Susana Coreas

When Prism first reported on Susana Coreas in April, she was waylaid in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with 43 other trans women, all of whom were waiting for their opportunity to request asylum in the United States. Coreas first arrived in Mexico after migrating from El Salvador with a group of trans women in January 2020. But because of the double whammy of COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, Coreas couldn’t safely undergo the asylum process. 

So, Coreas waited out her time in Mexico by building Casa de Colores, a shelter for trans and gender non-conforming migrants waiting for their chance to request asylum in the U.S. Coreas was Casa de Colores’ unofficial house mother. The others at the shelter called her “mom” and relied on her for food, resources, friendship, and support. While Coreas did want to eventually leave the shelter to request asylum and see her son in Minnesota, she also feared leaving the other women behind. 

But that day came on May 4, and the circumstances weren’t ideal. Coreas and a handful of other trans asylum-seekers were given less than 24 hours notice to present themselves at the U.S.-Mexico bridge to request asylum. Not only that, none of them had sponsors in the U.S. As Prism previously reported, sponsorship is crucial for LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers because it shortens or eliminates the amount of time they have to spend detained.

Coreas now lives at a shelter in El Paso, Texas, because, though she did not have a sponsor, she had an attorney and was able to obtain parole—a form of release from detention for certain individuals, including asylum-seekers who demonstrate a credible fear of persecution if they are returned to their home country. A few weeks after arriving in the U.S., she spoke to Prism about what it was like to finally cross the border, her volunteer work, and her fears about the Biden administration. Here she is, in her own words: 

Six of us were given less than 24 hours to be at the border bridge to cross. It was so sudden, and we all felt very scared and anxious—especially me. I was in charge of [Casa de Colores] and I wanted to be the last one to leave so that I could take care of everything and close up the house. But it didn’t work that way. On May 4, I had to leave some of the girls behind and be at the bridge at 6 AM.

The hours leading up to the crossing were so stressful. I was trying to pack all of my belongings and trying to train [my friend] who was going to take care of the house when I left. I had so much to tell her about how to take care of things and what to do with medications we had for girls, but there just didn’t feel like there was enough time. I had to leave. 

When I got to the bridge, I didn’t feel afraid of Border Patrol. They just took my documents and processed me. I was detained for a little bit, but I was released to my attorney on parole. Now I am living at a shelter in El Paso. 

My feelings about being in the U.S. go up and down. Of course I am happy, but it’s hard not to think about the girls that I left in Mexico. I want them to be safe and take care of themselves. I worry about them. When I left, that was their first time there without me. But I was also excited to make the journey and finally see my son in Minnesota. We were so happy to see each other. We spent two weeks together and we talked for hours and hours and went to the zoo and the museum. It was a great time. He wanted to come back with me to El Paso, but he’s trying to [adjust his status to be a lawful permanent resident] and he couldn’t travel; he was afraid of being deported. I couldn’t stay with him in Minnesota because of my immigration situation.

I don’t know if people understand what it means to be on parole, but I cannot work in the U.S. I do not have work authorization. Me and the other girls are waiting for our court dates to see what happens and to see if we can work, but that will take at least eight months. Some people decide to work because they don’t have a shelter; they need to eat and pay their bills and pay rent. But working puts them in danger because if immigration finds out they are working, they will be deported. If you work without permission, you are taking a risk. But people have families who need money. For them it’s like they have no choice; they have to work. Many immigrants do this. They get fake paperwork so that they can work. The employer knows [the documents are fake]. Everybody knows, but it is only dangerous for the immigrants because they are the ones that will get deported.

One of the girls went to New York and took a construction job. She was working in the heat, building swimming pools, and she told me one day she felt like she was going to die. It was too hot and they didn’t give her breaks or water. After three weeks, she called me and told me she was in trouble. The job didn’t pay her and she didn’t have money for rent or food. She asked me for help, so now she is at the shelter with me.

We do a kind of social work here at the shelter. It’s hard to explain. It’s not employment, it’s like volunteer work. I answer the phones when [migrants] stuck in Mexico call and need help. I ask them where they are from, if they are from the LGBTQ+ community, and if they are in danger. I give this information to the immigration lawyers so that the lawyers can help them. It is very stressful because people call and they are desperate to get out of their situations, and they do not understand that I cannot always give them what they need. 

There was a gay man who called and said his life was in danger. I did the intake questions with him and I told him a lawyer would call him. He called me back every hour. He was calling me eight or nine times a day and I told him the process takes a couple of weeks. One day he told me, “I am in danger and if something happens to me, it’s going to be your fault.” In the end, he crossed the border and I am the person who went to pick him up. It was very awkward for me, and when he got to the shelter, he wanted me to buy him a plane ticket so he could see his family. I explained to him I don’t have money and he had to wait for the shelter owner to get him a ticket or for the organization Miles4Migrants to help him. Everything takes time and people get frustrated and I don’t know what to do about it. 

I don’t always enjoy this volunteering, but I know it is important and it’s how I spend my time when I’m not studying. I cannot work for eight months and so I wanted to spend that time educating myself. I was an engineer in my country, but here I am taking English classes and trying to get my GED. I want to take advantage of the opportunities here. I want a degree here; I want to have a career. But immigrants in this country are expected to be laborers. There is nothing wrong with [manual labor] but it’s like people don’t want us to be anything else. It’s not just in the U.S. In Mexico when I started Casa de Colores, people were like: “How are you going to create this shelter being a trans woman and an immigrant?” What is the problem with that? Why can’t I make a shelter just because I’m a trans woman and an immigrant? Right away, people also think that because you are a trans woman you do [sex work]. Someone asked me, “Why are you trying to help people, why don’t you just be a [sex worker]?” Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but I do not want to do that. I want to do other things. 

Right now, the trans women who come to this country don’t have basic rights. We don’t have the right to healthcare or [gender-affirming] care. But also, what happens if we get sick? I am diabetic, what if I cannot get my medication? 

Even though I am in the U.S., I am still like the house mother. Some of the girls still call me every day and say, “Hi, mom.” I worry about them. One girl called me and told me she is very sick. What can I do? I don’t know the answer. So many girls rely on me for help and sometimes I don’t know the method to help them. I don’t just want to take care of myself; I want to take care of the girls. But now we are all over the U.S., and some are still in Mexico. What can I do from El Paso? I think about how I will feel one day if I call a girl and she never answers or her phone is not in service. I will never know what happened.

I can tell you that not that much has changed at the border. There are still many members of the [LGBTQ+] community who need help and they need to cross. The Biden administration is a little bit better than Trump, but not in the way we need him to be or in the way that we want. It’s weird that people say he’s helping the immigrants and the [LGBTQ+] community, but if you really look he’s deporting people just like Trump did. I think about this a lot. People’s immigration cases go on and on and on. I’m on parole now, but what happens when my parole ends? Will I be in danger? The government makes us “illegal.” It makes everything we do “illegal.” 

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