Casa Carmelita in El Paso, Texas, a transit shelter for LGBTQ asylum-seekers. (Photo by Yasmin Khan for Source NM)
In a red brick house on the south side of El Paso, Texas, Susana Correa sits in front of a wall of five computer monitors, the biggest filled with lists of the names of hundreds of LGBTQ asylum-seekers waiting to cross from Juárez into El Paso. To her left, one monitor features a long string of WhatsApp conversations with asylum-seekers — more than 200 messages await for her response. Sharing the screen are recorded messages from her coworkers who are interviewing people waiting in Juárez, administering COVID tests and arranging for border crossings.
“There are so many vulnerable people waiting to cross,” Correa says. “If they are sent back, many will die.”
Correa, a transgender woman from El Salvador, directs Casa Carmelita, a welcome center for LGBTQ asylum-seekers crossing into the U.S. The border has been largely closed for two years because of Title 42, a Trump-era policy that banned crossings and expelled asylum-seekers, justified legally as a public health restriction due to the pandemic. The people who work for the center aren’t sure what they will do when the policy changes again, and advocates and migrants are forced to navigate the humanitarian crisis Title 42 created.
Many were infuriated by the hypocrisy of Title 42 to begin with, noting that viral outbreak in the U.S. outpaced other countries, not the other way around. By November 2020, the U.S. had more cases in a month than most countries had all year.
“Viruses don’t carry passports” says Eva Moya, associate professor in social work and the Border Biomedical Research Center at University of Texas El Paso. “Viruses travel, and they affect people at will.”
After a federal legal battle, the American Civil Liberties Union negotiated an exception for vulnerable asylum-seekers a year ago, and the Biden administration agreed to process 250 people per day, allowing them to continue their cases on American soil. LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum-seekers fell under the umbrella of “vulnerable,” which allowed Correa to cross and to help other transgender women waiting in Juárez to enter the U.S.
Before the Biden administration created the exception in Title 42, the process of asking for asylum was even more complex and time-consuming, Correa says. Each person needed a sponsor in the U.S., and it could take years to verify that a sponsor was a legal resident and they had the money and capacity to support them. People waited in U.S. detention centers during this process.
Transgender people have been assaulted and abused in ICE detention in recent years, and denied medical attention, according to people released from detention and advocates. Just four years ago, Roxsana Hernandez was severely dehydrated and beaten before she was transferred to an Albuquerque hospital where she died in ICE custody, an independent autopsy report showed.
Correa refers specifically to the case of Johana Medina León, from El Salvador, who died in ICE detention less than a year later.
“She came before us, and didn’t have the resources to call for help or get out of detention,” Correa says. “The exception for us made crossing easier and safer.”
The Biden administration had aimed to end Title 42 restrictions altogether this year on May 23, but last month, a federal judge in Louisiana stopped that from happening at the request of Republican governors from 21 states. Since the policy went into effect at the start of the pandemic, border authorities turned people away more than 1.7 million times, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics.
Some Title 42 critics say it created a pileup of people wanting to cross and that facilities are not ready to take in potentially thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers once the policy ends.
Correa says she is not a supporter of Title 42, but the exception has facilitated a steady stream of a few asylum-seekers crossing over each day, a number that she and her staff can handle, she says. Many of the people she works with are victims of sexual or physical abuse, she says, and lack of legal rights in their home country.
Correa and her team at Casa Carmelita help people contact their sponsors, and they provide a place to rest for a few days. One closet in the welcome center is full of donated clothes and shoes people can choose from since many arrive with few belongings.
She says she’s not sure what will happen if Title 42 is lifted.
“We don’t know if the border will stay closed, and we will have to go back to waiting in detention, or if the border will open, and we will be flooded with asylum-seekers who will just be on the streets,” she says.
The shelter only has capacity for 10 people at a time, she adds, and there are only two other volunteers to help welcome newcomers, keep the house organized, and arrange for transportation for people traveling to other parts of the country.
Alexa Ponce, who volunteers at Casa Carmelita, is also a transgender asylum-seeker from El Salvador. She entered the U.S. with Correa last May. Ponce says she is not a fan of Title 42, but she is worried about how to support a surge in asylum-seekers with the limited resources they have once the border does open.
The pandemic is in the whole world, but the whole world didn’t close their borders.
– Alexa Ponce, Casa Carmelita volunteer
“Title 42 has created a humanitarian crisis, because a lot of us have thought about what will happen when the borders reopen,” she says. “People have been arriving at the border for two years and waiting, but there aren’t enough places for people to arrive here.”
Last week, seven people made it to Casa Carmelita, all from Central and South America. One transgender woman, a new arrival who did not want to be named because she is still afraid of persecution, left her home in Oaxaca 19 years ago. She says she left not only because her family was living in poverty in part because of the job discrimination she faced as a transwoman, but because she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather and her uncle. Her mother urged her to leave, she says, when her friend, another transgender woman, was found dismembered in their village.
“I feel free to be here now. I don’t know this place yet, but I will soon,” she says. “I want to work, to have a better life, and to get the medicines I need to treat my HIV. But I miss my mother so much.”
Tears fill her eyes. She says she is at Casa Carmelita just long enough to get her bus ticket to Washington State, where she will live with her friend. She is looking forward to having any job she can find, and “waking up without fear.”
Correa says the recent ruling to continue Title 42 doesn’t change their work processes, but even in the last week, she said Customs and Border Patrol has been processing more LGBTQ asylum-seekers than she and her team can handle. Although she is glad that the crew at least understands the current asylum process for their clients, they are running out of money and space to help people coming to their shelter.
“We are beyond our capacity now,” she says, but she will do everything she can to accept every asylum-seeker who reaches out to her.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas confirmed in a statement last month that the department will revert to following the standard asylum procedures once Title 42 ends.
Under that migration policy, people can ask for asylum in the U.S., citing a credible fear of persecution or violence in their home country. Asylum-seekers would still need to wait in Mexico until their claims are decided, the result of another policy from Trump’s term that the Biden administration has kept in place under court order.
These policies draw from a xenophobic history that blames newcomers for disease and other social and economic problems, Professor Moya says. “It’s almost history repeating itself, on how people traditionally look to immigrants and migrants as the threat. We all have to realize that no disease or virus or bacteria knows which way is north, south, east and west.”
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