LGBT Refugees and Asylees Have Their Own Trump Fears

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Ishalaa Ortega, a Mexican transgender woman, won asylum to the United States with help from attorneys at Immigration Equality in New York.

In the days following President Trump's first executive orders on immigration, LGBT activists gathered outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, an enduring symbol of gay rights. An activist from Mexico took the microphone.

"Hello beautiful people!" bellowed Ishalaa Ortega. "I am a transgender woman of color from Mexico...I have to leave my country, my family, my friends behind and became an immigrant not because I want to invade this country but because my life was at risk...I lost almost everything, but not my dignity as a human being!"

Ortega, a political asylee now living in Queens, told the crowd how she learned about Stonewall in a book when she was 12 years old. "That gave me the strength to come out forward for every time in my childhood another kid kicked me, punched me, humiliated me, laugh about me for who I am," she said.

Long after the institutionalized discrimination that led to the violence in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, activists are rising again. They are concerned that Trump's approach to immigration could be uniquely problematic for gay and transgender people seeking refuge in America.

Advocates say LGBT refugees turned away at the border face death at home or back in refugee camps. But if they make it to the U.S., life might not be much better. The Trump Administration is expected to increase the use of detention centers for would-be asylees—which is particularly problematic because of the documented history of sexual and physical abuse endured by LGBT detainees.

That's what prompted Ortega to speak at the rally at the invitation of Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants. The group represented Ortega in her quest for asylum; she's now applying for a green card.

Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, is concerned that LGBT protections—like asylum prioritization for gay activists or those with HIV—could be weakened under Trump.

"For the LGBTQ community, the asylum system is really a life-saving safety net that we have to have," Morris said. "It's an international human rights obligation we have, and if we don't do it I think it makes it a pretty terrible standard for the rest of the world."

Consider Ortega's story. She has lived on both sides of the border, though she said it was actually in America where she first became the victim of a brutal crime. Outside a club in California in 2003, Ortega said she was hit on the head with a hammer and then taken away in a truck. She was raped. Emotionally broken, she returned to Mexico and started speaking out.

"I start fighting so hard for me and the people that is like me," she said.

As an activist for LGBT rights in Mexico, she was one of those who successfully pushed to allow transgender women to use pictures of themselves as women on their government IDs. She and other activists also fought to limit a practice in jails in which transwomen were forced to be naked in front of groups of men.

But in 2013, her activism made her a target.

A gubernatorial candidate for a state in Mexico announced during a televised debate that he wouldn't ally with any political party that supported gay marriage. Ortega publicly opposed the candidate, which drew threats from his supporters.

"They said that they’re going to kill me if I don’t stop doing what I was doing," she said. Supporters of the candidate told her she'd be killed, wrapped in a blanket and thrown in the street.

Three days before the election, she walked into the United States and requested political asylum. She ended up in detention as her case was reviewed.

There are few units for transgender people in the entire federal immigration detention system. She was given a choice: enter solitary confinement or bunk with the men. "There’s no place for people like me," Ortega said. 

She stayed with the men. Once her makeup started running and her beard started growing, she was laughed at. In 2015, after bouncing around different detention facilities, her sister posted bail and Ortega won asylum. 

The concern that the U.S. will no longer be a safe haven for LGBT asylees has been amplified by small slights — like when Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, seemed to avoid saying "LGBT" during her confirmation hearing last month despite being pressed by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. 

"Specifically on the LGBT rights, will you be a champion of protecting their dignity, security and safety in the global human rights context?" Booker asked.

"I will make sure that there is no one that is discriminated against for any reason whatsoever," Haley said. "And every person deserves decency and respect."

Despite the political rhetoric, Aaron Morris of Immigration Equality offered what he described as "good news."

"The good news is President Trump cannot overturn protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity," he said. "If you can prove it is dangerous in your nation and you make it inside America and you apply for asylum the government is still recognizing that as a fundamental human right. So far."