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Transgender people experience violence worldwide at alarmingly high rates – research shows that trans people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime, including rape and assault. For trans people seeking asylum, the journey to safety at the Mexico-U.S. border unfolds against the backdrop of a harsh and unforgiving reality of gender-based violence. While there have been some attempts at legal reforms to better protect the rights of trans people, there are no federal antidiscrimination laws designed to shield transgender individuals, creating a formidable hurdle in the struggle against discrimination.

Many trans women turn to sex work to survive economically, only to find themselves more exposed to physical harm. Without protection from their families or the police and facing social and economic marginalization, trans women find themselves vulnerable to drug cartel and gang violence. Trans women have been targeted by cartel members and trafficked, raped and robbed, and even tortured to death.

Trans women face the highest rates of violence and hate crimes – the homicide rate of trans women in Mexico is more than double the homicide rate of cisgender women. The reality is clear: discrimination and violence against trans people in Mexico have become socially normalized, especially at the hands of gangs and cartels.

This threat of discrimination and violence is even more heightened for transgender migrants seeking asylum, who experience additional oppression at the intersection of their gender identity, their nationality, and their immigration status.

Asylum Deterrence Policies: Escaping One Danger, Embracing Another

U.S. policies at the southern border further exacerbate the risks of gender-based violence for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, particularly transgender people of color. Trapped within the intricate web of U.S. asylum deterrence policies, transgender asylum seekers find themselves in a precarious situation in Mexico. According to our report Surviving Deterrence: How U.S. Asylum Deterrence Policies Normalize Gender-Based Violence, LGBTQI+ migrants experience gender-based violence at high rates at the border: 58 percent of survey respondents note that their clients have frequently or very frequently faced violence because of their sexual orientation or non-cisgender identity while at the border. One survey respondent noted that 100 percent of their LGBTQI+ clients have faced sexual violence.

U.S. deterrence policies foster conditions that significantly increase the risk of exposure to gender-based violence. Cartels and other organized criminal networks can more easily target migrants, particularly trans migrants, when they wait for prolonged periods of time at the border. Severely overcrowded shelters, informal, ad hoc camp settlements, and homelessness make migrants more vulnerable to various forms of GBV. Trans migrants in particular face discrimination that makes it even harder to find safe housing and sometimes face violence at the hands of other migrants in camps and shelters. LGBTQI+ asylum seekers also face greater difficulties finding employment than other migrants, which can lead some trans migrants to turn to sex work and other risky informal employment. In addition, police also harass trans migrants more frequently in border towns in Mexico.

U.S. asylum deterrence policies, such as the asylum ban, border closures and expulsions, exacerbate these conditions. These policies layer additional hardship upon the already complex circumstances faced by asylum seekers.

Confronting transphobia and the epidemic of gender-based violence against the trans community necessitates a comprehensive and concerted effort across various fronts. The need to include gender as a named ground of asylum, alongside the other fundamental attributes already included such as race, religion, and nationality is crucial. Survivors have no way of knowing that they may qualify when filling out the asylum application because it does not mention gender as a basis for relief and asylum in the US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Tahirih is committed to advocating for the rights and dignity of transgender asylum seekers. No one should experience violence because of their gender, and if they do, they have the right to seek safety. Asylum and other forms of legal protection must be available to all survivors of gender-based violence, including trans survivors.

Learn more and join our movement to support equal access to asylum for survivors of gender-based violence.