This summer, as a law student, I had the opportunity to work with the Transgender Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to between 750 and 1,000 community members every year. This nonprofit works with clients who are going to court to get recognition of their name and gender, addresses workplace discrimination, helps asylum applicants, and responds to discrimination in the criminal justice system. My summer legal internship was in Tijuana, Mexico, and lasted from June to August of this year.
My interest in cross-border work started in 2018, when I traveled frequently to Tijuana as a volunteer with the organization called Al Otro Lado. During this time, we saw a rise in migration patterns coming from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. This wave of migration from Central America is not new. We saw similar migration patterns back in the 1970s and ’80s. I was a product of this migration. My family migrated to Los Angeles in the late ’80s and early ’90s to escape the residual effects of a civil war in El Salvador. Much of my Central American identity stems from history that I discovered by befriending peers with the same desire to understand their past—a past that our families kept from us as a survival mechanism. Needless to say, this border work is personal and political. Eventually, I befriended attorneys and legal advocates affiliated with National Lawyers Guild. This organization would eventually support my interests in border work and connect me with a solid network of advocates in Tijuana.
During my summer internship, I was working with a young, HIV-positive transgender woman from El Salvador. She escaped one of the rival gangs that tried to kill her for being transgender. She hoped to come to the U.S. to continue her HIV treatment. During our time together, I learned that she was living in Tijuana for a few months and found refuge in an LGBT shelter. There are currently dozens of shelters in Tijuana working with migrants in transit; however, there aren’t many that support LGBT clients. Unfortunately, many LGBT migrants fall prey to the ridicule and persecution of cisgender, straight migrants. According to the client I worked with this summer—pseudonym Carolina—many of these cishet migrants grow furious over the fact that LGBT migrants have a stronger asylum claim based on their marginalized social group. These heterosexual counterparts believe LGBT people are sinful and don’t deserve the protection they receive from the U.S. However, I don’t want to demonize these people either. These processes are an aftermath of neo-colonialism that the U.S. has upheld. I encourage people to see the bigger picture.
Carolina was brave enough to share her story with me during our work together. It’s important for me to practice movement lawyering, and the safety of my client comes first. I made sure she was aware of this interview, along with protecting her identity and keeping the facts to a minimum for the sake of her asylum claim. These safety protocols are things that I have kept in mind, even as a journalist. To me, it’s important to uphold the safety of marginalized people over the story. With that said, I did interview Carolina and gained some insight on what it means to be a transgender woman trying to gain asylum in the U.S. to advocate for her health. Carolina stayed in Tijuana for a few months before presenting herself at the border. She was transferred to the Otay Mesa Detention Center and was recently released. Her journey in getting to this point in her life was not easy—and the dangers never truly end.
According to Carolina, for her safety, she did not travel with a caravan. As she mentioned earlier, many migrants hold contempt over the fact that LGBT asylum seekers typically have a stronger claim in immigration court. It doesn’t help that the people discriminating against them share the same disdain as the people who persecute LGBT folks back in their home country. Carolina’s journey was filled with danger; at one point, she came across the same gang from back home during her journey. They tried robbing her when she got to Tapachula, Mexico, but thankfully she found refuge in the home of an older woman who felt sympathy for Carolina. Unfortunately, she faced discrimination once she got to Tijuana. Police officers tend to stop and frisk transgender women and accuse them of sex work and drug use. They gaslight these women and rob them, and sometimes sexually assault them. Carolina faced discrimination from police officers in Tijuana when she was out jogging one afternoon. They did not believe she was exercising and spat xenophobic insults at her, knowing full well that she is Central American. Unfortunately, this happens frequently with Central American migrants. Many people in Tijuana are furious over the fact that migrants are stationed in their city, and their hostility forms into xenophobia. Carolina faced many dangers before she found safety in the U.S. She is currently fighting her asylum claim and thankfully has her HIV meds to stay in treatment.
Carolina’s story is one of many stories LGBT migrants experience. Unfortunately, many of these migrants don’t have anyone waiting for them on the other side. They tend to be shunned from family, or sometimes their families don’t have the means to support them, but they must make the decision to travel thousands of miles for an opportunity that includes their health and HIV status. If migrants don’t have a sponsor waiting for them on the other side—in other words, someone who can take them to their immigration hearings, enroll them in school if they are minors, and support them financially—they most likely won’t have a strong case. Fortunately, there are organizations led by transgender leaders making a difference in their lives.
My time with Carolina and several other migrants at the border taught me the importance of intersectionality and gave me an understanding of why immigration work is a public health concern. Living in Tijuana during a pandemic felt surreal, to say the least. I witnessed how COVID-19 caused severe harm in marginalized communities. Folks in Tijuana practiced safety protocols. They checked temperatures before people entered a building and had people step on a soaked sponge-mat filled with sanitizing liquids. This experience also left me thinking about why it’s important to study the law and understand how administrative law plays such an important role in the lives of others. The executive branch has power and control over these agencies, and people need to see the bigger picture here. The people we elect as president are the ones who have the most control over Department of Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control, and many other agencies. What we are witnessing at the border with ICE and Border Patrol can change, but it all depends on whom we have in office. I am grateful for my time in Tijuana this summer; it has taught me the value of research and the need for creativity in order to connect the dots and see the bigger picture.
 Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender.