When Joe Rivano Barros flew to Mexico, sent by the Texas nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), his intention was to help the Central American refugees trudging north to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But he quickly found that the caravan was not a monolith. The refugees come from various nations — Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala — and represent numerous ethnicities and religions.
And then there’s La Comunidad, the self-bestowed group of about 80 LGBTQ people.
“They were fleeing violence because of their gender identity,” said Barros, 26. “They were also facing violence in the caravan itself.”
RAICES stepped in. So far, it has spent more than $10,000 on La Comunidad, transporting them to Tijuana, then providing housing and food as they seek asylum in the U.S.
Entering this crisis was sure to be controversial. That was fine with RAICES.
The group was founded in San Antonio in 1987 by Stacey Merkt and Jack Elder, the latter a Vietnam veteran who — with an earlier nonprofit — had been convicted of transporting undocumented Central Americans into the U.S.
Under the current executive director, Jonathan Ryan, RAICES fought a 2016 Texas law making it a felony to shelter unauthorized immigrants. This year, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy, which separated migrant children from their parents, inspired a RAICES fundraiser that brought in $12 million.
Rapid growth has made this RAICES the largest immigrant-focused legal aid group in Texas. Donations and grants for 2011 had totaled only $371,000; by 2015, that figure had grown tenfold.
When Barros arrived in Mexico City, he was not without resources. He tapped the nonprofit’s account for $6,000 to rent two buses to take La Comunidad to Tijuana. The 30-hour journey was nonstop, except for bathroom breaks and stops for meals.
“There were catcalls and apparent discrimination at almost every stop,” Barros said. “Everywhere you go.”
When the group arrived in Tijuana Nov. 11, they moved into a three-house, 17-bedroom complex surrounded by a brick wall (the rent for four nights: $3,500). Some neighbors confronted the migrants as they stepped off the bus, telling them they were unwelcome.
“These are people who don’t belong here,” one said, in a tense moment captured on video.
Others, though, visited with food and blankets. “And people drove down from San Diego with toilet paper, olive oil, toys for the kids,” Barros said.
The group, which included a half dozen teenagers and three toddlers, became antsy behind the high walls, but they were discouraged from leaving the compound.
“They want to wander out, not be cooped up,” Barros said. “But Tijuana is a dangerous place, especially for trans women, who get confused with prostitutes.”
On Thursday, the party moved into a large community center. Then they stood in line at the San Ysidro port of entry, beginning the asylum process.
Under federal law, people seeking asylum in the U.S. must be able to show they fled their homes because their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social order led them to fear persecution.
“Each case is going to be different,” said Cristian Sanchez, 28, an immigration lawyer for RAICES. “I’ve seen some strong cases.”
Sanchez and another RAICES lawyer flew into Tijuana last week to interview La Comunidad’s asylum seekers. They had help from other agencies — Al Otro Lado, a U.S.-Mexican legal aid group; World Relief, an international aid society founded by American evangelicals; and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a New Mexican group that advises immigrants on the law.
As Sanchez questioned the migrants, they responded with questions of their own:
“How long will we be detained?”
“What do you think of my asylum petition?”
“Will I be able to stay with my family?”
Most are aware that the Trump administration takes a harder line on refugees and asylum-seekers than its predecessors. On Friday, Al Otro Lado joined a lawsuit arguing that Washington has a “Turnback Policy,” illegally restricting the number of asylum-seekers.
“Everyone is aware of that,” Sánchez said.
Crystal, the trans woman from Honduras, understood that the asylum process was rigorous and, even if she were admitted to the U.S., bias against LGBTQ people is a fact of American life.
“But the difference is that in Honduras gangs grab us and prostitute us out,” she said. “In the United States, there’s definitely discrimination but Americans won’t round us up and prostitute us.”
That wasn’t the only hazard she faced at home, Crystal said. “Sicarios” — assassins — “wanted to kill me for being a trans woman, an LGBT woman.”
She left Honduras Oct. 23 with only the clothes on her back, a toothbrush and toothpaste. The 12-day journey to Mexico City was on foot except for occasional hitched rides. Her feet blistered, her face burned, her clothes were drenched by rain.
“We’d sleep on the streets, in parks, beneath trees,” she said. “The majority of us got sick, with coughs and flu.”
Other migrants insulted her, pushed her aside when she was in line for food and threatened to beat her. One night, she saw a sleeping trans woman grabbed by the hair and slammed into a vase.
The RAICES-chartered bus trip from Mexico City to Tijuana was easier on the legs, but Crystal remained jittery. The rare stops always came with jeers and shouted threats.
“It was very stressful,” she said.
Crystal, a chef who specializes in Italian and French cuisine, consoled herself by imagining a new life in the U.S.
“I want to work and buy my own house and help my mom,” she said. “I would like to own my own business.”
Crystal holds onto that dream at night, lying across a double bed with three others, all awaiting the U.S. government’s decision.
Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune via Tribune News Service