Repealing TPS for Queer, Trans, and HIV-Positive Folks: A Life Underground vs. Death Threats

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The U.S. government can provide Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to people who are seeking asylum in the U.S. from countries that have experienced natural disasters, civil wars, or temporary emergencies. For example, as of May, approximately 50,000 Haitians and 195,000 Salvadorans had TPS. However, the Trump administration has decided to end the program for these and some other formerly protected groups from Latin America and the Caribbean.

"The elimination of TPS is a political move. The only people who have TPS are black and Latinx people," said Giana "GiGi" Desir, a Haitian trans woman in New York City. "This administration wants to remove a certain demographic of the population -- starting with the weakest links."

It is unsurprising that the Trump administration's actions are targeting people of color, with a bonus of LGBTQ and HIV-positive people of color. Trump's alleged views on countries having majority people-of-color populations were recently leaked. In 2017, the President reportedly stated that Haitians "all have AIDS" and that once Nigerian immigrants had seen the United States, they would never "go back to their huts." This was reportedly followed by another racist claim: that predominantly black and Latinx countries, such as El Salvador, Haiti, and those in Africa, are "shithole countries." Subsequently, it was reported (as a defense) that the President actually said they were "shithouse" countries.

Kaleb Oliver Dornheim
Kaleb Oliver Dornheim
Selfie by Kaleb Oliver Dornheim

Based on these statements about immigrants and people with HIV, Trump's efforts to peel back asylum protection and residency status follows a pattern that has far-reaching consequences for immigrants, including HIV-positive and LGBTQ individuals who are currently in the U.S. under TPS protection.

The administration is claiming that the "extraordinary conditions" that had justified the granting of TPS status to El Salvadorians and Haitians, among others, "no longer exist." However, others recognize that countries such as Haiti are not economically prepared to absorb such a large influx in population overnight.

Additionally, if family members back home have been receiving financial support from their U.S.-based relatives, when those relatives return, the loss of income could create a domino effect causing financial chaos for communities and economies. Moreover, when LGBTQ individuals return to their home countries, there aren't always jobs for them to return to.

"There is a lot of violence, discrimination, and not much opportunity [for LGBT people in these countries]" said Cristina Herrera, founder and executive director of the Translatina Network. "We're seeing that LGBTQ people have a harder time finding employment or not being able to access resources to go to college -- or, even when they do go to college, it's hard for them to find employment."

Many LGBTQ people who do return will have to pretend to be straight and go back to living underground or risk violence -- or even death. In Haiti, many in the LGBTQ community are not out; many hide their sexuality and gender identities from anyone outside their carefully formed circles.

"There was one girl I knew who was in the 2010 earthquake, and she was a trans Haitian girl that passed as a cis woman," said Desir. "A house fell on her and she lost her leg. Rescuers who found her noticed that she was transgender and were going to leave her in that condition."

In El Salvador, trans women are also at tremendous risk: "By April 2017, 10-12 trans women had been killed [that year], said Herrera. "Who knows how many more were killed through the year. There aren't a lot of investigations that happen, so people aren't held accountable, and murders and hate crimes are not well documented."

When you add an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, things become even more dangerous. We know that HIV/AIDS health care in the U.S. can be very expensive, but it can be even worse for people living with HIV in Latin America -- especially in Central America, where health care is minimal.

"I don't think [El Salvador] has the proper infrastructure to care for a lot of the long-term survivors, and there's still a lot of stigma around being HIV positive," said Christina. "Even privacy laws are not as strong as they are in the U.S., so people will unintentionally or intentionally disclose a person's status, and that can lead to violence as the news spreads throughout the town. We see people being killed for not knowing and not being able to disclose their status, on top of discrimination for accessing employment, education, and housing."

At a time when there is a large push to end the AIDS epidemic, both in the U.S. and internationally, eliminating TPS undoes decades of progress by prolonging the epidemic and lowering the life expectancy of hundreds of people suddenly returned to countries where they can't access treatment.

In 2017, the United Nations called for an investigation of crimes against the LGBTQ community in El Salvador. The UN Refugee Agency has also recognized that the individuals who have fled from El Salvador due to fear from this violence are part of a refugee crisis. Should this not count as an extraordinary condition and an epidemic of violence against the transgender community, thus providing a new, viable claim for TPS? Isn't a transphobic culture that kills and encourages violence against those who are transgender or gender-nonconforming just as dangerous as a natural disaster that is killing individuals and making their living situations unsafe?

Not only should TPS be reinstated for El Salvador, Haiti, and many other countries, but we also need to seek ways to expedite paths to citizenship for those currently receiving TPS. Canceling visas is going to drive people back to countries where they don't have established relationships, housing, jobs, or (especially for HIV-positive individuals) access to health care, much less support from an LGBTQ community or for the extra challenges and support needed by LGBTQ folks.

"And that's assuming people leave," Desir said. "This is a life-or-death situation for most; a lot of people are just going to go into hiding over the danger of becoming homeless, or experiencing violence or murder."

Of the options that Desir presents, the clear choice is staying alive, healthy, and housed.

When we're canceling immigration programs that have been keeping people safe, suddenly rejecting individuals who are trying to apply for asylum legally by coming to U.S. borders, and putting children and infants into makeshift jails and then scattering them across the country with little-to-no plan of how to track them and reunite them with their families, it's scary to think about what could be coming next. U.S. citizens need to step up and demand better from our elected officials and to uplift the voices of immigrants so they can advocate for themselves and their communities safely and without fear.

Kaleb Oliver Dornheim is an activist working out of NYC at GMHC as an advocacy specialist. They use they/them pronouns. They recently graduated from the University of Albany with their master's in women's, gender, and sexuality studies, concentrating in trans studies education. Kaleb identifies as queer, nonbinary, trans, mentally ill, a survivor of sexual violence and abuse, and poor. They live with their partner, cat, and two goats and dream about abolishing prisons, alternatives to capitalism, and opening a queer/trans-led animal sanctuary.