Central American transgender women who are seeking asylum in the U.S. are sent by immigration officials to a detention pod in rural New Mexico. This year, volunteers from many organizations here came together to help them. The work started as kind of a scramble, but over time, quick coordination has smoothed out.
Women combed through the racks and pop in and out of dressing rooms at Thrift-A-Lot in Albuquerque. Brittny opened the door a bit to get an opinion on an outfit. "How's it coming?" one of her companions asked "Yes, that one's pretty. Plus, it'll go with the bra you found yesterday, right?"
It was Brittny's first day after being released from a special unit for transgender women at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. She’d been inside for months.
Nearby, shoppers considered Christmas decorations. In Spanish, Brittny said it's emotional to be out on parole. "Being in prison and being out here is not the same. We have freedom. In there we’re slaves, and out here we have the freedom to breathe fresh air."
Detention is like prison, Brittny said. People who seek asylum are not breaking U.S. law. Still, transgender women are being held in the Cibola County Correctional Center, which also serves as a local jail. Brittney stayed there after a hard journey to the border. "I was basically traveling through Mexico for seven months," she said. "It was an incredibly difficult journey. I had to sleep on the streets. I had no food. I suffered greatly. And I arrived here alone."
At 23-years-old, she said she hopes to return to nursing. That’s what she studied in school in her home country of El Salvador. She’s grateful for these couple of nights here, sleeping soundly with a host family before moving on to stay with her cousin. "To be honest, I feel really, really great because I feel like I have a bed where I can sleep soundly," she said. "Really, everything is so good right now. It’s all incredibly good."
At least 80 women were released so far. Twenty won their asylum claims. And 40 more are on their way to New Mexico after coming up in the most recent LGBT migrant caravan.
Alma Rosa Silva-Banuelos was part of a local grassroots push to figure out how to help women released from detention in rural New Mexico. "So when I really started to understand what was happening, it was incredibly inhumane," she said.
Silva-Banuelos is now the rapid response coordinator for the Trans Latina Coalition. Transgender women of color are often the target of violence around the U.S., and when they were being released from detention here, they were exposed. "They were being let out in Milan, New Mexico, and they were sent on a Greyhound bus," she said. "The bus stop there is a dirt little spot in one of the gas stations near one of the hotels."
These days, when someone is leaving Cibola, ICE is first transporting the women to its facility in Albuquerque. Silva-Banuelos helps them get a hot meal, clothes and shoes, and a couple of nights in a warm bed. For some, it’s the first time they’ve had that chance in more than a year. "So we kind of look at it holistically," she said. "If folks need any medical assistance, we try and work with our local providers. We want to make sure that they’re healthy as they move on to the next phase of their life."
For many of the women who are detained, health has been a top concern. They described not being able to access care—not just physical care but also counseling for trauma.
Michelle Esquibel is a psychotherapist. She recalled walking into the detention center for the first time. "It can have a real sobering effect. You know, it’s not the most pleasant place to be."
Esquibel, who volunteers with the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, said the staff at the detention facility worked to find the most comfortable room for weekly group sessions. "Once we’re kind of in that bubble and in that space, things really start to calm and settle," she said. "People begin to feel an opportunity to be heard and to open up."
It’s a logistical challenge. She has to coordinate schedules with the detention center, find volunteer counselors and translators, and get them all cleared to go inside. The sessions are popular and usually kind of big—as many as 25 women attend at once.
"Some of the main goals are to help people reduce their symptoms of stress and anxiety and depression," she said. "We’re also trying to help people find the resources within themselves to get through this difficult time."
Esquibel said volunteer therapists try to boost the women’s natural resiliency as they make their way to a new life.