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Lesbian mother from El Salvador has been in ICE custody since 2017

Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez has won asylum twice



San Salvador, El Salvador, from the slope of El Boqueron, a volcano that overlooks the Salvadoran capital, on July 24, 2021. A lesbian woman from El Salvador who has been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017 has asked a federal court in Louisiana to order her release. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana on Wednesday asked a federal court to order the release of a lesbian mother from El Salvador who has been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017

The writ for habeas corpus petition the ACLU filed in U.S. District for the Western District of Louisiana in Lafayette, La., on Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez’s behalf notes she and her three children entered the U.S. on May 31, 2016, “fleeing persecution she faced in El Salvador as a lesbian, and because the government had falsely identified her as a gang member.”

ICE released her “under conditions of supervision” and she “complied with these conditions for more than a year.”

ACLU Staff Attorney My Khanh Ngo on Thursday told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview that Barahona-Martinez, 40, was living with her sister and other family members in Woodbridge, Va., when ICE arrested and detained her on June 26, 2017.

“The sole reason for her arrest and detention was an Interpol Red Notice that was based on a Salvadoran warrant related to a charge of aggravated extortion for up to $30 — a charge for which she had initially been acquitted,” reads her petition.

She was at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg, Va., before ICE transferred her to the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Va., in October 2018. Barahona-Martinez arrived at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a privately-run detention center the GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates in Basile, La., in October 2020.

Barahona-Martinez’s petition notes an immigration judge has granted her asylum twice, most recently in November 2019, “on the grounds that she faces persecution on account of her sexual orientation.” The government appealed and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department oversees, ruled in their favor.

“In sustaining the government’s appeal of that grant, the Board of Immigration Appeals (‘BIA’ or ‘board’) did not address the merits of her asylum claim,” reads Barahona-Martinez’s petition. “Instead, in a two-to-one decision, over a strong dissent, it held that petitioner was ineligible for asylum under the ‘serious nonpolitical crime’ bar. The majority relied on the then-pending Interpol Red Notice and the Salvadoran warrant to find there were ‘serious reasons’ for believing she had committed such a crime. The dissenting Board member pointed out that petitioner had not only been acquitted of the alleged offense once, but had also submitted credible evidence to back up her claim of innocence.”

Her petition notes she appealed the Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., “which granted her a stay of removal pending appeal, reflecting it assessment of the likelihood of her success on the merits of her appeal.” Her petition further indicates the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, an independent body that oversees whether Interpol properly processes personal data, in April “permanently deleted the Interpol Red Notice that had been lodged against Ms. Barahona-Martinez” after her new lawyer made the request.

“Her pro bono counsel has since filed a motion to reopen proceedings before the BIA on this ground, as it is relevant to the board’s analysis of whether the serious nonpolitical crime bar applies to petitioner’s case and renders her ineligible for asylum,” reads the petition. “The government has agreed to hold her appeal in abeyance in light of the pending motion to reopen, yet ICE continues to detain Ms. Barahona-Martinez as her removal proceedings continue.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) in June 2020 told the Blade that detainees at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center did not have access to toilet paper or soap for nine days. The Illinois Democrat also said staff were not required to wear masks and they did not implement social distancing policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Ngo said Barahona-Martinez is at increased risk for COVID-19 because she has asthma. 

Ngo said a doctor gave Barahona-Martinez Tylenol when she showed COVID-19 symptoms, “and unsurprisingly she got extremely sick.” Ngo told the Blade that Barahona-Martinez a few weeks ago went to the emergency room because of “excruciating stomach pain.”

“It’s clear that she’s been deteriorating in detention, both physically and mentally,” said Ngo.

Ngo told the Blade that Barahona-Martinez’s asthma has become worse since arrived in Louisiana, and suffers panic attacks nearly every day. Ngo said the only way that Barahona-Martinez can “get back into a mental state that will keep her going” is by talking with her family.

“The food is rotten. She is afraid because she is gay in attention. She’s been harassed and threatened by both officers and other detainees because of her sexual orientation,” said Ngo. “She doesn’t feel safe there at all. She tries to keep to herself.”

Ngo said Barahona-Martinez works up to five hours a day in the facility’s kitchen. She earns around $3 a day.

Transgender woman murdered after US deported her to El Salvador

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains commonplace in El Salvador.

A court in San Salvador, the country’s capital, in 2020 sentenced three police officers to 20 years in prison for the murder of Camila Díaz Córdova, a transgender woman. 

Díaz asked for asylum in the U.S. because of violence against LGBTQ and intersex Salvadorans. The U.S. deported her in 2017, and her friend reported her missing at the end of January 2019. Díaz died at a San Salvador hospital on Feb. 3, 2019.

Barahona-Martinez is from San Salvador.

President Nayib Bukele in March 2022 declared a state of emergency that allowed his government to crackdown on rampant gang violence. 

The Associated Press in July reported Salvadoran authorities have detained upwards of 70,000 people. Human Rights Watch and other groups say arbitrary arrests, torture of detainees and other human rights abuses have taken place since the crackdown began.

“The situation in El Salvador is much worse,” Ngo told the Blade. “It was bad in 2016 when she [Barahona-Martinez] fled, but with the state of emergency that’s in place right now, there’s been a lot of reporting about how much worse conditions are in the prisons against people who are accused of being with the gangs. There’s a lot of arbitrary detentions and killings and abuses.”

Ngo said Salvadoran authorities tortured Barahona-Martinez after they arrested her. Ngo said her former criminal defense attorney told her that Barahona-Martinez would be “in danger if she were returned” to El Salvador.

“She said, as much as possible, please keep her in the United States,” said Ngo. “She was known as a lesbian back then. It’s clear coming back they would know that she had applied for asylum in the United States and there’s the potential retaliation for that. She’s really risking her life if she’s sent back there.”

A billboard in San Salvador, El Salvador, on July 23, 2019, advises Salvadorans “not to lose your life in the gangs. It is easy to join, but the only way out is jail or death.” Gang violence has prompted tens of thousands of migrants from El Salvador and neighboring Honduras to seek refuge in the U.S. in recent years. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Barahona-Martinez’s petition names Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and South Louisiana ICE Processing Center Warden Eleazar Garcia are among those named as defendants.

ICE and the Department of Homeland Security have not responded to the Blade’s request for comment.

Barahona-Martinez, for her part, says she simply wants to be reunited with her children.

“I always think back on that day in 2017 when I was arrested by ICE and taken away from my children. They were so young at that time. I never thought that I would still be in detention six years later. I have missed so many of their birthdays, graduations, and other big life events,” she said in a statement to the ACLU. “Being separated from my children for this long has been so difficult, but I am fighting for a future here with them. All I want is the chance to show a judge why we should be reunited.” 



La. lawmakers send anti-LGBTQ bills to governor

Advocates urge John Bel Edwards to veto measures



Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. Photo by Marie Constantin.

The Louisiana state Senate on Monday, following a national conservative movement targeting LGBTQ youth, approved three measures that target LGBTQ rights. The bills now head to the state’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, one of which has spurred calls for the governor to veto from leading civil rights advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union.

House Bill 648, a ban on trans youth gender-affirming health care, passed on a 29-10 vote that along party lines. HB 648 is the only bill of the three to receive a veto-proof majority vote in both House and Senate should the governor veto it, which sources say is highly likely.

“This extreme government overreach harms everyone in our state, especially transgender Louisianans, and we all deserve better,” ACLU spokesperson Kari Elgin said in a statement.

The local newspaper, the Advocate, reported, the Senate voted Monday for HB 466, the ban on talk of gender and sex in school classrooms, on a 29-9 vote, a two-thirds majority; and for HB Bill 81, the pronoun bill, on a 31-8 vote, also a two-thirds majority. However, the House passed each of those bills earlier in session without two-thirds majority votes.

Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel Cathryn Oakley released the following statement:

“From doctors’ offices to classrooms, Louisiana’s extremist legislators show no shame in assaulting the freedoms of those different from them. Blocking teachers from providing the safe and inclusive spaces that LGBTQ+ youth so desperately need is an unconscionable act. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about being LGBTQ+ or in acknowledging LGBTQ+ issues and people. Furthermore, denying transgender and nonbinary youth access to best-practice, life-saving medical care puts their lives in very real danger.  

These bills are a desperate and cruel effort by radical politicians in Louisiana to marginalize and erase the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender youth. The Human Rights Campaign strongly condemns these discriminatory bills and calls on Gov. Bel Edwards to veto them.”

There was opposition to the trans youth healthcare ban from Senator Republican Committee Chair Fred Mills, of Parks, joined who had joined with the Democrats in opposition. The bill killed by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which Mills is chair of on May 24, which was thought to have effectively killed the bill for this legislative session.

According to the Advocate after weeks of political maneuvering that saw it revived by the full Senate as political pressure mounted from conservative interest groups and then approved last week by a second Senate panel, sending it back to the full chamber.

Last month Mills, who expressed his trust in science and health care providers before joining Democrats in opposition.

“I guess I’ve always believed in my heart of hearts that a decision should be made by a patient and a physician,” Mills said.

Speaking to the Advocate Monday, Mills said his vote was driven by his belief that decisions about medical care should remain between doctors and patients. He said Monday that blowback to his vote, which included threats from local and national conservatives, came as a surprise because he was unaware of the “cultural war” the issue was enmeshed in.

“This is probably one of the biggest blessings of my life, this controversy,” he said. “I’ve been attacked nationwide by people with hate. But I do not hate these people. I know God blesses them.”

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Bill to ban healthcare for transgender youth defeated in La. Senate

‘This is a powerful win for transgender children’



Louisiana Capitol building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

House Bill 648, a bill that would have banned gender-affirming care for transgender children in Louisiana was defeated by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee’s vote effectively killing the bill for this legislative session.

“The Senate Health and Welfare Committee has chosen to protect Louisiana’s transgender children by rejecting HB 648. This is a powerful win for transgender children and their families. We lift up and celebrate the incredible families, advocates, providers and lawmakers who worked to stop this dangerous bill that targeted transgender children and stripped rights from their parents,” a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said in a statement.

“The fight to protect the rights of transgender children and their families is far from over. But make no mistake, as states across the country pass harmful bills that mirror HB 648, today’s committee vote matters, and sends a powerful message that will be heard nationwide.”

The committee hearing room was filled to nearly over capacity with trans Louisianians, their supporters and allies. According to WNNO in New Orleans: The committee killed the bill in a narrow 5-4 vote mostly split along party lines after hours of emotional testimony and contentious debate in the packed room. Republican Committee Chair Fred Mills, of Parks, joined Democrats in opposition.

During the at times contentious debate, anti-trans opponents and Republican lawmakers, including state Rep. Michael “Gabe” Firment (R-Pollock), the legislation’s author, repeatedly referred to gender-affirming care and surgery for trans minors as a “mutilation” of children’s bodies. They also claimed these treatments are “experimental.”

Dr. Quentin Van Meter, a pediatric endocrinologist from Atlanta, told the panel, “We are flying an airplane while we build the airplane,” while others backing the bill rejected the that banning gender-affirming care would lead to worse mental health conditions for minors.

Opponents pointed out that children’s inability to make significant life decisions and because of that, legally minors cannot purchase alcohol or get a tattoo, there’s no reason to allow them to transition.

A trans advocate, Dr. Clifton Mixon, a Louisiana psychologist who works with trans youth in the state, rebuked the idea that doctors are mutilating children’s genitalia. In his testimony, he also pointed out how rarely these procedures occur in the state: From 2017-2021, there weren’t any gender-affirming surgical procedures performed on minors in Louisiana, according to a Louisiana Department of Health study published in 2022.

WNNO noted that state Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria) said he was concerned that the bill would take away parental rights and called the bill “a solution looking for a problem.”

Luneau said he believes every person who testified, including those that are happy with and those who regret their decision to transition. But lawmakers cannot legislate individual’s decisions, he said.

Luneau made the motion to defer the bill. The decision came down to Mills, who expressed his trust in science and health care providers before joining Democrats in opposition.

“I guess I’ve always believed in my heart of hearts that a decision should be made by a patient and a physician,” Mills said.

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Louisiana lawmakers reject ‘Don’t say gay’ bill

Measure opposed by state groups, Governor



Louisiana State Capitol building. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A sweeping bill that would bar school employees from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in K-12 classrooms in the state was killed in the Louisiana House Education Committee Tuesday.

House Bill 837, introduced by state Representative Dodie Horton, (R-District 9-Bossier) would enact a law that: 

  • No teacher, school employee, or other presenter shall cover the topics of sexual orientation or gender identity in any classroom discussion or instruction in kindergarten through grade eight.
  • No teacher, school employee, or other presenter shall discuss his own sexual orientation or gender identity with students in kindergarten through grade twelve.

Horton, speaking with ABC News’ Baton Rouge affiliate WBRZ-2, at the time she introduced the legislation told the station; “I wasn’t aware of the need [for this legislation] until I looked at some things on Twitter and Facebook,” Horton told WBRZ Thursday. “It just solidified for us to protect our Louisiana children, as well.”

“I started to pray about how we could protect our children here from inappropriate conversations until they are able to dissect it and old enough to understand it,” Horton explained. “I talked to my pastor and he challenged me and said, ‘we definitely need to do this.’”

This legislation follows passage of a similar bill in Florida and efforts in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia and 16 other states in at least 40 bills have been introduced to ban classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ people which opponents charge leads to erasure of LGBTQ+ identity and increased risks of suicide by LGBTQ+ youth.

Passage was opposed by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups as well as Democratic Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards whose office had released a statement:

“Some of the bills being brought up this session do nothing to make lives better. Nothing to continue moving us forward. They only serve to divide us. And frankly, some are reminiscent of a dark past that we should learn from, not relive.”

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