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Inside a U.S. refuge for transgender asylum seekers

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Posted at 11:59 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 13:59:34-04

A two-bedroom house in Washington, D.C. represents more than a place to stay. For a handful of transgender women who are seeking asylum in the U.S., it's a refuge.

"They knocked on the door at three in the morning to tell me they needed money or it would be my life," said Ariana Torres, a transgender woman who escaped El Salvador last year after refusing to work as a prostitute for local gangs. 

She had already been disowned by her father and says no employer would give her a chance.

"I was always a very feminine woman. All the jobs I went to always closed the door on me," she said.

The recent spike in migration to the U.S. has renewed attention on the main reasons pushing Central Americans to flee: poverty, corruption, and gang violence.  

But for the women in the house, there's an added factor: anti-LGBTQ+ violence.

Rights groups blame the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador for their unwillingness and inability to stem violence and discrimination. 

"There are no opportunities for us to get a decent job and to feel socially safe with our gender identity," said Kataleya Nativi Baca.  

She fled Honduras in 2019 after being beaten up by her transphobic brother. On her way north, she received death threats from the Mexican police.

In April, the U.S. allowed her to temporarily enter the country through a program called humanitarian parole because she needed urgent protection. Upon arrival, she came to this house.

"It's a safe home more than anything, it's a safe home," said transgender activist Tania Cordova, who lives next door and manages the house for a local nonprofit.

"It's a way for you to actually be integrated into this new country, into this new culture. And it could be for three months to six months to nine months, even to a year, because it all depends on the asylum cases. It can take up to two years," Cordova said.

Cordova survived rape and harassment in Mexico as a teenager before fleeing to the U.S. She was detained and deported three times but recently won her case.

Today, she's on a mission to help other LGBTQ+ immigrants.

"Every day, I have to remind myself that I have a commitment for myself to stay alive and to try to keep somebody else alive," she said.

Until the resolution of their cases, the women next door feel blessed. 

"I never imagined arriving in the U.S. and finding a Latino organization that makes me feel safe, that allows me to be who I am, that makes me feel super good," Torres said.

This story was originally published by Ben Schamisso at Newsy.