Accompanied by Chicago-area immigration activists, on Sunday, a group of six LGBTQ migrants were allowed to cross the border from Mexico to the United States and wait there while their asylum applications were processed. But, in less than two days, the migrants were sent back to Mexico, WBEZ has learned.
The six LGBTQ migrants — four from Cuba, one from Honduras and one from El Salvador — were initially able to cross Sunday with the help of Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of PASO-West Suburban Action Project. She was among a group of 10 Chicago-area organizers, attorneys and legal experts who traveled to Brownsville, Texas during the Labor Day weekend. They were there to assist asylum seekers waiting across the border in a migrant camp at a crowded plaza in Matamoros, Mexico.
Under a recent immigration policy, commonly known as “remain in Mexico,” migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. are required to wait in Mexico until their cases can be heard. Before the policy was adopted, asylum seekers were allowed to wait in the U.S.
However, Ruiz-Velasco, who is also an immigration attorney, said the LGBTQ migrants represent a unique case. Since they are not safe in Mexico, Ruiz-Velasco said they can be considered “vulnerable populations” under this program — and thus allowed entry while their cases are processed.
These migrants say they’ve received death threats and that they’ve been victims of homophobic attacks.
“I am afraid I’ll get killed,” said Yidier, one of the LGBTQ migrants from Cuba. WBEZ is not using the migrants’ last names to protect their identities.
According to Yidier, he was harassed and threatened while riding the bus in Matamoros, especially when other men heard him speak and realized that he is gay. “I can’t fake the way I speak,” he said.
Two other LGBTQ migrants say they’ve also been harassed by a few others in the camp. “We are all in danger here … we understand that … but we are at greater risk,” said Mary, who is also from Cuba.
Mary’s partner, Dani, said she was threatened and attacked recently at the migrant camp.
Yidier, Dani and Mary said they fled Cuba this summer to escape similar harassment and physical attacks from people who are also homophobic back home. Going back is not an option for any of them.
On Sunday, Ruiz-Velasco walked the six migrants and the other activists from Matamoros to the U.S. immigration checkpoint. While she spoke with the port officials, her team organized a call-to-action and got other advocates in Chicago and Brownsville to call immigration officials and members of Congress including Texas Congressman Filemon Vela, who represents the area.
Port officers at the U.S. immigration checkpoint allowed the six migrants to cross into U.S. territory under immigration custody — something they don’t do with other families, who often plead to be allowed in at the checkpoint, many of them carrying infants and toddlers.
But on Tuesday morning, the Chicago-area delegation that traveled to the border learned that the six migrants had been sent back to Matamoros.
WBEZ made repeated requests for comment to officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with no response. However, according to an internal document issued by DHS, the agency ruled that the applicants didn’t have enough evidence to prove persecution or torture in Mexico.
Ruiz-Velasco said the six migrants are now trying to find a safe place in Matamoros other than the migrant camp.
Convincing immigration officials to allow these LGBTQ migrants to go past the U.S checkpoint and wait in U.S territory was a long shot. But Ruiz-Velasco said it was worth trying.
Getting the migrants across the border on Sunday, even temporarily, was a big win for Ruiz-Velasco and her team. However, it was a small victory after a busy weekend listening to dozens of migrants tell their painful stories.
There were hundreds of migrants who’ve been living on the streets in Matamoros for months, many with their children, exposed to crime, abuse, extremely hot temperatures and unsanitary conditions. In recent days, campers had also been dealing with heavy rainstorms — forcing entire families to seek shelter somewhere else.
The six migrants who were allowed across the border were not the only vulnerable population, Ruiz-Velasco said. “There are little children, there are pregnant people, there are a lot of people who shouldn’t be part of this program.”