The Trump administration has led an aggressive anti-immigrant campaign that will have dangerous ramifications for vulnerable populations—especially women and LGBTQ immigrants. Many are being returned to Latin American countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that are rife with dangers—including gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and gang violence—without stable enough institutions to protect them.
Administrative changes to asylum law and policy are making it significantly more difficult for asylum-seekers to establish claims—especially for those fleeing severe domestic abuse or gang violence. The Trump administration’s moves to shrink the grounds for asylum will ultimately re-expose many women and LGBTQ people to dangers that originally compelled them to flee.
The administration also systematically scrapped temporary protections for large groups of immigrants by rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and terminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nationals of, among others, certain Latin American countries. Although multiple courts have put the DACA rescission on hold, the fate of the program remains in limbo as the cases work their way through the courts. Of the more than 620,000 DACA recipients from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, about half are women and girls. Ten percent of all DACA recipients surveyed by Center for American Progress in 2017 identify as LGBT. Meanwhile, as TPS designations begin expiring in 2019, large numbers of TPS holders—approximately 110,000 of which are Salvadoran and Honduran women and girls—will soon lose their status. Whether they are asylum-seekers or longtime residents of the United States with TPS or DACA, all may soon have to return to countries in which they will be critically unsafe.
As a result of the administration’s drastic changes, many women and LGBTQ immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala will be turned away, deported, or coerced into so-called voluntary return or departure—processes by which noncitizens agree, sometimes unknowingly or reluctantly, to be expelled from the United States without receiving a formal order of removal. The forcible return of individuals to countries where their safety or freedom will likely be threatened violates the fundamental principle of nonrefoulement, which is enshrined in U.S. and international law. By turning away or returning vulnerable people to countries in which they are at disproportionate risk of sexual assault, torture, and murder, the Trump administration is not only failing to fulfill its legal obligations; it is also denying women and LGBTQ immigrants basic human rights.
Women face gender-based violence upon return
Upon returning to their countries of origin, deported or repatriated migrants fall prey to myriad threats. In Mexico and Central America, structural violence against women is perpetuated by the traumatic threats, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and femicide that women face on a near daily basis. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala consistently rank among the most dangerous countries for women; in 2016, they reached respective rates of 11, 10.2, and 2.5 femicides per 100,000 women. In Mexico, gender-motivated crimes have risen sharply in the last decade, with seven women murdered every day in 2016.
Upon return, many women must grapple with indefinite separation from family in the United States; permanent trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder; and the stigma and discrimination associated with presumptions that they abandoned their family or engaged in sexual activity during their migration journey. Countless women are targeted, assaulted, and even killed by gang members or former partners within days of their return. In one case, an immigrant living without status in Texas was pressured to sign “voluntary return” documents after confrontations with U.S. Border Patrol in 2009. She was sent back to Mexico despite expressing genuine fears of violent retaliation by her abusive ex-husband, who was deported a year earlier. Shortly after, her remains were found in an incinerated car—the result of an apparent homicide perpetrated by her ex-husband.
LGBTQ immigrants experience persecution and gender-based violence
For LGBTQ people, the risks associated with return are compounded by their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Given that the LGBTQ community includes women, this group encounters gender-based violence in addition to other threats. Eighty-eight percent of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees interviewed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had suffered from sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin. Deportation adds further risks due to increased visibility and vulnerability associated with being deported. Transgender women, in particular, suffer from disturbing levels of persecution after returning to their countries of origin. For example, after a transgender woman’s claim was denied in 2017, she was sent back to El Salvador, where she was subjected to extortion and frequent gang beatings. In another case, Johanna Vasquez, a transgender woman who was deported back to El Salvador, was kidnapped by a group of armed men immediately after leaving the airport, then assaulted, gang raped, and abandoned on the side of a road.
Despite the well-documented horrific conditions of U.S. immigrant detention centers, many LGBTQ immigrants would rather risk incarceration and redeportation than face life-threatening oppression in their home countries. When interviewed by Amnesty International, several gay men and transgender women deportees indicated that their fear of persecution was so palpable that they re-embarked on the precarious northbound journey to the United States on the exact same day of return. Johanna Vasquez described her own experience of fleeing back to the United States after being deported, saying, “I left the same day. The same minute. To stay in El Salvador where they will kill you or to leave? There was no choice.”
There is a lack of institutional capacity to reintegrate and protect returnees
The loss of status for hundreds of thousands of TPS holders and DACA recipients will likely result in an escalation in return—either through deportation or voluntary return—further burdening countries that are already struggling with crippling insecurity. Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala currently lack the security and infrastructure to support a potentially large population of returning citizens. As a result, the health and safety of women and LGBTQ people often fall through the cracks. Reception and reintegration services exist for Central American returnees but are considerably underfunded and ineffective, leaving many returning nationals to fend for themselves. In 2017 interviews conducted by the Center for Migration Studies and Cristosal, all deported migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala indicated that they had been living without significant institutional support.
In recent years, Mexico and the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—have taken steps to establish legal protections against sexual and gender-based violence. However, due to persistent corruption and widespread impunity, a chasm remains between laws and reality. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, respectively, only 2 percent, 5 percent, and 10 percent of femicide result in convictions. The vast majority of gender-motivated crimes go unreported or unpunished, and in many instances, government authorities themselves are the perpetrators of abuse.
In some cases, progressive changes in law have actually intensified hostility against marginalized populations. For example, since Mexico’s legal recognition of same-sex unions in 2010, homophobic and transphobic backlash has exacerbated conditions for LGBT people, particularly for transgender women. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, there were 263 reported killings of transgender people in Mexico between 2011 and 2016. Given the lack of trust in institutions to adequately provide reintegration programs, job opportunities, and safety from gender-based violence, most women and LGBTQ people must confront a difficult choice: resign to an indefinite state of self-confinement or reattempt the northbound journey.
The Trump administration’s far-reaching moves to impose stricter asylum requirements and terminate vital protection programs catalyze the removal of immigrants with legitimate protection needs. For many women and LGBTQ immigrants from Mexico and Central America, return is tantamount to torture or death.
Rather than endangering women and LGBTQ people, the Trump administration should change its inhumane enforcement and deterrence policies in order to ensure the safety and dignity of every immigrant seeking U.S. protection.
Binh X. Ngo is an intern with the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Sharita Gruberg of the LGBT Research and Communications Project and Silva Mathema, Philip E. Wolgin, and Tom Jawetz of the Immigration Policy team for their research help and input.
Author’s note: This column uses “LGBTQ” as an acronym for this community. The author uses “LGBT” and “LGBTI” only in instances where the underlying cited source uses these acronyms.