‘A Butterfly With My Wings Cut Off’: A Transgender Asylum Seeker’s Quest to Come to California
When she turned 15, like so many girls in her town in Guatemala, Luna Guzmán celebrated with a quinceañera.
“My friend lent me the dress because she saw the way I used to cry every time we passed the dress shop on the way to school, with all those beautiful dresses,” she said in Spanish. “I would just press my hand up against the glass and stare at them for a long time.”
The dress she borrowed was turquoise, with a long skirt. She took off her tennies, put on heels and a tiara, and danced with her friends.
There was a cake, bottles of champagne and chambelanes, boys who dressed up in suits to escort her into the secret party at a friend’s house. No one was there from Luna’s family, because they couldn’t fathom her as a transgender girl.
Moments from that birthday party still linger in Luna’s memory as a time when she truly felt delight and freedom. It was something to be savored again and again as the next decade began to unfold, even as she put back on her soccer jerseys and tried to look like the boy she knew she wasn’t inside. Even as she dealt with brutal violence and decided to take a tremendous risk and leave everything behind in Guatemala to try to find a life in California. The memories were one place in the world where she could imagine being safe, being herself.
We first met Luna two years ago at a migrant shelter in Tijuana and have stayed in touch with her as she's journeyed across the border, spent months in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, and sought shelter in Mexico. We’ve spent weeks frantically trying to reach her in an intensive care unit, after she left a voice message that she had been diagnosed with a severe case of COVID-19. “Thank you for telling my story,” she rasped through labored breaths, her voice barely recognizable. “If I die, I hope that one day people will remember something about me.”
‘Can’t You Change Your Son?’
Luna grew up on the outskirts of a small city in Central Guatemala, in a house cobbled together from sticks and newspaper. Her mom sold french fries from a cart, and Luna helped care for her three siblings, including a brother with developmental disabilities. Her dad wasn’t part of her life.
She said she was a voracious reader, spending hours in the town library. At school she would play dress up with the other girls. Luna would transform into a butterfly, her wings made from pieces of cardboard she scavenged on the street.
“The teacher would always ask my mom, ‘Listen, can’t you change your son? Can you take him to a psychologist? A psychiatrist? It’s making my school look bad,’ ” she recalled.
Luna said her mom defended her at first. When she came out as gay at age 14, her mom gave a toast with some agua de jamaica. But as Luna got older, she said her mom disapproved of the dresses and the heels. Her son, dressing like a woman? For her, that went against nature. So Luna put back on the soccer jerseys and shorts.
“The hurtful things she said to me, I understand them better now,” said Luna. “She just wanted to protect me.”
When Luna was 13, just on the cusp of adolescence, she said she was raped by an older man who was a neighbor.
“I would ask, why me? Tell me — if anyone is up there — explain it to me,” she sighed. “I still haven’t gotten an answer to this day.”
Soon after, Luna said she was trafficked into prostitution. Some powerful men in her town forced her into a trafficking ring. The clients? Older men who would pay hundreds of U.S. dollars to sleep with young boys and transgender girls.
Sex trafficking is rampant in Guatemala, and the United Nations has denounced the shocking number of children forced into trafficking rings because of poverty.
But there was no one to help. The traffickers, Luna said, had connections with the police and top public officials in town. “If anyone tried to denounce them or file a complaint, they’d throw it in the trash,” she said.
Many of the kids trafficked in the ring, she said, were infected with sexually transmitted diseases. When she was 16, Luna said she found out she was HIV-positive. Harassment from people in town, who had already thrown rocks at her and told her to stay away from their children, intensified. Once, she remembered, some people beat her up so badly they broke her collarbone, telling her they wanted her to behave like a "real man."
“My town is so small, there was no information about sexual orientation or HIV,” Luna said. “No information about anything. It’s so close-minded.”
When she turned 19, she said, she was still occasionally forced into sex work. But as she reached adulthood, she started to take some small steps to wrest back control of her life. She signed up for a training course to become a volunteer firefighter.
Luna graduated from the firefighting program. She felt powerful rescuing people from car accidents and hosing down burning buildings.
But then, she said, the other firefighters found out she was HIV-positive, and began taunting her with homophobic slurs.
She dreamed about a way out and set her sights on California. She’d seen videos of San Francisco’s massive pride parade. She knew in California she couldn’t be fired or evicted for being transgender, would have the right to get an ID in the name she wants to use, and use the restroom that matches her gender identity. She also hoped it was a place where she could earn enough money to pay for her transition.
Luna left her family, the fire department, the neighbors, the pimps. She was 22 years old.
She leaped onto that famous train migrants call La Bestia, or “the beast,” which travels north from Mexico’s southern border. She didn’t wear dresses on the journey. As she’s done for most of her life, she kept her hair short and wore men’s T-shirts and shorts, for safety.
Crossing the Border But Not Finding Safety
When Luna reached the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at Otay Mesa near San Diego, she told an officer she was running away from homophobic violence in Guatemala and was requesting asylum. But her hopes that she would feel protected as soon as she crossed into the U.S. vanished.
“They took me into some offices. About 30 minutes later, they arrested me. Put chains on my hands, my feet, my waist,” she recalled. “They treat you like a criminal, just for asking for help. It feels horrible, like you’re nothing.”
Border officials don’t decide on asylum requests — that happens later — but they are responsible for the transfer of detainees to ICE custody, where they'll eventually speak with an asylum officer. However, border officials didn’t check the box on Luna's intake form indicating that she identified as LGBT, nor the box indicating that she could be at increased risk of sexual abuse in detention.
That’s where things started to go wrong for her. ICE eventually assigned Luna a bed in a crowded men’s unit at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
Ten days after she arrived at the border asking for help, an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducted a "credible fear" interview. That’s when Luna told her she also dressed as a woman at times. The officer found her story credible.
A few weeks later, a transgender Latina organization based near Los Angeles called Las Crisantemas sent a letter of support to the immigration court identifying Luna as a trans woman.
But Luna was never moved to a special detention unit for transgender women, despite the fact that in 2015 ICE had agreed to improve standards for transgender detainees, including access to separate detention units away from the general population.
“They did not put her into the protective custody that is required by their own standards,” said Allegra Love, an attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which has represented hundreds of transgender women in detention over the last few years. She was never Luna’s lawyer, but we asked her to review Luna’s case after KQED sued ICE to obtain her immigration records.
“If someone expresses to them, ‘Hey, look, I am trans, I have gender dysphoria. I am not the gender you think I am,’ then the government has this responsibility acknowledged by their own hand to take that seriously and protect people from heightened danger,” said Love.
But Luna would spend months in the men’s unit before her asylum case could be fully heard — months when she said she was repeatedly harassed and belittled by the other detainees.
Backlogged Immigration Court, Long Months in Detention
Luna appeared before immigration Judge Olga Attia, appointed to the immigration court in 2017 by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Luna was assigned an interpreter, but no lawyer. If she had wanted one, she would have had to find and pay for one herself.
In the audio recordings of her hearings at the immigration court, Luna told the judge she was worried about being detained for so long.
“I don’t always get the medicine I need for my chronic condition [HIV],” she said.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have jurisdiction over such matters,” Attia told her. “You need to bring this to the attention of the detention officers.”
Luna was in detention for five months before she was able to officially present her asylum application to Judge Attia. Then the judge informed her there were no available appointments to hear the merits of her case for another five months.
After six months in detention, Luna was eligible to get out on bond. ICE attorneys didn’t object as she had no criminal history. The judge set the bond at $4,500, but like many asylum seekers, she had no way to pay that kind of money.
Luna pleaded with the judge. “It’s hurting me, psychologically,” she said. “I’ve never been locked up, your honor.”
Unable to tolerate being in detention in a men’s unit any longer, Luna did something she never expected to do. She gave up on her asylum case and asked to be deported right away.
“It’s been eight months since I was detained at the detention center, your honor,” she said through an interpreter. “I feel alone. I don’t have the words to explain to you.”
Even as Attia accepted the withdrawal of Luna’s asylum application, it wasn’t clear that the judge understood that Luna was transgender. Even after the interpreter explained that Luna was referring to herself in the feminine pronoun, Attia kept calling Luna “sir.”
“I can only imagine the loss of hope that someone experiences when they're fleeing a country where the reason their life is in danger is because their institutions refuse to acknowledge who they are,” said Love, the attorney who has represented dozens of transgender detainees from Central America. “Then to arrive with a hopeful feeling in a place where they think they are going to have a different treatment, and then to have law enforcement officers and judges — officers of the court — immediately reject them as well.”
Even if Luna had decided to stay in detention and pursue her asylum claim, the odds were against her, especially without a lawyer. During the last year of the Obama administration, 55% of all asylum applications were denied. Under the Trump administration, those numbers jumped to a record high of 72% in 2020, according to data from Syracuse University's TRAC project.
For asylum seekers from Guatemala, the rate is even higher: 85.8% of those applications are denied.
On the plane ICE chartered to transport Luna and other detainees back to Guatemala, she recalled, she had a panic attack, shaking so badly she could barely walk onto the tarmac when she landed in Guatemala City.
She said she went to stay with her sister, who had married an evangelical Christian. After a few days, however, she said her sister gave her some money and asked her to leave.
“You don’t have a home with me as a sister,” Luna remembered her saying. “Only as a brother.”
Luna had left Guatemala and had gradually made her way back to the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping to find her way to California again. We met Luna while she was staying at Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter in Tijuana.
She said she was trying to make it as dishwasher in a restaurant where the owner kept making homophobic comments. She was also scrambling to find a clinic to get her HIV medication without a Mexican ID.
The soles of her tennis shoes were wearing thin, and she was wearing a soccer jersey, her hair buzzed short.
“I am a transgender woman. I’m not going to live dressed as a boy my whole life,” Luna told us. “One day soon I want everyone who knows me to say, ‘Luna made it. She fought for her dreams and they came true.’ ”
A month later, Luna messaged via WhatsApp to say she knew her dream of coming to California was probably over, because she had given up her asylum case the year before.
But then, a few weeks later, she sent a video of herself standing someplace windy, with the border wall far behind her.
“Look!” she exclaimed. “I crossed! I’ll see you in San Francisco, by the Golden Gate bridge, for a coffee.”
Then the WhatsApp feed went quiet for weeks.
Finally, we got a collect call from Otay Mesa Detention Center. Over the scratchy phone line, Luna said she was in the same cell and the same bed where she had stayed the year before.
“I feel like a butterfly who’s had her wings cut off,” she said.
‘I’ve Been a Prisoner in My Own Body, Now I’m a Prisoner Here’
March 12, 2019
After Luna had been detained for about six weeks, ICE granted us permission to interview her in person at Otay Mesa.
We followed a guard to a waiting room with other families. A sign above one guard’s gray metal desk proclaimed “Hope is the anchor for the soul. Be grateful.”
When they called our names, we walked down past a heavy door, to where Luna sat in a tiny room. She wore blue crocs, brown socks and a blue uniform with “detainee” emblazoned on the back in white letters.
She looked gaunt and exhausted, but her eyes were still bright. Her hair was shorn super-short. She had to cut it all off after a bully hacked off a chunk of it with a razor, she said.
“He told me he couldn’t stand homosexuals and whipped out the razor,” she said. “He told me if I complained to the guards, it would be worse.”
Luna said that happened at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility, a federal jail in San Diego, where she had been held for about a week after Border Patrol agents picked her up. She was charged there with the federal crime of illegally reentering the U.S., after President Trump ramped up prosecutions under a "zero tolerance" policy.
But the sexual harassment at the ICE detention facility, she said, was even worse.
“Some people here, they touch your butt, your breasts, they look at you when you’re taking a shower,” she said. “They flash us. I don’t want to be here anymore. I know if I complain they won’t listen to me.”
Luna told us she couldn’t afford to buy shampoo or snacks from the detention center commissary. She said other inmates offered to buy them for her, in exchange for sexual favors.
“I’m not going to do something I don’t want to do for a cup of soup that costs 60 cents,” she said. “I’m not going to have sex with anyone here. There’s discrimination on the outside. But here, it’s a different world. It’s worse. ... You have nowhere to go to get away from it. You’re trapped.”
A 2018 study found that LGBT immigrants are nearly 100 times more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted in ICE detention.
“I’ve been a prisoner in my own body, I’m now a prisoner here,” Luna said.
She told us she didn’t want to cry in front of us. She wanted to be the strong person who had impressed us with her courage and tenacity when we met her in Tijuana four months earlier.
But after our interview, we peeked back through a window of the tiny room. Her head was on the table, and she was sobbing.
Luna’s second stint in detention only lasted a couple months. ICE moved to deport her as soon as possible: She had re-entered the U.S. by climbing the border fence and violated the five-year bar on re-entry imposed on her when she was deported the first time. Now, she was barred from returning to the U.S. for 20 years.
This was her second time in detention, and she still had no lawyer. No one to tell her about an alternative to asylum — something called "withholding of removal,” which has allowed some transgender women from Central America to stay in the U.S.
“If she had partnered with a skilled asylum lawyer, we would be having a really different conversation right now about her,” said Love. “We might be talking about her now in 2020, enrolling in community college or, you know, getting her first apartment or, in fact, getting her legal permanent residence in the United States and having a green card. But instead, she was not provided with the due process that she was owed.”
‘It’s Not Safe For You To Stay in Guatemala’
March 27, 2019
Luna was deported a second time to Guatemala City. KQED hired a film crew to meet her when she got off the plane.
She counted out four U.S. dollar bills from a plastic bag marked “personal property” — money she said she earned working in the laundry at the detention center. She brushed her hand over her face, as if to make it all go away.
Then she headed to Asociación Lambda, an LGBT organization in Guatemala City that helps deportees, but after hearing her story, an intake worker told Luna it was unsafe for her to stay in Guatemala.
“Your profile is very high risk,” he said.
He didn’t need to remind her about the trans women who’ve been murdered recently after being deported back to Central America. He also said he worried the traffickers from her hometown might have connections in Guatemala City and could track her down.
He arranged for a safe house in a secret location, but Luna decided to leave after just one night there. She refused to feel locked up again.
By now we’d been reporting on Luna’s story for five months. Some transgender California Report listeners in Modesto who heard one of the stories even reached out to her and sent her $80, money that helped her get out of Guatemala again and start another journey back to the border. They also put together a drag performance that they dedicated to her.
After a few more months, Luna found her way out of Guatemala and back to Mexico. She applied for a humanitarian visa to stay temporarily and found a job making tortillas in a restaurant in Tapachula. She met some new friends, other transgender migrants.
Soon, emboldened by her new friends, she decided to dress as a woman again, for dinner with them at a local cafe.
Then she called at 6 a.m. the next morning, crying. She said she had been raped by five armed men, who abducted her while she was waiting alone for a taxi after dinner. She said they beat her, kicking her in the kidneys, where she was recovering from a recent infection.
“Why is that every time I show the person I really am, does it go so wrong?” she sobbed. “Why is life so hard?”
She said she was too afraid to file a complaint with the Mexican police, that they would probably do nothing but laugh at her and say homophobic things. She sent me a Facebook post about the death of a gay activist, Juan Ruiz Nicolas, who was assassinated in Tapachula, the town where she was staying near the Guatemala border.
Because she didn’t report the rape to anyone, it’s hard to confirm that Luna was assaulted. This is part of the paradox for asylum seekers. They’re expected to document and prove the horrible things that have happened to them, but all too often, the act of reporting these abuses could put them in more danger.
Of course, as journalists, we’ve done our best to vet her story. KQED even sued the Department of Homeland Security to obtain Luna’s records. But when it comes to what happened to Luna in Guatemala or Mexico, there’s no way to prove the trafficking and the violence. She’s been in transit so long, living on the street and in shelters, that she has little documentation of her life. Still, Luna’s story is consistent with what advocates and investigations into the treatment of transgender and HIV-positive immigration detainees have found. Much of it is also echoed in her asylum application and in her health records.
Luna eventually received a temporary humanitarian visa and Mexican identification card, good for one year. The Mexican government sent her back to Tijuana, to a safe house for LGBT refugees called Casa Arcoiris, or rainbow house.
In October, we decided to visit her again in Tijuana to see how she was doing. But we couldn’t meet her at the safe house where she was staying, because they wanted to keep the location secret.
Instead, we met up with Luna and some of her new shelter-mates at a huge supermarket where they were shopping for dried beans, carrots and cabbage. They each took turns cooking a meal from their home country for the other residents.
One nonbinary friend from Honduras, who didn’t want to give their name for safety, said Luna is beloved in the house.
“Everybody loves her. She’s shared her history, so much we have in common,” they said. “We’ve become like family."
That community, that stability, had changed things for Luna. She was wearing dresses and lipstick more often, laughing more with her new friends.
But she got serious again when she took us to see the section of border fence where she crossed the last time she came to California. She pointed to squirrels and dragonflies flitting between the slats of the fence, between countries, without even knowing it.
“It’s only we humans that don’t have that freedom,” she said.
We asked what she thought about as she gazed through the bars of the fence to California.
“This wall kills your dreams. It takes away everything,” she said. “I told myself that when I climbed over this wall. I would leave my past behind. I would be reborn. That’s California, but I can’t get there. One day I will. It might be 2050, or 2100, but I will get there.”
'Thank You for Telling My Story'
When the COVID-19 outbreak arrived in Mexico, Luna left us a voicemail that she planned to shelter in place with a friend outside of Ensenada.
We talked about her relief that she was far away from the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which turned out to have one of the biggest outbreaks of COVID-19. That, ironically, being deported may have saved her life.
On the other hand, if she had still been in detention, she might have been released to a sponsor in the U.S. — as some other transgender detainees have been — to avoid the risk of getting coronavirus.
But a month later, in April, Luna left a voice memo. Her breathing was so heavy and ragged it was hard to understand. She said she was in the ICU at the public hospital in Tijuana, sick with COVID-19. They were about to put her on a respirator.
“Thank you for everything,” she rasped. “For wanting to tell my story. Hopefully people will remember a little bit about me.”
Then, as has happened so many times over the last two years, the WhatsApp feed with Luna went quiet for weeks.
Finally, after several weeks in the hospital, Luna left another message from her hospital bed.
They had taken her off the ventilator.
“Oh God, I thought I was gonna die,” she breathed. “But nope, Luna, she’s still here, resisting everything. I’ve got a lot more life in me. A lot I still want to say.”
Luna left us a voice message, saying the Mexican government just extended her humanitarian visa for another year. Still, it's been difficult for her to work and pay her rent in Tijuana. She has lingering symptoms from COVID-19, including fatigue, difficulty breathing and sore vocal cords. Her immune system is also struggling to fight HIV. She's worried her body isn't strong enough to fight off another virus, so is staying at home as much as possible to avoid getting reinfected with COVID-19.
Luna also said she and other migrants are celebrating Joe Biden's win and hoping that he will make good on his campaign pledge to "end President Trump's detrimental asylum policies," which included making it harder for LGBTQ migrants to seek protection.
Luna said she's ready to try for asylum in the U.S. again if things change with the new administration.
"We're warriors, and we've gotten through a lot of tough situations," Luna said.
This project was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Their Reporting Grants for Women’s Stories Program is funded by the Secular Society. Luna Guzmán's voice in English in the audio documentary was performed by pioneering transgender actress Zoey Luna.