Mexico is the second deadliest country in the world for transgender people, according to a recent study. Yet many LGBTQ migrants are stuck in the border city of Ciudad Juárez.
People from places like Honduras and El Salvador are waiting for their turn to claim asylum in the United States; some have been assigned numbers and added to a long waiting list, as part of a policy called metering. To protect themselves, many are taking refuge in a special shelter called Casa Respetttrans.
On a sweltering summer afternoon, a group of asylum seekers set up a makeshift hair salon at the shelter. It’s housed in a crumbling building, painted a soft shade of pink. A woman named Zuleika draped her friend in a yellow smock and got to work with an electric razor.
The residents here have learned to cut hair by practicing on each other. It’s one way to pass time in this shelter, where many transgender women have been living for months.
Other LGBTQ migrants also make their way here. That includes Howard, who arrived in May after a harrowing journey from Honduras. Howard identifies as a transformista and likes to wear dresses, hair extensions and makeup.
“I love to show the talent that I have to dress and be so different and extraordinary,” Howard said.
Arriving in Juárez, Howard felt relieved to see the pink building, with trans and rainbow flags out front.
“Here I can be – literally – I can be whatever I want,” Howard said. “I can be myself, and that make me so happy.”
That first day, Howard expected to sit quietly in a corner – the hesitant newcomer – but was quickly embraced by other residents, who shared makeup tips. Howard put on bold red lipstick and slipped into a green dress.
“You feel like you’re taking something off of your back,” Howard said. “The word that I can tell you that I feel was free.”
But that freedom only exists in the shelter. In general, migrants in Juárez face targeted kidnappings and violence. And for transgender people specifically, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. So asylum seekers like Howard barely leave the shelter.
“It’s for our good that we cannot go outside because we don’t want someone to go and then he maybe don’t come back or come back in a black bag,” Howard said.
That danger leaves residents essentially captive in the shelter, said Grecia, who founded Casa Respetttrans. She was born in a mountainous region in Mexico where, she said, police arrested transgender women like her. So she fled to Juárez.
Johana Medina Leon, a transgender asylum seeker from El Salvador, died in the U.S. after being held for weeks in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. She and Grecia met and became close in Juárez. Now her picture hangs on a wall in the shelter.
“I know what it is to endure the street,” Grecia said in Spanish. “I know what is is to endure hunger. I know what it is to endure the cold. I don’t want any more of my sisters to go through that.”
Grecia opened the shelter earlier this year. Professionally, she’s a nurse and trains hospitals on caring for transgender patients. Outside of work, she fields phone calls from LGBTQ asylum seekers hoping to reach her shelter.
“All of them come with a different story but very similar because they are fleeing from places where they’re told ‘Get out of here. If you don’t, I’ll kill you,’” Grecia said. “So they don’t come to the United States to look for a better life. They come to survive better.”
Their future is uncertain. Some tried to request asylum at a port of entry earlier this year, but had to join a waiting list instead. Now they may be subject to a new rule, requiring them to pursue asylum in another country before they can apply in the U.S.
Immigration attorney Allegra Love has visited Casa Respetttrans, to help transgender migrants prepare for what they might face in U.S. immigration detention. She says while asylum may currently be out of reach, they may be eligible for another form of protection, called withholding of removal.
“A lot of these women have suffered such extraordinary persecution based on who they are…and have really, really strong claims to this other form of relief and protection,” Love said.
It’s harder to win, she says, with a higher standard of proof. And withholding of removal isn’t the same as asylum; it’s not permanent, and doesn’t provide a path to citizenship.
“It certainly is tragic that they attempted to cross before the ban, were turned back and now their only choice is to cross under the ban where they’ll only have this alternative form of relief,” Love said. “But it isn’t hopeless.”
In the meantime, residents of Casa Respetttrans are figuring out what’s next. Grecia is raising money to move her shelter. The current building is dilapidated. The roof’s caving in, and when it rains, she says, everything gets soaked.