Salvadoran transgender migrant Susana Coreas, poses for a picture during the International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) at "La Casa de Colores" shelter, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on March 31, 2021. (Getty Images)

In Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Susana Coreas waits alongside 43 other trans women for the opportunity to request asylum in the United States. As house mother at Casa de Colores, a shelter that serves as a home for trans and gender-nonconforming asylum-seekers, Coreas feels responsibile for the women who live there, but she also wants to leave Mexico and reunite with her son in Minnesota. 

If Coreas or any of the other women at Case de Colores were to request asylum at the border, they’d be expelled. In March 2020, the Trump administration effectively closed the border by invoking Title 42. Under the pretense of protecting public health, the obscure provision authorizes Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to expel migrants without documentation near the border or at ports of entry. To date, there have been more than 642,700 expulsions. Under the Biden administration the border remains sealed, so vulnerable migrants like Coreas are in limbo, stuck in Mexico waiting for federal authorities to begin processing asylum-seekers again. 

But even when the system returns to “normal,” Coreas and the other women of Casa de Colores may face detention. It is standard practice to detain asylum-seekers as their asylum claims are processed, but having a sponsor in the U.S.—someone who is willing to house and financially support an immigrant after they’ve been released from detention—enables a person to avoid detainment entirely or at the very least shorten the duration of detainment. Coreas has yet to secure a sponsor, marking yet another challenge in what has been an exhausting 15 months. 

In January 2020, Coreas migrated with 20 other asylum-seeking trans women from El Salvador, where transgender women have a life expectancy of 33 years. The women bounced around various shelters in Mexico before Coreas asked the owner of the bar where she worked if she could rent an abandoned hotel he owned in Juárez. There was no water or electricity, Coreas said, and the building was filled with trash, dead animals, and pigeon excrement. She and the women went to work turning the building into a shelter, eventually working with charities and advocacy organizations in Mexico and the U.S. to obtain furniture, personal items, and monthly funds to be used toward food and rent.

Coreas said she feels safe inside Casa de Colores, but that changes when she steps outside. She doesn’t leave the shelter at night out of fear of being attacked—or worse. 

At the time Coreas arrived, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Juárez was in the midst of a wave of violence, averaging four murders per day. Many of those killed were women, including Leslie Rocha, a trans woman who was murdered in Juárez just days after the body of Juárez-born trans activist Mireya Rodriguez Lemus’ body was found. Coreas said that one woman housed at Casa de Colores was recently sexually assaulted, and that leaving the house even during the daytime leads to harassment. 

“Just the other day I went to the store and when I got to the door [of the shelter], a man came close asking, ‘How much?’ He said the shelter was ‘a place full of prostitutes’ and he wanted to know how much [it cost to be with me],” Coreas told Prism. “I told him it was a shelter for trans women that need a place to stay until we cross the border. That’s it. But now I worry about sharing that information.” 

Of the 43 women at Casa de Colores, only three have sponsors. Coreas can only house 45 women at the shelter, and she knows of at least 10 trans women who desperately need a safe place to stay while they wait for their opportunity to request asylum. These are the kinds of calculations that constantly run through Coreas’ head—along with a host of other worries.

“All the girls are really worried about the language because they only know Spanish, but I am worried about if [potential sponsors] believe the stereotypes about trans people,” Coreas said. “We need sponsors that are dedicated and open and that understands us.”

Susana Coreas (Photo courtesy: Susana Coreas)

Sponsorship is crucial for LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers

Sponsorship is crucial for trans women and other LGBTQ+ people—especially if they don’t have family in the U.S. Thankfully, sponsors can be strangers, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires that they have authorization to reside in the U.S. or they’re U.S. citizens; can prove they have the financial capacity to support someone; provide proof of residency; and write a letter of support. 

The requirements are “very basic on paper,” according to Michael Galvan, but it can be challenging to find sponsors who can help trans asylum seekers tap into trans affirming social and legal services as well as a larger LGBTQ+ and immigrant community, and to ensure sponsors themselves are supported.

Galvan is the sponsorship outreach and support coordinator at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants and refugees. Beginning in March, the organization launched #EstasEnCasa, otherwise known as #WelcomeHome, an ongoing campaign to find sponsors for trans and LGBTQ+ people who are stuck in Mexico because of Title 42. The Santa Fe Dreamers Project and other organizations are working to identify sponsors for asylum-seekers, including trans and other LGBTQ+ people, so that they have sponsors in place—effectively eliminating or shortening the amount of time LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers have to spend detained. 

LGBTQ+ people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in detention than non-LGBTQ+ people. As of 2019, the Department of Homeland Security had approximately 300 trans asylum-seekers in custody and these migrants are often detained at rates over twice that of other asylum-seekers, with the average length of detainment being around 99 days. 

ICE has a Transgender Care Memorandum that requires detention facilities to allow transgender detainees to be housed with others of the same gender identity and provide access to hormone therapy and other gender-affirming health care, but ICE and the private prison companies it contracts with to run detention centers overwhelmingly fail to implement these policies. While ICE does carve out detention space specifically for trans and gender-nonconforming people, all detention centers are unsafe for these populations, who regularly report that they experience abuse, medical neglect, and sexual harassment while detained. 

In May 2018, a detained trans asylum seeker named Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez died in ICE custody of what the federal immigration agency said was complications related to HIV. However, an independent autopsy revealed Hernandez was abused before her death. About a year later, another asylum-seeking trans woman named Johana Medina León died in a hospital in El Paso, Texas, after being released from ICE custody. ICE denied her medical attention while she was detained. 

Getting out of detention is crucial, but it’s also just the first step in the years-long asylum process. Sponsors don’t play a role beyond the first six months or a year, but Galvan said this is a crucial time period for LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers. 

“Beyond providing safe and stable housing, we need sponsors who understand the experiences of trans and queer migrants and who can help them navigate complex administrative and legal systems by connecting them to necessary resources in the community like legal and social services,” Galvan said, noting that this includes trans and LGBTQ+-specific support like gender-affirming care, trauma-informed care, and mental health support. This is particularly important because many trans women have experienced incredible violence and persecution in their country, during migration, and likely while stuck in Mexico.

Complicated power dynamics

Sponsoring an asylum-seeker isn’t like simply having a roommate. It requires providing shelter, food, transportation, and financial support to a person who isn’t immediately authorized to work in the U.S. and who doesn’t have medical insurance. In the case of trans asylum-seekers, they may need access to hormone therapy, for example. Galvan said he’s heard some sponsors describe themselves as being “parents” to asylum-seekers—a characterization he disagrees with. 

“If you want a kid, you should try and have a kid or look into foster care. This is not that,” Galvan said. “The goal isn’t to be paternalistic. At best, sponsorship is an act of solidarity where folks leverage their resources, individually or collectively, to provide asylum-seekers with what they need—with an eye towards their independence.” 

As an abolitionist, Galvan said he thinks of sponsorship through the lens of mutual aid. How can we work together to meet one another’s needs not only to eradicate the systems that produce these conditions of neglect and isolation, but to build the world we want to live in and to practice living in that world together? 

“The government has consistently failed trans people in the U.S. and it becomes more layered when we consider the lives of trans and LGBTQ asylum-seekers,” Galvan said. “They need support and that doesn’t end with being freed from an ICE prison. Sponsorship provides a space to intervene, and to help meet those needs upon release. It’s an imperfect solution, but it keeps trans people out of deadly ICE prisons and hopefully safe from homelessness until folks can move out on their own.” 

Organizations like the Santa Fe Dreamers Project do not have the capacity or desire to micromanage sponsorship relationships, but Galvan said that the most successful sponsor relationships either have a lot of resources at their disposal or tend to enlist the help of friends and family members who create a “constellation of sponsorship.” For example, one person provides transportation support while another handles food and clothing. 

“Every person’s needs are different, but we can generally map out the social services that each person will need to try and help mitigate the element of surprise,” Galvan said. 

Asylum-seekers will need legal representation for their asylum case and to help file an application for work authorization, and they may need a case manager to help apply for state benefits. They also need help getting to their hearings and ICE check-ins, especially if they have an ankle monitor as part of ICE’s intensive surveillance appearance program. 

“If you sponsor someone, it’s good to anticipate the needs you can and have a plan for them and build your own team of people who can help,” Galvan said. 

Coreas is still wrapping her head around the possibility of leaving Casa de Colores for good. She’s anxious to start her new life—and she’s better situated than most asylum seekers. She has lived in the U.S. before, is bilingual, and has a professional degree in industrial engineering. But will she find a sponsor? 

“I hope so,” she said. “It’s been hard here, being the problem-solver and taking care of everybody in the house. But I will miss everyone and I will stay in touch with them forever, but I’m ready to cross the border.”

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project is currently seeking individuals and organizations to become sponsors, hosts, and members of a network of community support to trans and other LGBTQ+ immigrants navigating the asylum process. You can find the application here

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.