COBINA to buy portable air conditioning units. (The temperature in Mexicali was 108 degrees when the Blade reported from there.)

Tamayo told the Blade that COBINA has been working with the U.N. Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration to assist the displaced migrants.

Two women and a child who lived in a COBINA-run migrant shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, that burned to the ground on July 9, 2021, were living in COBINA’s offices when the Washington Blade visited them three days later. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Jardín de las Mariposas moved into a new house in May. It is less than four miles from El Chaparral, the main port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego.

Alight, formerly known as the American Refugee Agency, recently worked with ORAM to install security cameras and purchase new furniture for Jardín de las Mariposas. They also painted the shelter and a mural, installed solar heaters on the roof, planted plants and renovated the backyard.

This work is part of Alight’s “A Little Piece of Home” initiative that works to improve shelters for migrants and refugees along the border.

“This is beautiful because they are helping us and not letting us down,” Marín told the Blade. “They’re basically giving us hope to continue this fight that we have.”

Bunk beds in one of Jardín de las Mariposas’ bedrooms. (Photo courtesy of Jon Atwell/Alight)
Alight has been working with Jardín de las Mariposas to make improvements to their shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Jon Atwell/Alight)
Alight has been working with Jardín de las Mariposas to make improvements to their shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Jon Atwell/Alight)
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World

Two arrested for lesbian couple’s murder, dismemberment in Mexico border city

Julissa Ramírez and Nohemí Medina Martínez killed earlier this month

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From left: Julissa Ramírez and Nohemí Medina Martínez</strong. (Photo via Facebook)

Two people have been arrested in connection with the murder and dismemberment of a lesbian couple in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez.

The Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday announced authorities arrested a 25-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man and charged them with aggravated femicide.

Authorities on Jan. 16 found the dismembered body parts of Julissa Ramírez and Nohemí Medina Martínez in plastic bags that had been placed along the Juárez-El Porvenir Highway. The Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office in a press release notes the suspects murdered Ramírez and Medina in a house in Ciudad Juárez’s San Isidro neighborhood on Jan. 15.

Ciudad Juárez, which is located in Mexico’s Chihuahua state, is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Members of Comité de la Diversidad Sexual de Chihuahua, a local LGBTQ rights group, and Chihuahua Gov. María Eugenia Campos Galván are among those who have expressed outrage over the women’s murders. Activists have also urged local and state authorities to investigate whether the murder was a hate crime based on Ramírez and Medina’s sexual orientation.

Local media reports said nine women — including Ramírez and Medina — were killed in Ciudad Juárez from Jan. 1-15.

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Russia

State Department reiterates concerns over Chechnya human rights record

Anti-LGBTQ crackdown continues to spark outrage

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(Public domain photo)

The State Department on Thursday reiterated its concerns over Chechnya’s human rights record that includes an ongoing anti-LGBTQ crackdown.

“We reject Chechnya Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s baseless attempts to malign human rights defenders and independent journalists and we urge him to end authorities’ targeting of those who dissent, LGBTQI+ persons, members of religious and ethnic minority groups, and others, including through reprisals against their family members,” said spokesperson Ned Price in a statement. “We call on Russian federal authorities to refrain from enabling repressive acts, including acts of transnational repression, originating in Chechnya and to bring those responsible for continuing egregious human rights violations in Chechnya to justice consistent with the law of the Russian Federation and Russia’s international human rights obligations.”

Price in his statement also said the U.S. “is troubled by continuing reports of abductions and arbitrary detentions carried out by authorities in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya, including dozens of reported abductions and arbitrary detentions in recent weeks targeting the relatives of Chechen human rights defenders and dissidents.”

“In addition to cases within Chechnya, there have been numerous instances of individuals being detained in other parts of the Russian Federation and forcibly transferred to Chechnya, such as Zarema Musayeva, the mother of human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbayev. Musayeva was taken from Nizhny Novgorod last week,” said Price. “We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained. We are also concerned by reports that Chechen authorities are using such pressure tactics against the relatives in Chechnya of dissidents living outside the Russian Federation. Such acts, which harm entire families, is an especially pernicious form of repression.”

The anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Chechnya continues to spark worldwide outrage.

Chechen authorities in April 2020 arrested two brothers, Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isaev, after they made a series of posts on Osal Nakh 95, a Telegram channel that Kadyrov’s opponents use. Magamadov and Isaev were reportedly forced to make “apology videos” after they were tortured.

The Russian LGBT Network helped the brothers flee Chechnya, but Russian police last February arrested them in Nizhny Novgorod. Chechen authorities brought them back to Chechnya.

Magamadov and Isaev last month reportedly began a hunger strike after a judge denied their request to have another court hear their case. The Crisis Group “North Caucasus SOS” that represents the brothers said the Supreme Court of Chechnya on Wednesday denied their request for a different venue.  

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World

Advocacy groups renew calls for U.S. to help LGBTQ Afghans

New report details Taliban abuses

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

Advocacy groups on Wednesday renewed calls for the U.S. and other countries to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain inside Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of it.

A report from OutRight Action International and Human Rights Watch that details the plight of LGBTQ Afghans includes a series of recommendations for the U.S. and other “concerned governments.”

– Use any diplomatic leverage to press the Taliban to recognize the rights of everyone in Afghanistan, including LGBT people.

– Recognize that LGBT Afghans face a special risk of persecution in Afghanistan and neighboring countries and expedite their applications for evacuation and resettlement.

– Support and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need, and support organizations providing humanitarian assistance, including programs specifically designed to assist LGBT Afghans.

– Ensure that support to organizations working in Afghanistan is directed to organizations that commit to gender-sensitive programming, nondiscrimination, and inclusion of LGBT beneficiaries.

– In engagements with formal and informal civil society groups in Afghanistan, including human rights organizations, women’s rights and feminist organizations, and organizations focused on health, education, or youth, raise concerns about abuses against LGBT Afghans and urge such groups to be inclusive of LGBT Afghans.

– Engage with civil society organizations directly or indirectly addressing LGBT issues in Afghanistan, informal groupings of LGBT people, and community leaders who are well networked within LGBT communities to best help them protect their rights.

The report also includes recommendations for countries from which LGBTQ Afghans have asked for asylum.

– Fully respect the rights of Afghan people who are or are perceived to be LGBT to claim asylum where they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution.

– When considering asylum claims and other requests for protection from LGBT Afghans, fully consider all evidence regarding violations of the rights of LGBT people in Afghanistan, who faced severe discrimination previously and especially since the Taliban takeover.

– When considering asylum claims for LGBT Afghans, take into consideration that LGBT individuals often conform to societal norms, such as entering into different sex marriage, in order to survive. Married status should not be taken as an indication of someone not being LGBT.

The report’s other recommendations include calls for international aid organizations inside Afghanistan to “provide targeted and specialized assistance to LGBT people” and for the Taliban to “urgently end any and all forms of discrimination or violence against anyone based on a person’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.”

OutRight Action International and Human Rights Watch released their report less than six months after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.

A Taliban judge last July said the group would once again execute gay people if it were to return to power in the country. The report notes a Taliban official later said the group “will not respect the rights of LGBT people.”

The report includes interviews with 60 LGBTQ Afghans inside Afghanistan and in five other countries that OutRight Action International and Human Rights Watch conducted between October and December 2021.

A 20-year-old man with whom the groups spoke said Taliban members “loaded him into a car” at a checkpoint and “took him to another location where four men whipped and then gang raped him over the course of eight hours.” The report notes the man went into hiding, but the Taliban continued to target him and his family.

A lesbian woman with whom OutRight Action International and Human Rights Watch spoke said her parents “arranged for a speedy wedding” with a man before the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan. The report notes her parents beat her when she “tried to refuse to go through with it.”

The woman’s parents, according to the report, paid her husband to take her out of Afghanistan. They now live in another country, and he “beats her nearly every day and will not allow her to leave the house.”

The report also details an incident in which the Taliban beat a transgender woman and “shaved her eyebrows with a razor” before they “dumped her on the street in men’s clothes and without a cellphone.” She had been living with other trans women in an abandoned youth hostel in Kabul, the Afghan capital, when the Taliban regained control of the country.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Afghanistan, and others who do not conform to rigid gender norms, have faced an increasingly desperate situation and grave threats to their safety and lives since the Taliban took full control of the country on Aug. 15, 2021,” reads the report’s summary.

‘More needs to be done’

Two groups of LGBTQ Afghans that three advocacy groups — Stonewall, Rainbow Railroad and Micro Rainbow — evacuated from Afghanistan with the help of the British government arrived in the U.K. last fall. Some of the dozens of Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country since the Taliban regained control of it are LGBTQ.

Rainbow Railroad; the Council for Global Equality; the Human Rights Campaign; Immigration Equality; the International Refugee Assistance Project; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration in a letter they sent to President Biden last September called for his administration to “prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people, and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is indeed temporary by expediting refugee processing.”

Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell on Wednesday during a webinar on the report noted his organization has “had really encouraging conversations with” Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights who was previously OutRight Action International’s executive director, and “her team and with the U.S. government and the Canadian government as well” about the evacuation of LGBTQ Afghans.

“More needs to be done,” said Powell.

Powell added there “are concrete things that we’ve asked to be done within the context of Afghanistan that can be done.”

“It’s encouraging that governments signaled early on that they want to help out Afghans at risk,” he said. “That signaling has led to many folks in Afghanistan who have enough social media to read those messages to ask how (sic) does that look like, including reaching out to us at Rainbow Railroad. And what we’re asking governments to do now is to help us answer that question, help us answer the question as to what we can do to protect people who are still stuck in Afghanistan, help people who are displaced outside of Afghanistan awaiting resettlement and partner with us to do it.”

OutRight Action International Senior Fellow J. Lester Feder echoed Powell.

“Regardless of the identity of the vulnerable people involved, not enough has been done to help vulnerable people,” said Feder during the webinar.

Feder also urged the U.S. government to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans and other vulnerable groups who remain inside the country.

“We know with the amount of support — either with people who had direct connections to the U.S. government or the U.S. military when they left — have been left stranded in Afghanistan,” said Feder.

“People who are supporting and support vulnerable Afghans in the United States need to speak up and show support for the government processing (asylum) cases faster and for more spaces being made available,” he added.

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