The American Borderlands and the Rights of the Child
Previous Migrant ‘Protection’ Protocols Survivor Stories #2: Perla
The border encampment in Matamoros that had become a makeshift community for thousands has now been emptied of the final 700, or so, souls still living there when Biden announced the end of MPP. But not all 700 camp inhabitants, like Perla, have been allowed to cross. Roughly 70 individuals with “complex cases” remain in Mexico and were moved out of the camp last weekend. Some 53 were offered shelter by a local church.
The rest joined folks like Gabriel, who moved his family moved out of the encampment when his wife Lessy’s pregnancy turned life-threatening. And like Natasha, who left the camp to save her life as well. After camp residents with open cases, those in apartments and shelters are next in line to cross into the US and join their waiting families — which should have been the case long ago. Gabriel is now in California, but Natasha, whose story Sarah Towle shares below, continues to anxiously await her fate. Her lawyer is optimistic, but she still remains in limbo. Less optimistic is the outlook for the new arrivals who continue to show up in Matamoros and elsewhere along the border every day. That’s the subject for another story – but meantime, meet Natasha.
Natasha doesn’t remember me, but I remember her. It was January 2020. I was one among thousands who showed up to volunteer at the tent-city encampment of asylum seekers stranded in Matamoros, Mexico. Natasha was one among thousands who lined up that evening for a hot meal, just steps from the never-ending traffic snarl at the foot of the Gateway International Bridge.
We were serving rice and beans and some kind of stew, ladled from industrial-sized pots onto wobbly disposable plates, topped with tortillas and a dessert of quartered oranges. I was the last stop in the food-service assembly line, handing out a choice of apple, orange, or mixed berry juice boxes. Even at a distance, Natasha stood out from the crowd.
She was dressed impeccably in a fun, short skirt. The setting sun glinted off her blue eye shadow, calling attention to her short, boyish haircut bleached blonde at the top. She carried a handbag — in my mind’s eye, it was purple — pushed up one arm, which she cocked at the elbow, to keep the bag close and safe.
Though exuding charisma, she seemed quite alone in the raucous sea of humanity. It surged around her, mostly avoiding her, like electrons rotating around the nucleus of an atom. A few penetrated her magnetic field, however, deliberately ramming a frail shoulder, for Natasha was rail thin. It was a menacing action, taken without a glance that screamed: I see you, but I refuse to acknowledge you!
As I watched Natasha pick her lonely way through the food line toward my drinks station, I admired her poise. She wore it like a suit of armor polished with a self-possessed pride. That must be what gives her the strength to shake off the blows, I thought. Then, in a flash, I understood…
The beautiful young woman with the page-boy haircut was transgender. And she was not afraid to let the world know it — an extraordinary act of courage in all contexts, but particularly this one, where machismo and desperation made Natasha an easy target.
“This situation can’t be easy for you,” I whispered to her as she shrugged off the offer of a juice box in favor of bottled water.
“He conocido cosas mas peores” — I’ve known far worst things — she responded as she disappeared into the cascading twilight.
Follow the progress of Natasha’s asylum claim through real-time social media storytelling HERE
I thought about Natasha a lot after our brief encounter, her and the other 70,000 asylum seekers, including 16,000 children and infants, to be stranded along the 2000-mile US border with Mexico. They were stopped, first, by an inhumane and highly illegal Trump policy; then, by COVID-19.
Another Big Trump Lie, the ill-named Migrant “Protection” Protocols (MPP) didn’t protect anyone at all. Rather, it trapped some of the world’s most vulnerable people in some of world’s most dangerous places: Cartel-controlled border towns, where they became subject to the same violence they fled — kidnapping, extortion, rape, torture, disappearance, even murder.
MPP put everyone on death’s doorstep. But by Trump’s own playbook, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable should have been exempted:1) people with known physical and mental health issues; 2) pregnant women with life-threatening conditions; 3) children with special needs and their parents; and 4) members of the LGBTQ+ community, like Natasha.
She was not exempted, however. She was forced to remain in Mexico, a target of every transphobic and homicidal bully in Matamoros.
Now, as the Biden administration works to rollback MPP in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), HIAS, and all the grassroots humanitarian organizations that I’ve been featuring in THE FIRST SOLUTION, we anxiously await the official date of Natasha’s invitation to enter the US.
It could not come too soon.
From the age of 9, Natasha knew she was different. “I felt more niña. I felt weird in boys’ clothes. I preferred the company, camaraderie, and culture of girls.”
But there was no model for this in the macho, binary world of rural Honduras.
The abuse began as soon as Natasha entered school. The other kids called her names. The adults didn’t stop them. Instead, they reprimanded her for not playing with boys. They scapegoated her for every schoolyard prank and act of mischief. When she looks back on her school days, what Natasha remembers are the hours and hours she spent locked in a closet or bathroom.
She finally told her mother she’d rather die than continue her education. “I wasn’t learning anything anyway.”
But mom was not accepting. She told Natasha, I gave birth to a boy, you are a boy, be a boy or I don’t expect me to even go to your funeral.
Natasha tried, but “I felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe because of my secret.”
At age 13, she couldn’t hold it in anymore. She steeled her nerves and told her dad.
It’s normal, he reassured her. I already knew, he said. I was just waiting for you to tell me.
He gathered the family around him and told her four brothers and two sisters that they must all continue to love Natasha for exactly who she is.
Mom walked away from the family then. She never looked back.
Dad promised to support Natasha and take care of her. But the family was very poor. At 18, she left home in the La Llaves mountains of Jolancho to seek work in the city of Jutecalpa, hoping to help put her younger sister through school.
The next several years were a revolving door of rejections, as landlords and employers refused to hire or rent to “a weirdo;” of even worse name-calling — witch, bitch, damned whore, and more; and of outright physical violence. She endured the taunting of neighbors and the beatings of the gangs who surrounded her on their motorcycles and attacked her, without repercussions, even in broad daylight.
Natasha dipped in and out of depression, the hate and constant abuse taking an emotional toll. “I thought of killing myself many times,” Natasha told me. “The only thing that stopped me was not wanting to hurt my dad and siblings.”
When Natasha landed a job as a waitress, she felt a glimmer of hope. But the glares followed her as she moved around the restaurant. The quiet jeers of faggot and pinche maldita reached her ears as she passed them by. That’s when she adopted the same devil-may-care look I’d observed that January evening in Matamoros. But outside appearances to the contrary, the insults lodged in her heart along with all the other nastiness she’d already suffered.
“It was like my lungs refused to take in air”.
One night after work, she was followed in the dark and set upon without warning. This time, she fought back.
“I was ready to die. I had nothing to live for, so I stood up for myself for the first time.”
It worked. She took blows, but the men finally backed off.
Natasha hesitated at first when a friend said, I’m going to the US, andyou should come, too. My aunt says there’s more acceptance for people like you there.
But the possibility of a life where she could be herself was compelling. She knew in her heart she would be killed for who she was in Honduras. So when another friend offered her 1000 lempira for the trip, Natasha decided to go.
On her father’s advice, she cut her hair and traveled as a man. He knew what women were subject to on the criminal and dangerous migratory trail: kidnapping, rape, and forced prostitution. For transgender women, he knew it could get far worse, with the added threat of transphobic hate crimes added to the list of traumas.
Fortunately, Natasha and her friend fell in with a small caravan of other Hondurans. They were all safer traveling as a group. Still, the journey was not without its difficulties. It took two months — one to get through Guatemala, the other to get through Mexico. And they were hungry most of the time. By the time they arrived at the US border, Natasha remembers, “I had no strength left.”
Just outside Reynosa, Mexico, across the Rio Bravo from McAllen, Texas, they found an ugly abandoned house to rest in. The women went into one bedroom, while the guys took another. They fell into a deep sleep, curled up against each other on the floor for warmth. But in the middle of the night, there came a heavy pounding on the locked front door.
It was the poli-negra, a security force formed by the attorney general’s office of the State of Tamaulipas that’s supposed to combat drug-related crime. They broke into the house and forced their way into the bedrooms. They kicked the doors down as Natasha and her friends, now cornered, screamed in panic. They held guns to the migrants’ heads and made them strip down to their underwear. They zeroed in on Natasha.
One of them grabbed her by the hair, shrieking in her ear, You know what happens to people like you here? before throwing her against a wall.
They shook out all the pockets of all the abandoned garments, searching for what few pesos they might find. Then they left the migrants, naked and crying, locking them inside the house on their way out.
“We all thought we were going to die that night,” said Natasha.
They dressed quickly, scrambled out a broken window, and made their way to the river. They crossed it in the dark of night on October 3, 2019.
On the other side, Natasha was too tired to go on. She sat down on under a street lamp by the side of a road and waited for US Border Patrol agents to pick her up. They did. And her experience in the custody of US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) is just as we’ve seen in the media: crowded cages, chaos, and crippling cold.
“It was like being inside an icebox.”
CBP agents threw Natasha into a holding pen for men. “But it didn’t matter that we were all in the same sinking boat together.” Her cage-mates hurled all their fears and anxieties in her direction. The same familiar names were delivered; the same unnecessary blows struck.
A guard asked Natasha if she felt safe. “Of course I don’t feel safe!” she said. So he put her in solitary confinement, for her “protection.” She was kept there, alone and shivering, for nine days.
In the macho, binary worlds of CBP and its first cousin, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), that is how transgender women are treated. There is no understanding or acceptance of their needs. They are routinely put in male detention where they are harassed and abused, physically and sexually, by prisoners as well as guards. And when the violence gets too bad, the response is to “protect” them by throwing them into “the hole.” There, isolated and cold, the living hell they left behind is further amplified by the trauma of being confined.
Release from CBP custody brought Natasha not freedom, but yet another injustice: she was placed in MPP and sent back to Mexico when she should have been exempted. What’s more, her first scheduled court date was set for June 2020 — nine months out — when the average wait-time for everyone else was three months.
She moved into the then-sprawling Matamoros tent city encampment with the thousands of other vulnerable people seeking safe haven. Yet, acceptance alluded her there as well.
She hated lining up for the evening’s meal, where she was pushed and shoved and called puta and faggot, even by children, and where others made a sport of cutting her in line. She’d go without food for days just to avoid the torment, eventually choosing the barbs, taunts, and physical violations over starvation.
Even going to the toilet in the encampment was a challenge. Banned from the women’s port-a-potties, she was assaulted when she tried to use the men’s. There was no gender-neutral toilet for her and the other LBGTQ+ refugees.
Eventually, Natasha’s luck began to turn. One sympathetic volunteer got her a wig. Another got her out of the camp and into an apartment after she was attacked, thrown to the ground, and kicked, repeatedly, for the “offense” of listening to music with some friends.
“It happened in front of everyone, and no one did anything to stop it.”
But Matamoros was just as dangerous as Jutecalpa. So Natasha stayed indoors most of the time, confined, hiding from unforgiving landlords and criminal gangs. Her life remained at a standstill until another asylum seeker, a gay businessman from Guatemala City, decided to open a new shelter just for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers stuck in MPP.
Natasha was the first to apply.
Estuardo Cifuentes had also had enough. He suffered his own share of abuse — assault, arrest, attempted kidnapping — after police officers saw him and his boyfriend steal a kiss just outside his home. As of this writing, he’d been in Mexico and under MPP for nearly two years, supporting himself as a taxi driver, cleaner, and bartender. When COVID hit, the economy came to a shrieking halt. He lost his jobs, one by one. He needed a new project.
“We suffer discrimination from all directions. Not just from the Mexicans. Homophobia is rampant in the refugee camp too,” Estuardo told me, recounting the story of an LGBTQ+ migrant who was kidnapped by another asylum seeker.
When a gay man from Columbia was attacked and beaten beyond recognition, Estuardo determined to build a refuge where LGBTQ+ asylum seekers could live in peace and safety, providing mutual support. With seed money from a generous anonymous donor as well as additional monies raised by Rio Grande Valley civil rights attorney and LGBTQ+ rights activist, Dani Marrero Hi, Estuardo was able to secure a house big enough to support 15 people. He arranged for services from the camp’s medical and legal aid providers, Global Response Management and Lawyers for Good Government’s Proyecto Corazon, respectively, to extend to shelter residents. And Gaby at Resource Center Matamoros offered administrative and case management assistance.
While he and a team fixed the place up, applying a fresh coat of paint, and installing new kitchen appliances, bunk beds, new mattresses, and linens, Estuardo launched a branded website and an application process.
Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers opened its doors on September 15, 2020. Natasha was one of the first to move in. There, she says, she felt secure perhaps for the first time in her life.
Now Natasha awaits a call from the UNHCR, giving her a date when she can legally enter the US. Having never had even an initial hearing, her MPP case is still open. Soon, the torture of MPP will end and Natasha will be free to cross the Gateway International Bridge into Brownsville, Texas. She plans to do so arm-in-arm with the other Rainbow Bridge residents — dressed to the nines, of course!
Meantime, while Estuardo awaits a revised entry date — his was previously set at April 30 under ACLU litigation to which he is a party — he is already making arrangements to open a second Rainbow Bridge shelter to the other side of the border.
“Crossing is not the end of the line for the LGBTQ+ community,” he tells me. “We’ve all suffered a lifetime of trauma for being who we are — from family, at school and work, at the hands of the authorities, and in Matamoros, too. We will need all the mental health support we can get on the other side. The US, we now know, isn’t all that different.”
Special thanks to Rainer Rodríguez for helping to translate my communications with Natasha and Estuardo, and for helping me to capture this story about LGBTQ+ asylum seekers under MPP with accuracy and PRIDE.
EPILOGUE: As I was just about to hit “publish” on this story, Estuardo texted with the unexpected, exciting news that his turn for justice was imminent:
“Hello! I just got a call from UNHCR. I need to be at the camp in one hour in order to be processed to cross into the United States today. Litigation with the ACLU made the process immediate.”
¡Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos, Estuardo!
Now, it’s Natasha’s turn. We’ll be keeping you posted on the progress of her asylum claim through real-time social media storytelling HERE.
Sarah Towle is an award-winning London-based US expatriate author currently sharing her journey from outrage to activism one story of humanity and heroism at a time. Read more episodes from The First Solution — including the first two Survivor Stories, with Gabriel, and then with Perla, at medium.com/@HiStoryteller.