In-Depth

Escaping Brutal Violence, Transgender Migrants Start Over In Texas

In December 2018, federal officials opened the first dorm in Texas meant for one group of asylum seekers: transgender women. Houston Public Media followed the journey of one transgender migrant from Honduras to Houston.

Salazar lives with her cousin’s family in Houston. She said she’s looking forward to having her own place one day.

From the time she was 7 until she was 12, Melanie Salazar says she was tortured, raped and beaten by family members. All because she was born a boy, but always knew inside she was a girl. She prefers Melanie, instead of her given name, Melanio.

But when a gang member repeatedly threatened to decapitate her with a chainsaw — after he raped and kidnapped her — she decided to flee her native Honduras and seek asylum in the United States.

She’s one of hundreds of migrants who are especially vulnerable because of their gender expression. And now federal officials and nonprofit lawyers are trying to do more to support transgender women as they flee violence in their home countries and try to start a new life in the United States. 

“I can’t return to Honduras,” Salazar said in Spanish. “If I step foot in the country I’ll be murdered the next day or even that same day. That’s why we [transgender women] have to run away, even though we don’t want to leave our families.” 

Escaping rape and torture

For Salazar, the violence started early in life. 

She remembers at 7 asking why her sister had long hair, and she had to have her hair short. She wanted to play with dolls and go to school, like other girls. Boys had to work. 

Then one day, Salazar’s dad surprised her at home. 

“I was wearing my mom’s dress and he started to torture me,” Salazar said. Her father also beat her mom, who tried to protect her. 

Salazar fled her hometown, Wampusirpi, a place with no electricity or roadways. 

She traveled in a long wooden boat, or “cayuco”, to her aunt’s home in another town. Once again she was met with violence. She said her uncle tortured her. Her cousin raped her when they went to chop firewood. 

“I was 12 years old. He raped me and said if I told my aunt he would kill me,” said Salazar.  

She fled again, careful with her secret, and always in boys’ clothing. She was finally able to attend school while living with a different uncle. She studied hard, got scholarships and became the first in her family to go to college. 

Salazar said she lost her clothes, but still has held onto her makeup.

In college, she faced more sexual violence. In one instance, a group of gang members cornered her and raped her repeatedly. 

But Salazar forged ahead with her studies and was about to graduate with a degree in education when she was again brutally attacked. This time she said a gang member kidnapped her, raped her and threatened to decapitate her with a chainsaw. 

This went on for weeks. 

“When I see a chainsaw, it makes me scared, I get nervous because I imagine the scene that I experienced,” said Salazar. 

Salazar wrote about this in her statement to immigration officials.

She said the only way to survive was to leave her country. And that’s what she did. 

She joined hundreds of transgender women in a migrant caravan last fall.

The migrant caravan

Just ahead of the November midterm elections in 2018, President Trump condemned the migrant caravan, calling it an “invasion.” The mass exodus to the United States dominated headlines. Among the thousands of migrants fleeing Central America: Salazar. She joined hundreds of other transgender women from Central America who were escaping similar brutality.

Inside the caravan, Salazar said she and other transgender women faced discrimination, but made it to the border with help from Mexican police and human rights workers. Border officials detained her and sent her to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Pearsall, Texas, 60 miles outside San Antonio. 

There, she got in touch with Cristian Sánchez, who works regularly with these women as an attorney with RAICES, a non-profit that helps migrants find legal aid. 

The nation’s second transgender pod

This is the first time ICE has provided a special area – or “pod” – for transgender women at a facility in Texas, according to Sánchez. Only one other transgender pod exists in the country, in Cibola, New Mexico. 

Sánchez remembers the first group of more than thirty women arriving to the pod in December 2018. 

“It’s harrowing, it’s some of the worst things I’ve ever heard as a lawyer,” said Sanchez.

“It’s not just discrimination, it’s violence and a lot of them have suffered violence. They’re not just fleeing death threats, but are fleeing attempts on their life and that is pretty universal from what I’ve seen,” he said.

At the Texas facility, dozens of transgender women were asking for asylum, hoping to restart their lives. 

Sánchez started helping women, including Salazar, find an attorney as a legal services coordinator. But he noticed as they were released, many had nowhere to go. 

“Often times they’ve been rejected by their family and that’s why they’re coming, so they often don’t have a place to stay,” he said.  

Sánchez expanded the help RAICES gave them, finding places for transgender women in shelters or connecting them to people willing to volunteer as sponsors.

“I feel like I had a duty to go further to make sure these women can be successful and start their lives,” said Sánchez.

Melanie said she feels most comfortable in women’s clothing and that she was born in the wrong body.

Transitioning into a new life

During the six months she was held inside the detention facility, Salazar rarely was allowed outdoors. Then, in May 2019, she won her case and was released. She said she ran out into the open air, like a child, and remembers shouting so loud she spooked an ICE official.  

Now, Salazar’s starting over in a new country, learning English and finding a job. It’s not easy, but she’s willing to work hard to accomplish her goals. 

She wants to finish her degree in education, have a place of her own and live freely as the person she was born to be.

“I see myself as a woman trapped in a man’s body,” said Salazar. 

Although Salazar goes by Melanie as her artistic name, her documents still say “Melanio”, her given name. And often she still goes by that name.   

“Within 10 years, I see myself different,” she said. “By then I’ll have transformed into who I want to be…to be the person I always wanted to be since my childhood, to have taken off this mask and not have to pretend to be someone else.”

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