The Rainbow Railroad: Forced Migration and Asylum of LGBT Individuals from The Northern Triangle

The Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has seen a rise in migrants leaving the region due to political and economic challenges. On average, 407,000 people leave the Northern Triangle annually, many of who head towards the U.S., which saw a 1,089% rise in asylum applications from the Northern Triangle between 2011 and 2017. Because of the high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, LGBT individuals in the region are particularly vulnerable to forced migration.

Although homosexuality is not illegal in the Northern Triangle, violence plagues the region, and individuals who identify with the LGBT community are marginalized and targeted by brutal attacks. Gangs commit acts of anti-LGBT terror to establish a societal order that places LGBT individuals at the bottom, making them easy victims since LGBT individuals have few avenues to pursue justice. However, gangs are not the only groups that attack LGBT individuals; family members, police officers, and other individuals meant to protect them, often perpetrate these violent attacks. LGBT individuals struggle to receive justice, because family members who should offer support frequently reject people who identify as LGBT, and police officers fail to investigate reports of anti-LGBT crimes.

El Salvador is the only Central American member of the LGBTI Core Group at the United Nations, a group of countries that advocates for best practices in upholding the rights of LGBT and intersex people. But for many LGBT people, daily life on the streets is controlled not by the state but by criminal gangs, including MS-13 and Barrio 18. In El Salvador, because of the high rate of extreme violence the average life expectancy of a trans woman is 35 years old, compared to the average life expectancy of 73 years old for a non transgender woman.

Neither Honduras nor Guatemala have a comprehensive civil law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and transgender individuals are not granted legal gender recognition. There is no legal administrative process for them to change their gender on identification documents. This means their official documents will not reflect their identity and instead show the gender assigned to them at birth. During the 2015 Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, Honduras rejected to pass a gender identity law that would allow transgender individuals to legally change their name and gender on official identification documents. This refusal promotes anti-transgender rhetoric and violence in Honduras, which already faces the highest global rates of transgender people murdered.

Everyday discrimination makes basic living, such as access to employment, education, and housing difficult. Education and employment discrimination often leave LGBT people with little stability, with 58% of LGBT individuals in Guatemala living in economic poverty, and no options for housing outside poor and gang-controlled neighborhoods. Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are often pushed to the margins of society as they report intimidation, robbery, sexual assault, and harassment from police officers on a daily basis. They also have extremely limited employment options, with many trans women forced into sex work which requires interactions with gang members and police, who frequently commit acts of assault against them. In El Salvador, almost 50% of transgender women rely on sex work for primary income. For many, the fear of physical attacks and the inequalities they face causes them to seek asylum in the U.S. However, barriers to entry at the border and within immigration detention facilities often lead to many migrants returning to their home country.

At the U.S. border, despite LGBT asylum seekers coming from over 84 countries, 51.3% of these claimants are from The Northern Triangle. Yet discrimination is still prevalent within the asylum process, which leads to LGBT detainees facing long detention periods or denial of protection. While in detention facilities, LGBT individuals are 97 times more likely to be assaulted than other detainees. Lesbians and transgender persons are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, with 1 in 4 cases of sexual abuse in U.S. immigration detention facilities involving a transgender individual. These abuses often go unreported because of the little oversight by outside legal or human rights organizations. In detention facilities, detainees have limited or no access to anti-retroviral drugs for detainees with HIV or hormonal replacement therapy for transgender detainees, affecting their mental and physical health.

The U.S. only recognizes physical threats or assaults, likely in a public environment, as evidence of persecution. However, violence and threats that LGBT individuals experience often take place in the private sphere through marginalization by family members and those close to them, making proof of persecution difficult. Constant marginalization also makes LGBT individuals less likely to keep any physical evidence of their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid persecution. The U.S. also requires evidence of physical forms of persecution, making it very difficult for LGBT asylum seekers to prove both their identity and persecution to immigration courts in the U.S.

Immigration judges disregard cases because the claimants do not conform to conventional attitudes about what it means to be LGBT. Judges and asylum officers have preconceived perceptions and biases on LGBT identities based on western stereotypes. These biases can influence a judge to deny asylum claimants on the basis of not appearing “gay enough” and, therefore, not having a legitimate claim to asylum. To avoid this, many claimants reveal intimate and detailed accounts of their personal lives in hopes of convincing judges of their identity. These disclosures violate their privacy by forcing them to reveal layers of trauma, making it hard for asylum claimants to advocate for themselves and convince judges that their claim is credible. Because the US immigration system and asylum process are rooted in heteronormativity, they fail to consider the unique LGBT needs and concerns. LGBT migrants are more vulnerable to physical and psychological challenges and need to be provided with better resources, such as appropriate consultation so that they can access help to prepare their claims.

The COVID-19 pandemic only increased the vulnerabilities of LGBT individuals, especially young people who were rejected by their families. Due to quarantine and lockdown regulations, they often cannot escape households where they suffer abuse. Yet even when they flee their home and country in hopes of a better life in the U.S., they are still treated as less than human. Those who do not conform to particular standards rarely receive approval. Immigration facilities create an environment that reflects the same conditions the claimants are fleeing from, making them ask the question: where are they truly safe?


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