‘A Butterfly With My Wings Cut Off’: A Transgender Asylum Seeker’s Quest to Come to California
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / December 29, 2020
Luna Guzmán has risked everything to seek asylum in the U.S. A transgender woman, she left her native Guatemala behind to try to find a life in California.
Speaker 1: 00:00 Luna Guzman has risked everything to seek asylum in the U S a transgender woman. She left her native Guatemala behind to find a life in California, the one place in the world where she could imagine being safe today, we bring you a documentary special about Guzman from the California report magazine host. Sasha Coca has followed her over the last two years, reporting from a migrant shelter in Tijuana, an ice detention center here in San Diego and a tiny drag bar in Modesto. Her story says a lot about how U S immigration policy fails when it comes to recognizing people who live outside the gender binary, how the Epic backlog of asylum cases in the U S can add to their trauma and how transgender migrants at the border are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Speaker 2: 00:53 Recently, I got a voicemail from somebody who was breathing so heavily. I could hardly tell who it was. I felt my stomach drop. When I heard the voice in Spanish lungs fighting the Corona virus. It was someone whose story I'd been following for almost two years. Someone whose life I couldn't imagine could get any harder. Now sick with COVID in the ICU, 26 years old, HIV positive in and out of ice detention. Her name is Luna Guzman, and she was calling me to thank me for following her all this time, traveling to a migrant shelter in deep Juana, to an ice detention center in San Diego and a tiny drag bar in Modesto. She said, if she dies from COVID, she hopes people will remember a little bit about her and just a warning. This piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.
Speaker 2: 02:10 When she turned 15, like so many girls in her town in Guatemala, Luna who smart, celebrated with a [inaudible]. My friend left me the dress because she saw the way scribe a time, pass the dress shop on the way to school. All of those beautiful dresses. I was just pressed my hand up against glass and stare at them for a long time. The dress she borrowed was turquoise with a long skirt. She took off her tennis and put on heels and a Tiara. She and her friends, girls she'd known since kindergarten listened to the classic quincenera by Talia, the lyrics are all about growing up, changing into a woman, your body, changing
Speaker 3: 03:07 Your dreams, changing your [inaudible]. We had a cake two or three bottles of champagne. [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 03:23 Boys who dressed up in suits to escort her into the party. But no one was there from Luna's family. It was a secret party at a friend's house whose parents were away. And that Luna says was her coming of age as a young woman, a 15 year old, whose mother loved her as a son, totally accepted her as a gay son, but couldn't fathom her as a girl.
Speaker 2: 03:50 Those moments putting on the turquoise dress, the heels, the Tiara, still linger and Luna's memory. As a time, she truly felt delight and freedom, 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 even as she decided to take a terrible risk and leave everything behind in Guatemala, to try to find a life in California, the one place in the world where she can imagine being safe, being herself. The story says a lot about how U S immigration policy fails when it comes to recognizing people who live outside the gender binary, how this country's Epic backlog of asylum cases can add to their trauma about the tenacity. It takes to try to come to California from central America. If you're transgender, Growing up in Guatemala, Luna says everyone in her town knew she was different. An openly gay kid who referred to herself in the feminine pronoun in Spanish over the years, she says neighbors harassed her repeatedly.
Speaker 4: 05:11 Some women started throwing rocks at me. They said I was a bad example for their kids. Some of the women to water, water
Speaker 3: 05:21 With bleach.
Speaker 2: 05:26 And one day when Luna was 13, just on the cusp of adolescence, she says she was raped by an older man who was a neighbor. I would ask why me
Speaker 4: 05:42 [inaudible]. If anyone is up there, explain it to me. Why me?
Speaker 2: 05:47 By the way, that voice you're hearing in English is Zoe Luna, no relation. She's a pioneering trans actress. And we've asked her to do the voiceover in English for Luna story. Sex trafficking is rampant in Guatemala. The UN has denounced. The shocking number of children forced into sex trafficking rings because of poverty and Luna became one of them. Some powerful men in her town forced her into prostitution. The clients were older. Men who Luna says, would pay hundreds of us dollars to sleep with young boys and transgender girls. Now, when I, I made them a lot of money.
Speaker 4: 06:27 They forced me to use drugs, drugs, habits out of my clients. So much older than me.
Speaker 2: 06:36 The trafficker is had connections with police. Luna says, so there was nowhere she could complain. Then when she was 16, she says, she found out she was HIV positive. And she remembers the harassment from her neighbors getting worse. Once she remembers some of them beat her up so badly, they broke her collarbone telling her they wanted her to behave like a real man
Speaker 4: 07:04 [inaudible] can, it's so small. And there was no information about sexual orientation or HIV, no information about anything it's. So close-minded
Speaker 2: 07:17 When she turned 19, she says she was still being forced into sex work sometimes, but she started to take some small steps to rest back control of her life. She signed up to become a volunteer. Firefighter went through the training course, saved money for the uniform. She felt so powerful. Rescuing people from car accidents, hosing down burning buildings. But then she says the other firefighters found out she was HIV positive and kept taunting her with homophobic slurs.
Speaker 4: 07:51 I dreamed about coming to California to San Francisco.
Speaker 2: 07:56 She'd seen videos online of San Francisco's massive pride parade. She knew California was a place. She couldn't be fired or evicted for being transgender, where she would have the legal right to get an ID and the name she wants to use or use the restroom that matches her gender identity.
Speaker 4: 08:15 The complainant, miss venues. [inaudible] to follow my dreams, not so much to get ahead financially, but just to make enough money to pay for my transition to flee the life I lived in Guatemala.
Speaker 2: 08:32 So one day about four years ago, she decided to leave her town, leave her family, the fire department, the neighbors, the pimps, she was 22 years old. And I said, are you at the moment? See Luna shows me pictures from the journey of her sitting on top of that famous train love, best Bestia that migrants take North. It's easy to pick her out. She slight with the same gap, tooth smile and mischievous Glint in her eye. She didn't wear women's clothes on the journey, but as she's done for most of her life, she kept her hair short and wore men's t-shirts and shorts for safety. But presenting as a man, didn't always protect her.
Speaker 3: 09:21 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 09:21 When Luna made it to [inaudible], it was August of 2017. Back then she could just walk up to the border crossing and ask for asylum. She told an officer she feared homophobic violence, but border patrol officials didn't check the boxes on her intake form saying she identified as LGBT. And that's where things started to go wrong for her ice. Put her in the OTI Mesa detention center near San Diego gave her a bed in a crowded men's unit. 10 days after being taken into custody, an asylum officer vetted her story and found her credible. She told the officer she was gay, HIV positive and was afraid she would be harmed in Guatemala because she sometimes dressed as a woman. According to its own policies. The government is supposed to give detainees like Luna access to a special trans detention unit, but they didn't. Luna spent months in the men's unit before her asylum case could be heard in front of a judge.
Speaker 3: 10:26 Good morning. This is immigration judge Olga sitting in the immigration court in OTI Mesa, California, day 50 in detention. Luna
Speaker 2: 10:35 Has an interpreter, but no lawyer,
Speaker 3: 10:39 You have the right to be represented by an attorney or a qualified representative of your own choosing at no expense to the government.
Speaker 2: 10:48 If you didn't catch that, the judge is saying that if Luna wants an attorney, she has to find one and pay for one herself.
Speaker 3: 10:56 Um, I want to look for an attorney
Speaker 2: 10:59 Day 90 in detention. Luna tells the judge she can't afford her own lawyer and she's had no luck finding a pro bono one after sending letters to lots of organizations.
Speaker 3: 11:12 [inaudible] yes, your honor. I am ready to proceed and speak on my behalf. Now that I have
Speaker 2: 11:17 Now day one 56 in detention, Luna finally gets a chance to officially submit her asylum application. You can hear the judge stamp it.
Speaker 3: 11:28 There you go. And
Speaker 2: 11:29 Tell her it looks complete. But then the judge tells her there are no available appointments to hear the merits of her case for another five months. The courts that Day one 82 in detention, after nearly six months, the judge says Luna can be released on a bond of $4,500, but like asylum seekers, she has no one to help pay that kind of money. Luna pleads with the judge telling her being locked up is harming her psychologically
Speaker 5: 12:08 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 12:09 Day two 26 in detention. Luna does something she never expected to do. She gives up on her asylum case and asks to be deported
Speaker 5: 12:18 Right away. Well complete [inaudible]. So then it's going to be about eight months that I've been detained here at the detention center, the [inaudible], um, and I feel alone and I do not have the words to explain to you, your honor. Uh, I apologize for the interpreter would like to mention
Speaker 2: 12:53 The interpreter takes a pause. She's confused. She thinks Luna's a man because of her appearance and her legal name, but Luna's referring to herself in the feminine, in Spanish. The judge asks for clarification, still calling Luna. Sorry.
Speaker 5: 13:10 Now you've indicated to the courts or that you no longer are interested in pursuing your application for asylum. Is that correct? [inaudible] Luna says yes.
Speaker 2: 13:23 Yes, but you can hear her voice cracking. There's no way to win. She's either got to stay locked up in the men's facility or give up her only ticket to be able to stay in the U S on the plane ice chartered back to Guatemala. Luna says she had a panic attack, shaking so badly. She could barely walk out onto the tarmac when they landed in Guatemala city. As soon as she could, she got back on buses and trains to begin the long journey North towards California. Again.
Speaker 4: 14:00 Okay.
Speaker 2: 14:01 I meet Luna several months later on a trip to Tijuana at a migrant shelter called Casa [inaudible]. I'm reporting on the migrant caravans at the border. And I interview so many central American asylum seekers, but something about Luna strikes me. Maybe it's her persistence. When she talks about coming to California,
Speaker 4: 14:25 [inaudible] I'm a transgender woman. I'm not going to live my life dressed as a boy. No, no, no, no, no, no. One day I want everyone who knows me to say Luna Luna made it. She fought for her dreams and they can chew
Speaker 2: 14:48 One night. About six months after I started following Luna's story, I get a collect call from a detention center
Speaker 6: 14:56 To accept the call.
Speaker 2: 15:02 Luna is back at OTI Mesa, the detention center, just East of San Diego in the same cell in the same bed where she had stayed the year before.
Speaker 3: 15:13 Yeah.
Speaker 2: 15:18 Ice grants, me permission to visit her. There a guard leads me to a tiny room where Luna is waiting the word detainees emblazoned in white letters on the back of her blue uniform.
Speaker 3: 15:38 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 15:38 She looks gaunt and exhausted, but her eyes are still bright. She says the sexual harassment here has been a nightmare. Luna tells me she can't afford to buy shampoo or soap or chocolate bars in the commissary. She says other inmates have offered to buy them for her in exchange for sexual favors.
Speaker 4: 16:07 [inaudible] I'm not going to do something I don't want to do for a cup of soup that cost 60 cents or some chocolate or a packet of oatmeal that costs 30 cents. I'm not going to have sex with anyone here. [inaudible] okay. [inaudible] discrimination on the outside here. It's a different world. It's worse. Okay. You're trapped.
Speaker 2: 16:35 What Luna's telling me resonates with a study showing that LGBT migrants are nearly a hundred times more likely to be sexually victimized in detention. Luna says the clink of handcuffs, the crackle of the guards, walkie talkies has come to hunt her dreams.
Speaker 3: 16:55 You hear that
Speaker 4: 17:05 [inaudible] that sound all the time, day, and night. And I'm traumatized from hearing the sound of the keys, really like Jarvis
Speaker 3: 17:18 All the time, even in your dreams,
Speaker 4: 17:22 You think they're coming for you to handcuff you or the sound of the keys. The sound of the doors. [inaudible]
Speaker 3: 17:40 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 17:44 This stint in detention lasts only a couple months. Luna crossed without papers being deported once already, even the second time around, she might've had legal grounds to make a claim to stay, but without a lawyer, she didn't know her options. I supported her back to Guatemala again
Speaker 2: 18:18 And official with a megaphone stands in the Guatemala city, airport, greeting deportees, almost all young men with a warm welcome plus a sandwich and an orange soda. Luna gets off the ice chartered plane. She counts out for us dollar bills from a plastic bag, marked personal property it's money. She says she earned working in the laundry at the detention center, a human rights advocate, warns Luna that she could be killed here and sends her to a safe house. But Luna wants to get out of Guatemala and try once again to make it to California. And she finds a way to do it with some money wired to her from an unexpected source of help. It's a Friday night at the brave bull. One of the oldest gay bars in California. It's not in San Francisco or LA, but Modesta, a huge old fashioned disco ball twirls above a trio of drag performers in cowboy hats, a guy strumming a guitar and two very glamorous gals in high heeled boots, lip sinking to Ana [inaudible] song. [inaudible] I'm looking for a heart. It's a song. These drag performers are dedicating to Luna.
Speaker 3: 19:43 I just want to say everyone to comes down to support. Every time we perform shout out to a friend of ours, um, Luna, who is a trans woman who has been deported. And we have been trying to show her so much love all the way from California.
Speaker 2: 20:05 This surprising crew rooting for Luna is led by a kind of fairy godfather. Tony fro the degus. He first heard about Luna. When I reported a short part of her story from the Juana for the California report, back in 2018, Tony's a former truck driver who came to Modesto, looking for his own California dream, a place where he could transition to male. He grew up in the Bronx, in a Puerto Rican family and his mom rejected him,
Speaker 7: 20:34 But it was California where I had set my sights because that's just where I knew I could really be the person that I wanted to be. It turns out that for me, it worked out great. I had great support from my coworkers, have great support from my friends. Then I hear about Luna and I'm like, well, I had it. Okay. So you know, why not help somebody else? So maybe their transition and their journey could be a little bit easier.
Speaker 2: 21:02 Tony sent Luna $80 after she got deported money that helped her make her way back to Mexico. Now they've been talking over WhatsApp ever since.
Speaker 7: 21:17 It's almost, [inaudible]
Speaker 4: 21:28 The case. Now it's spring 2019.
Speaker 2: 21:33 That leaves me a voicemail saying she's made her third journey North to Chula in Chiapas, just across the border from Guatemala. She's feeling safe enough to dress as a woman. Again, she meets up with some new friends who are also transgender for dinner at a cafe. And she calls me at six the next morning.
Speaker 4: 22:02 Not yet.
Speaker 2: 22:06 She tells me she was the last one waiting for a taxi. After her friends left the cafe, then a car pulled up. She says five armed men abducted her, took her to a remote area and raped.
Speaker 4: 22:25 Why does it go wrong?
Speaker 2: 22:26 I urged her to go to the hospital to tell the police, but she tells me just like in Guatemala, the Mexican police in Chiapas would probably do nothing. Just laugh at her and say homophobic things. I haven't been able to confirm Luna was raped because she didn't report it to anybody. And this is part of the paradox for asylum seekers. They're expected to document and prove all the horrible things that have happened to them. When sometimes in fact, the act of reporting these abuses could put them in more danger. Of course, as a journalist, I've done my best to vet her story kick. UED where we produced the California report even had to Sue the department of Homeland security to get her records released from ice, which we finally did after almost a year, It's fall 2019 now. And Luna finally gets some good news. She's granted a humanitarian visa to stay in Mexico. At least temporarily. I go to Tijuana to meet her at the section of border fence, where she crossed the last time she tried to come to California. She points to squirrels and dragonflies flitting between the slats of the fence between countries, without even knowing it [inaudible]
Speaker 4: 23:47 At those squirrels coming and going. And that cap, it just crossed the border through the gaps in the fence, and then slipped back into Mexico. It's only we humans who don't have that freedom.
Speaker 2: 24:00 She takes a rock and bangs on the metal border fence.
Speaker 4: 24:04 It's in that solid wall. It's a wall that kills your dreams takes away everything. I told myself. Then when I climbed over this wall, I would leave my past behind. I would be reborn [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible] hi. Yeah.
Speaker 2: 24:33 [inaudible] I asked her what she thinks as she looks through the fence to California,
Speaker 4: 24:39 The United States. [inaudible] so close, but I can't get there. That's California. And I can't be there one day. I will be 20, 50 or 21 hundreds, but I will get there.
Speaker 3: 25:06 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 25:07 That trip about a year ago was the last time I saw Luna. When COVID-19 hit, she left me a voicemail that she planned to shelter in place with a friend outside of Ensanata
Speaker 3: 25:22 [inaudible] or [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 25:29 A bit about the COVID outbreak at both. I miss up where she was detained the year before among ice detention centers. It turned out to have one of the biggest outbreaks of COVID. In fact, the first detainee in ice custody to die of it died there. Hearing that I felt relieved that Luna was far away from detention that ironically being deported may have saved her life. And then I got that phone call that she had COVID
Speaker 3: 26:01 Yeah,
Speaker 2: 26:02 As it's done so many times over the last two years, my WhatsApp feed with Luna went quiet for weeks. I tried to call the public hospital in Tijuana to track her down, but I couldn't get through, but a few weeks later, Luna left me another message from her hospital bed.
Speaker 3: 26:22 They took her off the vent KV. Got it. I thought it was going to die. This, Luna she's resisting everything. I know this virus going to kill me.
Speaker 4: 26:44 I've got a lot more life than me, a lot. I still want to say I don't need a ventilator because I'm a strong woman. I've made it through everything. I'm going to make it through this. I'm still here.
Speaker 1: 27:02 An epilogue to Luna's story. She says in November, the Mexican government extended her humanitarian visa for another year, but she's having trouble earning a living in Tijuana. She has lingering symptoms from COVID-19, including fatigue, difficulty breathing and sore vocal chords. Her immune system is also struggling to fight HIV, but Luna says she's ready to try for asylum in the U S again, she's hopeful. President elect, Joe Biden will make good on a campaign promise to quote and president Trump's detrimental asylum policies.