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An Odyssey to Asylum

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Argentinean trans woman gains U.S. refuge after years of activism at home

Argentinean María Belén Correa, a transgendered woman, did not originally intend to make her home in the United States. Nevertheless, in a groundbreaking decision that transgendered people hail as an important precedent, the U.S. has granted Correa, 31, a Queens resident, political asylum, based on the grounds that, because of her gender change, she faces life-threatening oppression in her native country.

Correa’s path to a life in America was marked by tragedy around her and threats against her own life.

In February 2000, Correa’s friend and fellow transgender rights activist Vanessa Lorena Ledesma died at the hands of the Buenos Aires police five days after she was arrested. In the wake of that loss, Correa, a co-founder of the Association of Transvestite, Transsexual and Transgender Argentineans (ATTTA), the first organization of its type in that nation, decided to stay and continue fighting for legal rights for transgendered people.

“The first day goes by, the second, the third day. Friends and family start to look for her in hospitals until we arrive at the morgue—and in the morgue we found her, but they didn’t let us see the body,” recalled Correa, in a recent interview, about Ledesma’s death. Finally, officials authorized one friend to enter and identify the body, before handing over a sealed coffin.

According to Correa, the friend managed to take pictures of Ledesma’s body—images that clearly indicated torture and led the victim’s family to open the coffin and demand an autopsy.

“They opened the coffin and she was all tortured,” Correa said. “She had cigarette burns. They had pulled out her nails. She had been terribly tortured.

“She was an activist too,” Correa, added. “She did exactly the same work I did.”

Ledesma’s brutal fate led Amnesty International to choose her story as one of six symbolic cases to mark the 40th anniversary of its founding. But the murder did not lead Correa to consider exile. Only when her family began receiving written death threats the following year did she decide to leave Argentina.

“I still thought I could change things,” Correa said. “And I didn’t want to leave my family.”

This December 8, Correa became one of only a handful of transgendered people who have been granted political asylum in the U.S. She is the first transgendered woman from Argentina. While the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS)—formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service—does not keep such statistics, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) estimates that in the past 10 years, 250 transgendered people, most of them from Latin America, have sought asylum, with 45 winning refuge in the U.S.

“In the time that I have been working with the program, I would estimate that each month we receive an average of 40 information requests and five of those are from transgendered people,” said Mariela Mariano, an assistant at IGLHRC’s asylum program, herself a transgendered Peruvian woman granted asylum earlier this year.

Asylum is granted or denied following an interview with an asylum officer or in a hearing before an immigration judge. If denied, a person can appeal first to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) then to a federal court of appeals. If a person proves that they face persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, such as being gay or transgender, it bolsters their petition for asylum.

Persecution based on transgender status, however, is perhaps the hardest claim to prove.

“It’s kind of the catch-all category for applicants who don’t fit into other categories,” said Victoria Neilson, legal director of Immigration Equality, formerly known as the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force. Neilson said that within the same category, women fearing genital mutilation or domestic violence in countries where laws do not provide protections have also been granted asylum.

“There’s no precedential case which says that transgendered individuals must be considered a particular social group,” she explained. “But they fit well within established broad definitions of a particular social group.”

Precedents exist, however, for gay and lesbians persecuted because of their sexual orientation. In a 1990 case, in which evidence of persecution of homosexuals by the Cuban government was presented, the Board of Immigration Appeals established sexual orientation as a “particular social group.” Four years later, Janet Reno, who was then the attorney general, ruled that other gays and lesbians seeking asylum could rely on the case as a precedent.

When Geovonni Hernandez-Montiel, a gay Mexican who was born biologically male, but says he began to dress and behave as a female at age 12, applied for asylum, he was denied because the immigration judge did not find that his female self-identification was fundamental to his identity. Hernadez-Montiel appealed, and eventually won a landmark decision made by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in August of 2000 establishing that, “as a matter of law that gay men with female sexual identities in Mexico constituted a ‘particular social group’ and that Geovanni is a member of that group. His female sexual identity is immutable because it is inherent in his identity; in any event he should not be required to change it.”

The Ninth Circuit made the same decision again this year, in the case of Luis Reyes-Reyes, a gay man from El Salvador who identifies as a female.

More importantly, the court redefined this catch-all category to “one united by a voluntary association, including a former association, or by an innate characteristic that is so fundamental to the identities or consciences of its members that members either cannot or should not be required to change it,” a finding that clearly included transgender identities like those of Hernandez-Montiel and Reyes-Reyes.

“Sexual orientation and sexual identity are immutable; they are so fundamental to one’s identity that a person should not be required to abandon them,” the Hernandez-Montiel ruling stated.

Despite these rulings, according to experts, confusion abounds in asylum cases based on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to Neilson, most asylum decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“Thus, one judge might just accept at face value that ‘transgender individuals’ constitute a ‘particular social group’ for purposes of asylum while another judge may disagree and come up with [a] strained ‘particular social group’ definition like ‘homosexual men with female sexual identities,’” she explained.

“It’s a very sensitive issue,” said Flavio Alves, who until this month has been the director of Asylum Research, a national group that monitors the status of gay refugees in the U.S. “There is very little information for an immigration judge to rely on and there is still confusion between sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Besides being the first transgendered woman from Argentina granted asylum, Correa, who said that for “economic reasons” she has undergone gender reassignment surgery, made sure to argue her case not as a gay man with a female identity, but as a heterosexual transgendered woman.

That self-assurance with her identity did not come easily for Correa. In 1967, her parents moved to the small town of Olivera, population 2,000, outside Buenos Aires, so her father could run the local train station. Maria was born six years later and it was another six years before the next of her three siblings was born. Correa attended the neighboring town’s school because it was bigger. It was there, she explained, that she became known as a “geek.”

But for Correa, even “geek” was better than the notion she already felt inside herself but couldn’t yet identify.

“I preferred that they thought of me as a geek than in a different way. So I kept that disguise,” she said.

Correa’s father was diagnosed with cancer when she was six and for the next nine years, the family struggled with economic hardship as medical bills mounted. Eventually they sold a small general store they maintained in the front of their house to pay for his medical treatments.

By age 10, Correa was helping to raise her younger siblings and run the family’s store.

“In that situation, I never had any problems with my transexuality when I was young, because we had other problems,” Correa remarked.

Still, a certain realization always lingered.

“I knew internally,” said Correa, recalling a childhood habit of wearing fingernail polish. “Today I know that ever since I reached the age of reason—four or five—I was always this way.”

In order to find work after her father died, the 15-year-old Correa went to live with her grandparents in Buenos Aires, where a nagging realization became a full cry of awareness. Walking down the street one day, she met a transsexual who invited her to a birthday party. There, Correa removed her male clothing and identified herself as María Belén.

“I liked dressing as a woman, I liked that I felt free, that I had my name—the name I liked—that I wasn’t the only one,” she recalled.

Still, at first, Correa resisted the female identity her new peers pressured her to accept.

“One of my friends told me when you became a transsexual you’re going to have to leave your family because you can’t go and see them like you are now,” she recounted.

Correa was horrified at the way some of her peers lived, fears that fanned doubts: “Not wanting to be a transsexual was what I saw in other transsexuals and I didn’t want to be that way,” she said.

Transgendered people in Argentina, not unlike those in many countries, face daunting obstacles that prevent them from receiving equal legal treatment. Like most of Latin America, neither society nor government officials legitimizes the needs of certain individuals who claim they need to change their gender. According to Alejandra Sardá, IGLHRC’s Buenos Aires-based Latin America program coordinator, transgendered people face all types of persecution, including police round-ups and the abuse, including rape, that often follows.

“It’s like what it was like in the U.S. 50 years ago—a time where a person was repressed for any sort of outward sign of homosexual­ity,” said Andrew Reding, a human rights project director and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. “But in Latin America there is a much more hostile culture.”

Reding also mentioned what is perhaps the greatest cultural taboo faced by Latin Americans born biologically male who choose to become women: “There’s nothing more negative you can do as a man than turn yourself into a woman,” he said.

In Argentina, law enforcement officials crack down on transgendered people using arcane regulations, such as prohibitions against “creating scandals in public,” disturbing the public peace or crimes that can be defined as a “moral offense.”

“They won’t tell you what moral offense stands for or how you can offend this—it’s completely arbitrary,” Sardá said.

Periodically, up to100 transgendered women a day in Buenos Aires, according to IGLHRC, face detention under such statutes.

Until 1997, special laws called the “Police Edicts,” remnants of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and ‘80s, allowed police to detain anyone for up to 30 days without issuing an indictment, or granting habeas corpus. These edicts, partly due to the work of activists like Correa, have been abolished in the capital, but are in effect in the rest of the country.

In Buenos Aires, a more lenient law, known as el codigo de convivencia, or gathering law, has been amended to provide stiffer penalties for public sex workers.

Ironically, prostitution is legal when performed in private. Sardá says the code is arbitrarily, often illegally, enforced against transgendered people whether or not they are actually involved in prostitution.

“Not all trans people are sex workers,” she emphasized. “And even those who are, are often falsely accused or arrested without evidence.”

Sardá said that often the police arrest transgendered people who refuse to pay bribes in exchange for safe passage on the streets.

Argentina also prohibits sex change operations; procedures classified as genital mutilation that can lead to prison time for doctors who perform them as well as their patients.

Sardá noted that beyond legal hurdles, perhaps the most insidious oppression is the social ostracism transgendered people suffer.

“It is very difficult if you are trans to find a regular job—it is almost impossible,” she said. “It is also very difficult for trans people to remain in school for enough years to get an education.”

Name change requests are rarely granted, leading to a myriad of everyday problems, from renting an apartment to getting a passport.

“They are like illegal citizens in their own country,” Sardá said. “It is a situation not just of violence, but of terrible social exclusion.”

As a result, most transsexuals live in rundown hotels that charge exorbitant rents. Most seriously, employment opportunities are limited to hairdressing, sewing clothes or prostitution.

“The usual story is that at 12 or 13 they start to realize that they are trans and want to live in that gender,” explained Sardá. “Usually they are expelled from school and kicked out by their families and forced to live on the streets. Many end up in sex work or drug trafficking as a way to survive.”

Correa’s first arrest happened when she was 17 and was walking to the store to shop for her grandparents. By that time she was taking hormones and had long hair that gave what she described as an androgynous appearance. Police approached her and asked her for her identification. Despite explaining that she was just going to the nearby store for her grandparents, she was arrested and taken to jail.

“I was 14 hours in jail. I couldn’t even make a call so that my grandparents could come to get me and bring my papers,” Correa said. “That was my first experience with the police. My grandmother cried because of all the insults they called me.”

Years later, as she became more involved with the transgender community, it wasn’t uncommon for her to spend three days a week in jail. And Correa says she spent less time in jail than others because of her visibility as a leading activist.

The police housed the transgendered detainees in cells constructed during the dictatorship to imprison political dissidents, hidden in the basement of prisons. When supporters would come looking for Correa, the police showed them empty prison cells while she and her counterparts remained locked up in the basement.

“The cells were like a shoe box. You couldn’t lie down. You always had to be curled up,” Correa recalled. “They had a big hole, like a drain, for when they got you wet or when they killed you so blood could go down.”

One result of the work that Correa and others did to denounce and document these prison conditions—in part, by sneaking in hidden cameras—is that the cells once used to detain them have since been reconstructed into offices.

By 1993, Correa had turned the apartment her mother rented for her into a gathering place for a growing number of transgendered people—up to 60 on one Saturday—who crammed themselves in to sit and plan an organized response to the discrimination they faced. The group began to document their persecution—making note of specific police stations and officers—and filed complaints with federal authorities. Eventually, Correa’s neighbors complained and the police raided the apartment, taking all the group’s files.

Strategizing more closely against their opposition, the activists found an attorney to advise them of their rights.

“After the raid, the meetings were even bigger,” Correa explained. “The lawyer came to them and instructed us. With the lawyer, we began to present complaints to courts.”

The group became well known in the courts.

“At a certain point, after about two years, we had presented so many complaints that we were all well known to the police,” said Correa of the landmark founding in June of 1993 of ATTA. From 1995 until 2001, when she left Argentina, Correa led the group as general coordinator.

Under Correa’s leadership, the group held demonstrations in front of police stations.

“At that point the press wasn’t interested because the press wasn’t interested if they killed you or didn’t kill you,” Correa said. “Nowadays there has been so much commotion around being a transsexual, from me asking for asylum.”

By 1997, the group branched into three separate movements for transgender rights.

“Before we were focused more on lesbian and gay issues and not really aware of the situation that transgendered people suffered under us,” said IGLHRC’s Sardá of the years when ATTA was first active. “They educated us and they changed the lesbian-gay movement here in Argentina.”

In 2001, Correa, along with other transgendered leaders and IGLHRC representatives met with Dr. Abid Hussain, a United Nations official who investigates violations against freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After hearing their stories of persecution, Hussain offered the transgendered activists desperately needed moral support.

“I have listened to many painful stories during my visit [to Argentina], but your situation is the hardest,” he said. “You all have my sympathy and also my admiration because you are courageous, you are strong, you are united among yourselves and you are fighting back.”

Despite increased harassment by the police, Correa continued to reject any thought of leaving Argentina. On one occasion, as she was leaving her house, an unmarked car picked her up and took her to the parking lot of the local precinct.

“They dragged me in through the back,” Correa recounted. “Since they were all armed, they formed a circle there in the parking lot and the commissioner said, ‘Every time you see this person, this is what you have to do’ and grabbed a stick and began to hit me. And then they took turns and hit me.”

Her response to the abuse was simply to move from her apartment to one in a different police precinct.

Yet, once her family began to receive threats, following the publication of a profile on her in a popular women’s magazine, Correa reconsidered exile. One of her younger sisters got a threatening letter placed inside one of her school folders.

“That was when I decided I had to leave,” Correa said.

Quietly, she sold all her belongings, said goodbye to her friends without disclosing her plans and in April of 2001 went to the airport. Although she had hoped to go to Paris, where a friend lived, when a plane headed for Ecuador was due to leave in an hour and a half, she bought a ticket. Correa soon learned that conditions in Ecuador were worse than in Argentina, as they proved to be in Chile as well. Eventually, she wound up in Miami where she met New Yorkers who invited her to come live with them. However, on a train heading north, they tried to rob her.

When Correa arrived in New York in November of 2001, she decided to give the city three days. By December, she had a boyfriend. One day, she had her picture taken with a New York police officer, an experience that helped her get over her instinctive fear of cops. Soon after, she started her asylum application proceedings.

In Queens, Correa volunteers with the Hispanic AIDS Forum and is active in the transgender community.

“Here, the majority of transsexual groups speak English—there aren’t groups just for Latinos,” she said. “This is a point that I can help with here. We all have a destiny, and maybe that’s mine. Maybe that’s why I’m here in this place that wasn’t even in my plans. For some reason, I’m here.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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