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Juan I and Juan II: A tale of two gay immigrants in the Otay Mesa Detention Center

Juan I and Juan II: A tale of two gay immigrants.
Photo credit:
Max Pixel - Stock photo

(Author’s note: the names of the immigrants described here have been changed to protect their safety.)

I met Juan I and Juan II while they were detained in Otay Mesa Detention Center, a San Diego immigration prison. Both are 20 years old, both are gay. Juan I is from Venezuela. Juan II began his journey north in El Salvador.

 Today, Juan I is in New York using the patience he was forced to learn over the last eight months to help him make a new life. Juan II was deported. I worry that the gangs he was fleeing from have found him.

My telephone number circulates among LGBT detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center. Like others seeking asylum, I met Juan I and Juan II on the phone. Both were afraid they would be deported to countries where they are hated for being gay. 

I put some money in their commissary accounts and urged him to write letters to non-profit organizations asking for legal assistance. Both men impressed me as caring for others. Prisons environments encourage people to look out only for themselves. Juan I and Juan II reached out to help transgender women they met at Otay Mesa. 

Over the next few months, I learned more about them.

Juan I aspired to be a professional bicyclist, and he may yet get that opportunity. As a college student in Venezuela, he dared to be an activist for democracy. Government thugs beat him for daring to protest and they threatened to do worse, accusing him of being gay.

After the beating, he needed medical help, but he had to lie to his family about why. He was uncertain how they would react to his homosexuality and because he wanted to protect them from the gangs who would target them all. Eventually, a relative told him that he was on a government hit list. He fled, first to Colombia, where he was targeted for being gay and an immigrant. He ran again, this time to the United States.

A couple of weeks ago ago, I got the following email from his attorney: “He won yesterday and was released last night!  Thank you for your support.” In detention, Juan I won the lottery.

First, Queer Detainee Empowerment Project in New York offered to provide support for Juan I if won his asylum case.

Second, Casa Cornelia took his case. It is one of a very few non-profit law firms in San Diego providing pro-bono legal services to immigrants.

But Juan II had to fight his case on his own. I guess that in the triage that pro-bono lawyers are forced to perform, they determined it was unlikely he would win. That is the bottom line for the vast majority of asylum seekers. If there is a reason they are unlikely to win their cases, attorneys will move on to someone they feel they can help. If they can’t get a lawyer, they are even less likely to receive asylum.

Juan II is not a criminal. He was orphaned at an early age and an aunt began raising him. He realized as a teen-ager that he is attracted to men, and like Juan I kept it a secret. But schoolmates began bullying him, probably because he wasn’t masculine enough by their standards. When his aunt and her other children wanted to know why he was refusing to go to school, he told them. Their response: They didn’t raise him to be a woman.

The teenager left school permanently and began working, but over and over again was accused of being gay and verbally and physically assaulted. Some who targeted him were gangsters. Some were not. 

Like Juan I, he ran, but he couldn’t find a place where he could live and work in peace. Eventually, he came to Mexico, and did exactly what the Trump administration would want. He sought asylum from that country and received permanent residency. But it did him no good. 

Many Mexicans, like societies in other Latino countries, hate gay men. Although the federal government has taken some steps to recognize the worth of its LGBT citizens, Mexico was No. 2 for homophobic crimes in Latin America. According to a report recently in Mexico News Daily, 976 gay men and 226 transgender women were murdered between 1995 and 2015. It is estimated that for every reported crime there are three or four more that go unreported.

Juan II crossed the border and asked for asylum in the United States. Although he wrote the same letters of appeal to organizations asking for legal support, the only answer he received was silence. What could those attorneys say? They likely knew he’d lose his asylum case because he made the mistake of thinking he might be able to live in Mexico. His permanent residency in Mexico would be a witness against him at trial.

I wrote a letter of support for Juan II, hoping for the best. I reminded the judge that in El Salvador LGBT people face high rates of violence and homicide. About 500 hate crimes against LGBT people were reported between 1998 and 2015.

Although the judge didn’t send him back to his native El Salvador, Juan II was told that he could only stay in the United States only if Mexico refused to accept him. What was unsaid: Mexico is being pressured by the Trump administration to stop migrants from crossing the border and to send them back to their countries of origin.

He was deported to Mexico, and I haven’t heard from him since. Is he in Mexico or El Salvador? And since neither place is safe for him, what then?

My wife and partner in supporting immigrants, Meredith, reminds me that Juan II has more important things to worry about than calling me. I know Juan II will get in touch with me. If he can.

I keep reminding myself about Juan I. But there are many more like Juan II at Otay Mesa.