President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies have made it much tougher for immigrants to win asylum, even before migrants hoping to enter the U.S. were forced to wait in Mexico. Immigrant advocates worry it will soon get even harder to win asylum, though there are signs of hope for asylum seekers who have HIV or are from LGBTQ communities.
One of those eager asylum seekers is 38 year-old Pamela, who fled El Salvador and moved to New York in 2013 hoping to start a new and safer life. Pamela is transgender and the persecution and murder of LGBTQ people in El Salvador is well documented by human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department. It’s for this reason that she’s asked Gothamist/WNYC to withhold her real name.
Less than 30 percent of asylum applicants win in immigration court, according to TRAC at Syracuse University. There’s no government data on how often LGBTQ immigrants prevail. But immigration lawyers said people like Pamela frequently win because the persecution in their home countries is so chilling.
Pamela’s attorney, Ryan Clough of Central American Legal Assistance, said he believes she has a strong case “and that any judge would approve her for asylum.”
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Three years ago—after several delays—the New York immigration court scheduled Pamela’s asylum hearing for last month. Long waits are typical because the city’s immigration court was notoriously backlogged even before the pandemic with over 100,000 cases.
But she’s still waiting for her hearing because the New York immigration court remains closed for most cases. It’s been holding video teleconference hearings during the pandemic only for immigrants in detention. This means thousands of more cases are now in limbo because new ones were added as old ones stalled.
Someone with a weak case—or one that’s become tougher to win during the past couple of years—might prefer to wait, especially if a new president could reverse Trump’s restrictive policies. Pamela’s court date was bumped from September to October, and then rescheduled for this week. But recently the agency that runs the immigration courts said the New York court won’t reopen until November 13 at the earliest.
Every extra day that passes is nerve-wracking for Pamela because of the prolonged uncertainty.
“I have had many negative thoughts on whether this country will allow me to live freely here, and it has been a long wait,” she explained in Spanish. “We are talking seven years to get a response. And I hope it does not get postponed again in November. I cannot wait anymore.”
Pamela grew up in the capital city of San Salvador, the youngest of three children. Their father died when she was little and they were raised by their mother.
“My upbringing was really, really harsh,” she said.
From a very early age, Pamela said she knew she was attracted to other boys. So was her older brother, who she now calls her sister, Tania, because both would later identify as women. She said they used feminine gestures and wore women’s clothing in private.
Pamela said elementary school teachers and classmates knew the siblings were gay. “They yelled at us and bullied us,” she said, and threw filthy water at them. For a while, she and her sister were expelled from school. They were also beaten by their mother.
Things got worse when Pamela and Tania were 12 and 13, respectively. “At that age we were vulnerable,” she said. She described going with Tania and a gay friend to buy soda when they were all attacked by other teens and taken to an abandoned house. Pamela was beaten; she said Tania and the friend were raped.
She said their mother reported the attack to the police and the perpetrators were arrested. But as Pamela and Tania got older, the harassment and assaults continued. Pamela said she was threatened and robbed by gang members. One forced her to perform sexual favors.
Then came Tania’s death in 2009. Pamela said police saw her sister outside in a blond wig chatting with a lesbian friend. The officers drove their car into the two women, killing them, and later claimed it was an accident.
“Their death went unpunished,” Pamela explained. “It was sort of... forgotten, left in oblivion.”
Pamela was devastated by her sister’s loss. They were best friends and allies, only a year apart in age. She said she stayed inside with her mother and rarely went out, except to work in a restaurant. She also stayed involved with an LGBTQ group in El Salvador called Entre Amigos.
In 2013, Pamela decided to enter a Miss Gay pageant in San Martín, near the capital.
Tania had won the same contest several years ago. Pamela said she wanted to show beauty, intelligence, and prove to people “we are human beings like everyone else.”
There’s a nationwide Miss Gay pageant in El Salvador each year where contestants dress in drag and wear elaborate gowns and makeup. Pamela described the local contest in San Martín as less extravagant. She shared a picture of herself wearing a bright red dress and a long blond wig.
Pamela won the contest. She said it wasn’t just about looks, the contestants had to answer questions. In her case, “What would you do for the gay rights of the community?”
“I said I would do what I could to have people respect us as we are,” she recalled. “So that there would be no more discrimination, no more violations towards us. And that was my great mistake.”
A “mistake” because rumors quickly spread that she would get police to arrest those harassing gay people. She said people came to her family’s home yelling “maricona,” the Spanish word for “faggot” and she felt her life was in danger. That summer, she said she paid a coyote the equivalent of $6,000 to take her to the U.S. border.
A New Life in New York
Today, the clattering of the 7 train is the unlikely sound of home. Three thousand miles away from her native El Salvador, Pamela has created a new life in a small apartment house in Woodside, Queens, surrounded by people a lot like herself.
Her two roommates are a transgender woman and a gay man. Upstairs, she said, there’s another apartment with transgender women and gay male roommates. A straight family lives in the building, too.
Finding a place to live was difficult. She recalled looking at a place a few blocks away, “and they said ‘no because you’re trans.’”
She knows transgender people face discrimination and violence in the U.S. but said she’s experienced only a few instances of harassment. Overall, she feels much safer than in El Salvador. “I was able to defend myself verbally and that’s something I was never able to do there,” she explained.
Pamela is tall and thin, and wore her shoulder-length dark hair in a ponytail during a recent visit. She had just come from work and was dressed in tight jeans, a hoodie and sneakers. She didn’t wear any makeup, just a face mask.
She said she enjoyed walking through the quieter streets of Woodside, and called herself a “hogareña,” Spanish for homebody. She works at a restaurant in Astoria and sees friends occasionally. She also has a boyfriend, a Mexican immigrant, who she said is very good to her. She giggled when she shared his picture and her boisterous laughter was delightful.
But she said it’s very hard to move forward, even though her attorney said she meets the threshold for winning asylum because she was persecuted for being transgender, and for her political activities with the LGBTQ group Entre Amigos.
“My life has been very sad,” she said, as she started to cry. Though her partner tells her to go out more often and enjoy life, she said, it’s very difficult because of her past.
These feelings of anxiety are common among asylum seekers, said Bridget Crawford, legal director of Immigration Equality. Her group has won asylum for many LGBTQ and HIV positive immigrants. Crawford said it’s traumatic having court hearings postponed by the pandemic.
“They may prepare for a hearing having to sort of relive all this really horrific abuse in their past,” she explained. When a hearing is postponed, she said, they “then have to do it all over again a few months later. And a few months after that. And a year after that.”
Pamela’s life was upended in other ways by the pandemic. She was out of work for several months and had to put off gender-affirming breast surgery. She and her boyfriend were supposed to get married last April but that, too, was postponed.
She said she’s fine with having the wedding later. But doesn’t want to wait any longer for her really big day—winning asylum. That’s when she believes she can finally “delete” her past and live her life more fully in the U.S.
“Dear God,” she said, “don’t wait ‘til the old folks’ home before I can live in peace in this country.”
With translation assistance from WNYC’s Marcos Sueiro Bal