California Today: Stepping Up to Help ‘Vulnerable’ L.G.B.T. Migrants

California Today: Stepping Up to Help ‘Vulnerable’ L.G.B.T. Migrants


Originally published by The NY Times

Violence in Central America has brought thousands of L.G.B.T. migrants to the United States border to seek asylum in recent years, hoping to find protection from persecution over their gender identity and sexuality.

But the migrants, who can encounter additional abuse and exploitation in Mexico and in U.S. immigration detention, often arrive with no resources and nowhere to stay.

In Southern California and across the state, a formal and informal network of independent social service organizations has stepped up to help L.G.B.T. migrants, who remain extremely vulnerable even once they are in the United States.

That network includes Peggy Thompson, who has taken around a dozen transgender women into her Irvine home in recent years, giving them somewhere to stay temporarily while they figure out other plans and options.

“When people get released from detention, they basically open the door and just put them out on the street in the middle of the night,” Ms. Thompson said. “They have no money, no telephone, and asylum seekers have never set foot in the U.S. for a day, so they have no idea where they are or where to go, they’re just lost.”

Ms. Thompson first began meeting L.G.B.T. migrants as a volunteer with Friends of Orange County Detainees, whose members meet with migrants held at detention centers. Oftentimes migrants are in detention for months while they wait for their asylum cases to be processed. Ms. Thompson and her organization try to make detainees feel less alone, work that can result in strong personal bonds.

Jason Ortega, a lawyer at the Los Angeles L.G.B.T. Center, represents several Central American asylum seekers. The center also provides social services and assistance for L.G.B.T. people across age groups.

For those fleeing violence in Central America, having legal representation can significantly increase their chances of receiving asylum. But the time migrants spend in detention during monthslong asylum proceedings can be brutal, including harassment and sexual assault.

“They’re a vulnerable population to begin with, but they’re even more vulnerable in these situations,” he said, “It’s re-traumatizing.”

Ms. Thompson said that heterosexual migrants, or those who can hide their gender and sexual identities, are often able to go to homeless shelters as they figure out their next steps. But for transgender migrants there are virtually no options.

“The men’s shelters are not safe for them, the way that men’s jails are not safe for them, and the women’s shelters here in Orange County and Los Angeles County won’t take them,” she said. “Which is how my house ended up being the way station.”

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