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A proposed deal in Congress could make asylum harder for LGBTQ migrants to obtain

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Later today, the Senate is set to vote on that border security and foreign aid package we've been telling you about. Although it was negotiated with members of both parties, Republicans are now walking away from it, arguing it does not go far enough. The proposal would make it tougher to seek asylum in the U.S. Immigration advocates argue the plan, if adopted as is, will hurt asylum-seekers who are fleeing danger, including LGBT migrants.

NPR's Jasmine Garsd has the story of two such migrants escaping homophobic violence. And here's where I need to tell you that this story does contain accounts of sexual violence.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Located in the suburbs of Tijuana, Mexico, Casa Arcoiris, or Rainbow House, is unassuming, and that's on purpose. Not so long ago, its exterior was graffitied with a homophobic slur. It offers refuge for gay and trans migrants headed to the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: When I visited several weeks ago, I found several people sitting in the living room, curtains drawn. They were mostly from Central America, and they were watching a video tutorial on how to go online and get an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The idea is to encourage people to come to the U.S. legally, rather than just show up or cross the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: On average, the speaker says, people have to wait a few weeks. This elicits laughter. Everyone here has been waiting for months. One guy, named Rivas, has been waiting here for half a year.

RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He says he's despairing. It's like playing the lottery with your life. He asked that we not use his last name because he was threatened in his native Guatemala for being gay. It got so bad, he tried living in neighboring Mexico. But cartel violence has been spiking in Mexico, and he says, along with it, unbearable harassment. Rivas says crossing the border without papers and possibly getting deported back to Guatemala could be a death sentence. He would never do it.

RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Persecution due to sexual orientation is grounds to apply for asylum in the U.S., although there isn't current data on how many people do. But there are nonprofits that offer glimpses, like the LGBT Asylum Task Force, a ministry of Hadwen Park Congregational Church in Worcester, Mass. They help people like Rivas if they make it to the U.S. They provide housing and a stipend until the asylum-seeker can get a work authorization. This is key, says Pastor Judy Hanlon, the co-founder of the task force. When they arrive, she says many gay migrants find the homophobic violence they were trying to get away from is also present in their communities in the U.S.

JUDY HANLON: They have beaten them. They have raped them here in the United States. I can't even tell you the stories. So they're not safe with their people. So it's just triply marginalized.

GARSD: Many of the people who she works with are from Jamaica and Uganda, where homosexuality is criminalized and severely punished. She says years ago, folks were mostly coming into the country with visas and then requesting asylum. About a year ago, that changed.

HANLON: I've got people calling me from detention every day, asking me to write letters to get them out of detention. They went over the border. They're LGBT.

(CROSSTALK)

GARSD: I met Dilyn Villa in California, just a few minutes after she crossed the border. She was resting up against the U.S.-Mexico wall. Her long black hair went down to her waist, and her eyes were bloodshot with exhaustion.

DILYN VILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She told me her family kicked her out of the house when she was 11 because she's gay. She's been living on the streets since.

VILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Sometimes, she tells me, people in the town would try to run her out, and she'd have to hide, but she wasn't always able to get away. She shows me the scars from stab wounds all over her body. She's 22 now. She says she just couldn't take it anymore. Someone told her the U.S. was safer for people like her.

Our conversation was cut short by Border Patrol agents rounding migrants up for processing, and I assumed I wouldn't see her again. But a few weeks later, Villa texted me to tell me she made it to Boston, where she has a cousin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: We met at a Colombian fast-food joint in East Boston, filled with families eating arepas and drinking tinto. Villa seemed to already be a regular here, and despite her appearance, the servers called her a boy. She told me what happened after I met her at the border. She lowered her voice a little. She said she was embarrassed. She said Border Patrol separated men and women.

VILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She told an agent that she's a woman, and she says he responded...

VILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: ...Here in the U.S., if it's not cut off, you're a man, and you go with the men. Villa says she had a panic attack. She was placed in detention alone. The cleaning staff would call her homophobic slurs. After a few days, Villa was released with a notice to appear in immigration court in March, basically to initiate deportation proceedings. Sitting in the Boston restaurant, I asked her if she's going to try and get asylum.

VILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Asylum, she repeats - she says she doesn't know what that is or how you get it. And the answer to those questions might change soon. Republicans and many Democrats have been saying the system is overwhelmed with people saying they need asylum, even when they don't have a strong case. So a few days ago, Congress proposed a deal. One of the central pieces of it is to make getting asylum at the border much more difficult. Advocates for immigrants say it's basically a return to Trump-era policies. Many conservatives say it's not nearly tough enough.

For people like Rivas, the Guatemalan man who has been waiting for months in Tijuana, it could mean waiting even longer in Mexico, where he's already been attacked for his sexuality. It could also make his asylum interview harder. Villa, in Boston - well, she's in a legal limbo. Her deportation proceedings could take years, and she can still apply for asylum, but her chances are slimmer because she crossed undocumented. But she says she's not going to bother applying. She needs to focus on finding work, starting a life, even if it's only for a while.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jasmine Garsd
Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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