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Working for Welcome, Demanding Dignity for Queer, Trans, and Non-Binary People Seeking Asylum

May 16, 2022

May 17 is recognized worldwide as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, & Biphobia. The above image is part of's 2022 poster series

As a Paralegal & Intake Coordinator at The Advocates, I feel lucky to work at an organization that engages with LGBTI+ people who are seeking asylum, activists at home and in the diaspora, and in a range of other capacities. My team, the Refugee and Immigrant program, works closely with queer, trans, and non-binary clients who are seeking asylum or other relief from deportation and, as a part of that process, we discuss what experiences cause people to migrate.  

It's no secret that, across the world, queer, trans, and non-binary people are targeted simply for being who they are. People are subject to torture, sexual violence, physical and psychological abuse, imprisonment, ostracization from their community and their family, and more. Even more so if the individual lives in an intersection of targeted identities, such as being Black or Indigenous as well as queer, trans, and/or non-binary.

Like many other bases for asylum, queer, trans, and non-binary asylum seekers are fleeing persecution that is rooted in colonization. Indigenous understandings of gender and sexuality extend beyond the rigid norms imposed by European colonizers. Today's anti-transness and anti-queerness is largely rooted in Euro-American colonization, forced assimilation into Christianity as a part of the process of cultural genocide, and the imposition of a gender binary and normative forms of sexuality.   

As is common for anyone with a targeted identity going through the immigration system, the U.S. government's manner of processing migrants often echoes and reifies the very persecution people are fleeing. The right to seek asylum is enumerated under U.S. and international law. Despite this, migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border are often barred entry via Title 42 expulsions, the Remain in Mexico program, and metering. All of these polices leave migrants essentially stranded in Mexican border towns for weeks, months, and sometimes years. Cartels, aware of this limbo and the lack of access to protection, target migrants for labor, sex, and organ trafficking, among other things, and this is only more likely if you have a targeted identity like being queer, trans, and/or non-binary. 

Upon crossing the border, people are often forced through hieleras and perreras (known as ice boxes and dog pounds in Spanish due to the freezer-like forced air and the cage like structures within the cinderblock buildings), the conditions of which can mirror imprisonment migrants experienced as part of their persecution. Detention, whether at the border or the interior of the U.S., can be deadly, as seen in the continued calls for justice for Roxana Hernandez, a trans woman who died while in immigration custody in 2018 after reportedly being denied requested medical care. Detained trans people are regularly misgendered and incarcerated alongside populations that match their sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity. Abuse is widespread in detention in general, including towards queer, trans, and non-binary migrants. Access to gender affirming medical care, though required by detention standards, is almost nonexistent. This is the "welcome" the U.S. gives to queer, trans, and non-binary asylum seekers and immigrants.   

Then, if someone is lucky enough to make it past these barriers, many migrants face homophobia and transphobia from the officers and judges deciding their case. People are expected to be able to easily explain their sexuality or gender when they may have been abused for this identity their entire life or they may have suppressed thinking about this identity as a part of their survival. Asylum adjudication is, by definition, inquisitorial or adversarial. In either case, a government officer interrogates asylum seekers about the most intimate and potentially traumatic details of their life, especially given how many queer, trans, and non-binary asylum seekers are also survivors of sexual violence. Navigating queerness and transness can be a complex and ongoing process, especially when you've been socialized to fear talking about it. This is compounded when your life depends upon proving both your queer and/or trans identity and that your identity marks you for persecution because deportation could mean a death sentence. Furthermore, your queerness and/or transness must fit the government officer's understanding of queerness or transness and any derivation from their definition could mean your asylum case is rejected. I'm reminded of former clients who struggled to come out to their attorneys, let alone coming out to an adversarial officer or facing cross examination by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney. I'm reminded of past clients who were told they weren't really being targeted for their sexuality because they are bisexual and thus weren't *really* queer and the implication that because someone is bisexual that they can avoid persecution by choosing to only date individuals that give the impression they are in heterosexual partnerships, utterly divorced from the reality that once one is seen as queer in an anti-queer community, they are not safe. I'm reminded of countless ways that the immigration system tries to keep putting queer, trans, and non-binary people into boxes of how they should perform their queerness and transness. Being queer, trans, and/or non-binary, by its very nature, defies boxes and binaries.   

It is undeniable that queer, trans, and non-binary migrants face many barriers on their journeys to perceived safety in the United States. At the same time, there continue to be serious violations of the human rights of queer, trans, and nonbinary people in the U.S. State legislatures are restricting how sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression can be taught about in public schools, they are passing laws that prohibit trans athletes from competition, and they refuse to investigate instances of hate crimes against LGBTI+ folks. 2021 was also the deadliest year on record for trans people in the United States. Even when people survive the U.S. immigration system, they might not survive the U.S. itself.   

The queer, trans, and non-binary communities have long been on the forefront of human rights issues. I'm reminded of the inspiring fight we've seen from the queer migrant community, such as drag queens protesting the border wall in Brownsville in 2019. We wouldn't have Pride parades were it not for the Stonewall Riots and the bravery of individuals like Marsha P. Johnson, Silvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie. Groups like the Black Trans/Queer Migrant Liberation Project and Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement continue to make inspiring strides for migrant justice and the queer, trans, and non-binary communities. We have come so far, and yet we still have so far to go.   

To quote the Transgender Law Center, "We are not free until Black trans women are free." If migrant justice does not also push for Black trans liberation, it is not truly fighting for migrant liberation. Migrant members of the queer, trans, and non-binary communities have long been fighting for justice and liberation for themselves and the migrant community in general. Everyone else just has to join in.  


Julia Valero is a Paralegal & Intake Coordinator with The Advocates for Human Rights' Refugee & Immigrant Program, where she brings a grounding in an abolitionist, holistic, and client-centered approach to immigration legal advocacy.

Julia's remarks were delivered as part of our April 27 event, the Global Fight for LGBTIQ+ Human Rights. Listen to the entire event, including The Advocates' partners in advocacy, in our latest episode of The Advocast podcast.

You can join us in working for welcome and demanding dignity for queer, trans, and non-binary people by volunteering to represent people seeking asylum in the United States. Learn more here.