Editor's Note: Mexico is one of the world's most dangerous places to be transgender. But as lawmakers try to change that, transgender women who are deported confront a social backlash that makes their homeland more fearful than ever. The first of four stories.
MEXICO CITY --The second time Deborah Alvarez was deported from the United States in 2005, after she was detained for prostitution solicitation tickets, she knew she would have to stay in Ciudad Juarez for a while.
Alvarez wanted to go back to the country where she felt she could freely walk down the streets wearing a dress or a skirt without anyone hassling her, as her family once did.
But the possibility of crossing the Texas border and winding up getting detained, trapped in an immigration confinement facility and housed with hundreds of men, was unthinkable for Alvarez, a transgender woman.
Alvarez hadn't lived in the Mexican border city since 1984, when she headed to neighboring El Paso, Texas, at the age of 13. But even after all those years, she knew life for her wouldn't be any different in Mexico.
In 2007, rubber bullet wounds to the thigh landed Alvarez in the hospital after she was shot in a violent raid in her home by a now defunct police unit called Milipol, which targeted transgender sex workers for dressing like women, then illegal. Local media reported on the incident at the time.
These days such violent run-ins between transgender women -- who have mostly abandoned the notoriously violent Juarez for other Mexican cities -- and the police are not as common.
Still, Alvarez, who is now the head of a local organization for transgender women's health, regularly receives letters with slurs and threats. She only goes outside when accompanied by a friend.
In 2000 Alvarez and her partner returned briefly to El Paso from Los Angeles, where they had been living. Outstanding tickets for solicitation for prostitution in El Paso caught up with her and landed her first in a city jail for 12 months, and then in an immigration detention facility in Eden, Texas.
She said she spent the entire time of that year in jail isolated in a small cell with minimal contact with other people. In the detention center, she and six other transgender women stayed in a room with 300 men. The women buffered each other from the taunts and leers from some male detainees and guards.
After Alvarez was deported to Mexico, she immediately turned around and re-crossed the U.S. border, only to eventually wind up back at the same detention center.
Even though Alvarez's time in Eden was the opposite of paradise, she was happy for many of her years living in Los Angeles and still wants to find a way back to the United States, her home for 17 years.
"My only goal when I first left was to flee, flee, flee from my family," said Alvarez, who now has a good relationship with her parents and siblings. "Until now I still have a fear of being in Juarez and of being in Mexico."
Alvarez's story opens a window on the fate of Mexican transgender women who return to the country they once fled.
Deported transgender nationals are not specifically identified in the annual roster of deported undocumented immigrants to Mexico, which in 2010 totaled 636,985, according to Mexican government figures.
Nor is there any tracking of transgender women who choose to leave the United States after a period of detention, preferring the danger of their home country to U.S. confinement facilities that typically house transgender women with men or in isolation.
The majority of detained transgender women are asylum seekers, and most of these cases--represented by a handful of pro-bono attorneys from private law firms, national organizations or attorneys they meet from basic, free legal education "Know Your Rights" presentations --result in victories, attorneys say.
But the problem is legal representation.
Eighty-five percent of detained immigrants in the United States did not have legal representation while in detention, according to the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. That was true for Alvarez and many other transgender women.
"Many transgender folks in ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody don't get access to the information they need to make informed decisions," said Cara Jobson, an asylum attorney in San Francisco who regularly represents transgender clients. "On the contrary, ICE will encourage them to sign their own deportation stating that they'll just sit in jail for months to gain if they don't sign. If the person relents, gets deported and then comes back to the U.S. then they are no longer eligible for asylum."
Meanwhile, 10 immigration attorneys across the United States, in interviews with Women's eNews, said it's getting harder for Mexican transgender immigrants to gain asylum, or some other form of legal protection, that allows them to remain in the country, perhaps with fewer benefits and without the possibility of full citizenship.
Only 1.37 percent of the total 9,206 Mexican asylum seekers -- the second largest population of any nationality represented -- were permitted to stay in the United States in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2008, 2 percent of the 3,650 Mexican asylum seekers were rewarded asylum.
Mexico is the most commonly represented nationality of transgender clients, following immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Mexico has varying estimates of the number of hate crimes targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) citizens. But all of them place the country as one of the most dangerous places to be transgender in the region or world.
One monitoring project, Letra S, of the national daily newspaper La Jornada, approximated 1,260 hate-crime killings, mostly of transgender people, between 1995 and 2006. A 2010 International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission report on the violations of LGBT persons in Mexico, often presented by American attorneys as part of their evidence during asylum cases, found that 76.4 percent of LGBT persons had been subjected to physical violence and 53.3 percent had been assaulted in public spaces between 1995 and 2007.
Shifting Legal Picture
The legal picture in Mexico, though, has shifted considerably since 2009.
Mexico City now legally protects transgender people from hate crimes and grants them the right to change their gender and name within a few months. Same-sex marriage is legal in three out of 32 Mexican states, including Mexico City, and is recognized throughout the country. Same-sex couples can also adopt in Mexico City.
"Judges are increasingly seeing this as a signal that gay and transgender individuals enjoy a lot of rights and protections afforded by the Mexican government and that there is no basis for their fear in returning, which is not really true and very problematic," said Munmeeth Soni, an attorney for the Public Law Center, based in Santa Ana, Calif.
Soni is representing three transgender Mexican immigrants fighting deportation at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in southern California.
Attacks against LGBTQ Mexicans are worsening as the laws increasingly recognize their rights in some parts of Mexico, says Mexico City-based civil liberties lawyer Jaime Lopez Vela.
"We are living in a period of homophobic and transphobic reaction to the times," Lopez said in an interview in his Mexico City office. "Each time that we achieve something, each time we get a new law, there is increased aggression toward the LGBTQ community."
Talia Inlender, a staff attorney with the Los Angeles pro-bono law firm Public Counsel, said asylum cases in Mexico can be complicated by legal reforms that aren't yet changing everyday life. "Those changes haven't taken effect on the ground level and there is still a great deal of persecution that transgender people experience by the military and police."
The majority of the LGBTQ hate-crime victims in Mexico are transgender women, says Jorge Mercado Mondragon, a sociology professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. He links that trend--documented only in Mexican newspapers and often described as crimes of passion--to transgender women's physical visibility. Murders of transgender people often go unchecked by police, who do not match transgender women's physical appearance and names to their state-issued photo identification cards.
"The violence against trans people is very ugly; people being stripped nude, tortured, mutilated, beheaded," Mercado said. "The people who are doing this are not narcos [drug traffickers], but what they do replicates the way that the narcos will treat people."
Detention Center Risks
But harsh treatment in U.S. detention centers offer little in the way of relief.
Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of the Inspector General in April 2011 on behalf of 13 gay and transgender detainees alleging sexual and physical assault, as well as discrimination and misuse of segregation.
Twelve of these complainants are transgender, according to government documents Women's eNews obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Nine are from Mexico, according to the Heartland Alliance.
Four of the Mexican complainants were granted immigration relief and allowed to stay in the United States. Two were released from detention and either deported or granted withholding of removal, a less secure form of legal protection that allows people to stay in the U.S. legally and work. Two of the Mexican complainants were released from detention, but remain in a legal limbo, with their cases still pending. One complainant was deported back to Mexico.
Rene Leyva, a lead researcher with Mexico's National Institute for Public Health, an independent academic institution based in the city of Cuernavaca, says transgender immigrants rarely suffer the deported immigrant's shame of arriving home without money or a job. But that's only because few have any family who will take them in.
"People who are gay and transgender may not have a home to go back to," said Leyva. "This [transgender] population moves around and typically permanently keeps going, looking for work where they can find it in hotels in Cancun, in Acapulco, in hair salons, in whatever area of service."
Leyva in 2013 released a study finding that transgender people make up 2 to 3 percent of the migrants passing through Mexico's church-run, scattered migrant shelters. Returned immigrants also use these shelters as stopover resting points.
Daniela Nigeli came to Mexico City from the western state of Jalisco in 2009, shortly after she began her transition as a woman. At the time, she sought a city that was more open minded than her hometown. But she hasn't been able to hold a steady job in the capital, a city with a vibrant gay nightlife scene, though transgender women say gay bars sometimes explicitly prohibit them from partaking.
"The interviews go well, but then at the end someone will realize that my name is not legally my name yet, and then they do not see me as a girl, all of a sudden, and I do not get the job," Nigeli said.
In early June, Nigeli suffered a blow that LGBTQ activists in Mexico City now expect to experience about once or twice a month. The body of her friend, a well-known transgender woman named Gary Gomez Bastida, was found mutilated on the side of a road outside Mexico City. Gomez held a top position in sexual diversity and community affairs with the city.
Activists such as Gomez and Alvarez, of Ciudad Juarez, are said to be more vulnerable to threats, attacks and assassinations in Mexico. But this brutal violence-- splashed daily on the tabloids in Mexico--also reaches less-prominent transgender women.
Antonella Bocanos Flores began presenting as a girl when she was 3 years old, after her mother recognized that she, at heart, was not a little boy.
Even with the support of her mother, poverty forced Bocanos to enter sex work full time when she was 18. She has been attacked on the job in Puebla, a city two hours outside of Mexico City, several times. One client robbed her and stabbed her more than 30 times. She says she called the police, but when they arrived they failed to respond to her near-fatal wounds.
The municipal government of Mexico City is now conducting a study on whether transgender sex workers there are also victims of abuse by the police, says Tania Itzel Nieves, a transgender woman and city employee who is helping lead the study. Initial results of interviews with 30 trans women show a distinct pattern of abuse, according to Itzel.
All the same, she noted that the most prominent form of discrimination in Mexico against transgender women is the lack of adequate and safe job opportunities; a dearth that pushes trans women into the risky field of sex work, as it once did for both herself and Alvarez.
"No trans girl can find work in Juarez. If you don't cut hair you do sex work. So I did sex work for many years," said Alvarez. "Now I have my own organization. But it has been very difficult to arrive at where we are now."
Alvarez has applied to legally reenter the United States, but her request was denied, a rejection she attributes to those past prostitution convictions and her illegal entries. She remains hopeful that other options will open to her, like perhaps marrying her American ex-partner who now lives in Washington, D.C., enabling her to relocate to the U.S.
Inlender, of Public Counsel, is among the attorneys who say that she has had transgender clients from Mexico reenter the United States, like Alvarez, following a removal order.
Within the past three years she has had at least two transgender Mexican clients who, once they returned to Mexico, suffered serious physical harm and returned to the United States, seeking protection. One of those women was granted withholding of removal; the other is still fighting her case.
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She reported in June from Mexico as part of a reporting grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism on the issues affecting transgender women in detention and seeking asylum.