Transgender Woman From El Salvador Faces Uncertain Future as Asylee in Phoenix

Britany, now released and granted asylum, at her temporary home with Trans Queer Pueblo.
Britany, now released and granted asylum, at her temporary home with Trans Queer Pueblo. Hannah Critchfield

From experience, Britany knew what to expect if her asylum claim was rejected. She imagined a Boeing 737 was waiting just a few miles from the New Mexico immigration court, just like the one she’d boarded two years ago.

The transgender woman knew that within a five hours’ flight, she would be greeted by the gang members in El Salvador, who themselves had been returned through this same process, and who she’d feared since childhood.
She'd lived through this process in May 2017, and now, in August 2019, she was living it again.

Standing for the judge’s decision in her final hearing during her second attempt at asylum, she prepared for the worst.

Instead, with the thud of a gravel, Britany was freed from the transgender detention center she’d dreamt about leaving for almost a year, and realized she was homeless.

Britany, whose lawyer requested that Phoenix New Times use only her first name until she receives her green card, is one of the more than 10,000 people who were granted refuge in the United States last year through the government's defensive asylum process — meaning she would have been deported through immigration court if  her claim was rejected, after asking for asylum upon arrival at the border. In recent years, most of the people who are found to have a legitimate fear of persecution are from Central America, the largest number of these from El Salvador, Britany’s home country.

Spending the whole process in detention, the Salvadoran woman had little time to prepare for a future outside of it. Upon receiving asylum, she was released to an uncertain world, without shelter or work papers.

As the Trump administration moved to ban asylum for migrants at the Southern border, Britany found herself on the other side of the border, but far from refuge, navigating the hodgepodge system that meets previously detained migrants once they’re finally allowed to stay in America.

“What one lives in Cibola is very ugly”

Britany is one of the 29 transgender women who wrote a letter while in custody at Cibola Correctional Center in New Mexico earlier this year, decrying conditions inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s only detention unit specifically designated for transgender migrants.

The handwritten letter, sent to Trans Queer Pueblo, a transgender migrant advocacy organization in Phoenix, is dated June 26, 2019 — just days after Cibola County Correctional Center gave a media tour of the transgender unit for the first time.

Britany, who's 37, said they were inspired to write the letter after ICE tweeted about the visit, highlighting the facility’s health center, and showing photos of smiling inmates getting their hair done in the unit’s salon.

Until that point, Britany said the migrant detainees had been told by Cibola staff that the photos were just being taken for internal use, to be displayed on the walls of the detention center to create a friendlier environment for the inmates. They only learned the photos had been shared when attorneys and loved ones called asking about the images.

“That was really bad,” Britany said. “It was a big benefit for them, and a lot of it was false.”

click to enlarge Britany, pictured smiling in one of ICE's tweets in a seven-part thread highlighting the quality of conditions for transgender migrants at Cibola County Correctional Center, which houses the immigration agency's only unit specifically for transgender people. - TWITTER
Britany, pictured smiling in one of ICE's tweets in a seven-part thread highlighting the quality of conditions for transgender migrants at Cibola County Correctional Center, which houses the immigration agency's only unit specifically for transgender people.

Britany, who is pictured in one of the ICE tweets, said there was no permanent salon in the transgender unit, just a room with mirrors — the women were not permitted to use scissors or curlers. And in the 10 months she was detained, she was constantly worried about the health of fellow migrants, particularly those with sexually-transmitted infections.

"They had a list of people who were sick with HIV, and when their medication ran out, they waited a very long time to refill them," she said.

If one of the detained transgender women fell ill, they had to file a request to see a doctor. “But these requests wouldn’t be fulfilled for 10 to 12 days,” Britany said. “By the time a doctor arrived, often your sickness was over.”

Other times it wasn’t. For a month and a half starting in May, Britany and her lawyer said the entire pod was quarantined following an outbreak of the mumps. The migrants were unable to meet with lawyers or make calls to loved ones. ICE declined to comment on this allegation, or any of the others Britany mentioned.

“What one lives in Cibola is very ugly,” she said. The women were not given supportive bras or tweezers to manage body hair on their faces and chests, she said, both of which she’d been given at her previous detention center in San Diego the first time she tried to claim asylum in the country, despite being housed alongside men.

Worst of all, she alleged male guards would accompany the transgender migrants into the bathroom, shining lights on them while they urinated.

“They didn’t have respect for us,” she said.

Like many transgender women, Britany described herself as a victim of sexual violence, saying she was  assaulted and raped in Mexico during her first journey to the United States. Her experience made the treatment by guards especially "uncomfortable," she said.

The average amount of time a transgender migrant spends in detention is 99 days, more than double the average time other migrants spend in ICE custody, according to the Center for American Progress. Because many come on claims of fleeing persecution in their home countries, this extended time is likely because they're waiting for a judge to review their asylum cases, which delay traditional deportation proceedings.

Because Britany had a previous deportation order from the first time she sought asylum, she was not eligible for a bond hearing like many of her fellow transgender detainees, and had to spend the entirety of her pending asylum case process at Cibola. By the day of her final court hearing in August 2019, after 10 months in detention, she no longer cared if she was deported, she said — she just wanted to be out of the facility.

“That was one of the conversations we had before her final hearing," said Arifa Raza, an attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center who represented Britany throughout the process. "She said she didn’t want to appeal if her claim was denied."

The law center provides pro-bono legal assistance to many of the migrants detained at Cibola. “I think the immigration system is designed to do that," Raza continued, "to make you want to be deported.”

Cibola County Correctional Center has housed migrants since 2017, when the U.S. Attorney General’s office approved a county contract with CoreCivic, formerly called Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison company that runs the facility. Twenty-five percent of CoreCivic’s revenue currently comes from ICE. The facility is where Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, 33, a transgender woman seeking asylum from Honduras, died of HIV-related complications and dehydration at a hospital less than a day after entering in 2018, raising questions about immigration enforcement’s ability to care for LGBTQ immigrants in its custody.

Brandon Bissell, spokesperson for CoreCivic, declined to comment on the specific allegations by Britany, but said she did not file any grievances during this time period that matched these claims. The company is looking into the allegations, he said.

From El Salvador to the U.S.

The first time Britany fled to the United States, she traveled through Mexico on La Bestia, a network of freight trains that runs the length of Mexico often used by migrants headed for the southwestern border of the United States. It's a dangerous route, and she herself was assaulted and robbed on the journey, waking up after a beating in Tapachula without any of the possessions she'd carried, including her wallet. She filed a police report, and was given a temporary Mexican visitor visa. She worked at a beauty salon for about six months to earn money for the rest of the trip into the states. The owner, a gay Mexican man, let her stay with him during this time, after he discovered she was sleeping in parks and on street benches — she said the local women's shelter wouldn't accept her because she was transgender.

She was fleeing her place of birth, and one of the deadliest countries in the world. Evidence suggests El Salvador is particularly dangerous for LGBTQ people, who are more likely to be targeted for hate crimes or exploitation by gangs who control entire city neighborhoods. Transgender women face the highest risk of violence.

“Gangs use a lot of transgender women to sell drugs,” Britany said. “If we say no, they threaten to kill us, or our families. It’s a small country, and we cannot really live there. We suffer a lot.”

Despite this, her first immigration judge in California ultimately ruled she did not have a legitimate fear of persecution, according to Britany and her future lawyer. After almost a year inside Otay Mesa Detention Center, she boarded a Boeing 737 and within hours, was back where she started.

“To be completely honest, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t granted, ” Raza said, noting she filed a freedom of information request for Britany’s past proceedings while preparing her asylum case at Cibola. Raza still hasn’t received the requested information.

Raza noted that Britany lacked legal representation during her first try, a factor that critically impacts immigration outcomes. Immigrants with legal representation are twice as likely to obtain relief in deportation proceedings as unrepresented immigrants, according to the American Immigration Council.

The second time the Salvadoran woman made the journey, in late 2018, she joined one of the migrant caravans in Honduras.

She entered the United States on December 5, giving herself up at the border in Nogales, Arizona. Immigration officials noted her request for asylum, and took her directly to detention.

Representation Within Detention

While Raza, Britany’s attorney in her second case, had no first-hand knowledge of conditions in the transgender unit of Cibola, she spoke about how difficult it was to prepare asylum cases while a client was in detention — once, when she and Britany were preparing for her credible fear interview, the power went off, and the pair had to continue their conversation in the dark.

The mumps quarantine meant detainees were unable to meet with lawyers or make phone calls, further slowing down the asylum process, she said.

“Detention’s a little like purgatory," Raza said. "That’s just the reality of it. There’s just no luxury of time, or luxuries whatsoever.”

She said she was unsurprised by the mumps outbreak, as a large portion of her job involves advocating for clients who have issues accessing health care. One client, who appeared to her to have mumps symptoms, had been asking to see a doctor shortly before the quarantine, and Cibola staff instead kept giving him ibuprofen.

"That’s one of the roles we play out there — if someone hasn’t gotten health care and they’ve been asking for it, they let us know, and we figure out how to get them what you need," she said.

Raza said this usually just involves sending an additional email to Cibola — and being a lawyer carries weight.

“From a benign point of view, maybe detention staff don’t know the protocol for what you’re supposed to provide," she said. "Or maybe they just don’t care. I don’t honestly know why, but it does routinely happen.”

click to enlarge Britany, now released and granted asylum, at her temporary home with Trans Queer Pueblo. - HANNAH CRITCHFIELD
Britany, now released and granted asylum, at her temporary home with Trans Queer Pueblo.
Hannah Critchfield


Challenges remain for the Salvadoran native after winning her asylum case.

Without any family members in the country, she was released from detention and found herself  without housing.

While U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services partners with social services organizations like International Rescue Committee, which provide assistance to asylum seekers and refugees, asylees are expected to seek these on their own. The agency provides a hotline they can call. But Britany panicked without an immediate source of shelter. She already knew what it was like to be homeless.

Britany immediately headed for Phoenix, where Trans Queer Pueblo is located; it was the one place she knew she had support. Since then, she’s been living at the organization’s house, which has also provided her meals, until she can earn enough money to rent her own apartment.

Finding work is another hurdle, she said.

“If she had an affirmative asylum case, we would have applied for a work permit while her application was pending,” Raza said. “But because she was in detention, we didn’t do it. Now she has asylum and was able to get released, but because now she doesn’t have those preliminary things, she has to do the extra stuff with USCIS.”

This “extra stuff” involves acquiring a lot of paperwork: Britany first needed an I-94, to give proof that her asylum was granted. People who attain asylum affirmatively, meaning they were already living in the country at the time they applied, are given this form when receiving asylum. Britany, because she was facing removal, only received hers from the Phoenix USCIS office two weeks ago.

With this, she can finally apply for a work permit, or an Employment Authorization Document, which will verify that she’s able to work in the country. She must also apply for a Social Security number, but needs a second form of identification in addition to her I-94 to do so — Britany’s never owned a passport, and her Salvadoran ID card was stolen when she was robbed in Mexico. She had to apply for a passport, which she'll pick up from the Consulate of El Salvador on Saturday.

Authorization to work is technically granted automatically when a person receives asylum, according to a spokesperson from USCIS. But finding an employer who’s willing to hire someone without any proof of documentation is difficult, as it exposes them to the risk of hiring someone illegally.

“An Employment Authorization Document is the most effective way to prove that authorization to work,” the USCIS spokesperson noted.

“It does take a lot of advocacy to do all this. She needs a lawyer to help her,” Raza said. She describes a “luck of the draw” system when it came to interacting with ICE. But she alluded to the cyclical nature of the problem: Because Britany left New Mexico to find shelter after her release, Raza is no longer able to represent her.

“I thought that once I was granted asylum, it would be this easy thing,” Britany said. “But I keep going in circles.”

Stephanie Figgins, communications director at Trans Queer Pueblo, said this is a misconception they often see with asylees. “People think once you’re granted asylum, you get everything all at once,” she said. “But there’s not a lot of support from the U.S. government.”

When asked about the typical waiting time for people like Britany to get the required work documents, a USCIS employee referred to the Executive Office for Immigration Review. When New Times contacted the EOIR, an employee deferred the question to ICE.

Britany said she’s been waiting a little over a month for all of her documents to come through. She was recently offered a job by a friend at a local taco shop ahead of attaining these, but she turned it down — she's not sure if she can legally work or not, and is paralyzed by the idea that someone would perceive her as illegal, and by the thought that she might accidentally violate a law, and lose her asylum status.

“I’m giving it my best,” she said. “Once I get my papers, I need to find work.”

Clarification: The phrase "at a hospital less than a day after entering in 2018" was added to an earlier sentence discussing the death of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, to clarify, at CoreCivic's request, that she was only in Cibola Correctional Center's care for about 12 hours before her death. She was in ICE custody for about 56 hours before arriving at the facility, according to the detainee death review.
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.