Many transgender undocumented immigrants enter the legal system through what Clement Lee, an attorney with Immigration Equality, calls “survival convictions” - crimes associated with their undocumented status, life factors such as homelessness or addiction, or mental health issues such as trauma -- which often lead to immigration detention and deportation.
Johanna Vásquez, a 33-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador, came to the United States as a 16-year-old boy in 1997. She had been raped in her country. She began taking hormones in the United States, where she felt she could safely transition to becoming a woman.
In 2010, Vásquez faced deportation as a consequence of being detained for alleged prostitution, and pleaded with authorities not to send her back to El Salvador.
“They deported me instead,” she said. “I was raped again by seven men (back in El Salvador). My second rape is something that is [too] hard for me to remember.”
Transgender women that still have male genitalia are housed in federal and immigration detention with men and often placed in solitary confinement, which is typically used as a way to sanction a prisoner’s inappropriate behavior. According to experts, they are vulnerable to face discrimination by detention personnel and sexual threats by other prisoners.
A November report from the Center of American Progress found 200 instances of physical, sexual and or verbal abuse towards LGBT detainees in 250 immigration facilities across the country. The report underscores the detrimental impact that solitary confinement has on asylum seekers that are already dealing with the trauma of violence and abuse in their country.
“It’s so horrible to be in that situation, so difficult to take it that you just prefer to be deported and get out,” said Vásquez, who spent six months in isolation. “You don’t want to tell immigration what happened to you, because their way to protect you is to lock you in a room. How are you not going to be afraid of them?”
Unlike Viviana, Johanna Vásquez won her asylum case and is able to stay legally in the U.S. after more than a decade of trying to flee El Salvador. Now, she advocates for immigration reform that would protect other transgender women.
In October, she travelled to Washington D.C. with Immigration Equality to testify before Congress. She wants legislators to do away with the one-year limit on filing asylum cases, which results in so many deportations of transgender immigrants.
“It’s hard to explain in five minutes everything that has happened in your life,” said Vásquez, referring to her testimony before members of Congress.
While she has a work permit through “withholding of removal,” the option is temporary and doesn’t carry the same protections that a path to citizenship would. So if the law were to change in the future, she could again face deportation.
“It weighs a lot on the person, they are in this sort of legal limbo… The fact remains that they could be deported in the future,” said immigration attorney Lee.
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This article was published by New America Media.