10 transgender women seeking asylum just won their immigration cases after months of violence and discrimination

By Kate Smith

/ CBS News

Is there room for asylum seekers?

Ten transgender women who traveled with the caravan that President Trump targeted during the midterm elections have won their asylum cases and been released from a detention center in Texas.

For Estrellita, the decision to flee her home country of Honduras to seek asylum in the United States wasn't an easy one. Even though she faced discrimination for being transgender, she considered staying so she could help others like her.

"I wanted to change things but that made me more of a target," Estellita told CBS News via email. "I was assaulted and threatened by those who didn't agree with me and hated trans people. I love my country and wouldn't have left but for the persecution I suffered. But I thought the U.S. would be pretty and the people would be nice and that has turned out to be true."

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The 10 were part of a roughly 80-member group of LGBTQ migrants from Central America that splintered off from a much larger caravan of thousands that came up through Central America in the fall. The larger group was a frequent target of Mr. Trump in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections. Mr. Trump often referred to the group as an "invasion," despite the group being hundreds of miles away.

"I am telling the caravan, the criminals, the smugglers, the trespassers marching toward our border, turn back now, because you are not getting in. Turn back," Mr. Trump said at a campaign rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee in early November, days before the election.

Among the 80, was a smaller group of 30 transgender women who presented themselves together at the border in Tijuana. They were immediately detained at South Texas Detention Center, an immigration prison that, prior to the group's arrival, had no experience in housing transgender women.

Estrellita said that she plans to open a trans women's shelter. "So many advocates have helped me and I want to turn around and help others," she said.

Her comments to CBS News have been translated by Cristian Sanchez, an attorney at Raices, an immigrant rights group in Texas. Sanchez worked closely with the group of transgender asylum seekers to match them with attorneys and sponsors.

Cataleya, another one of the 10, said in a video posted on Twitter that she felt "extremely happy because my dreams have come true."

"I feel so happy because I know that I'm heading to my new life," she said. "My future starts now."

That's for another today. For today, please take a moment within the #MuellerReport madness and listen to Estrellita and Cataleya who are so goddam happy to be free: “I feel so happy because I know I’m heading to my new life.” pic.twitter.com/JyIdme2HGr

— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) April 18, 2019

The path to asylum was not easy. Traveling through Central America to the United States is a notoriously difficult journey, but for members of the LGBTQ community, the trip brings even more danger, said Aaron Morris, the executive director of Immigration Equality, an LGBTQ immigrant rights organization.

"The reality is that it's extremely difficult to make that journey without a strong community behind you," Morris said in a telephone interview with CBS News. "People can often get targeted by the very people that they're traveling with."

While traveling in the caravan, some of the women said they experienced "derogatory name calling and insults from others in in the caravan," Sanchez said. While some migrants were offered rides in vehicles, Sanchez said that the transgender women weren't allowed on those rides. According to Raices, migrants said that while traveling in the caravan they were "the last ones to be taken care of — for food, everything." That's why the LGBTQ members banded together.

Estrellita, a transgender woman, says she faced persecution for her gender identity in Honduras, her home country. Cristian Sanchez

Sanchez and Estrellita claim the harassment continued after they applied for asylum and were detained at the Texas facility. According to Sanchez, officers were "discriminatory and used derogatory slurs against them."

"Although I do believe South Texas Detention Center is trying its best given a new situation, there are definitely some ways that STDC can improve their care," Sanchez said in an email to CBS News.

An ICE official told CBS News that they would look into the allegations.

The remaining 20 or so transgender women remain in custody at South Texas awaiting court dates or have already lost their cases, according to Sanchez. Estrellita and Cataleya are the lucky ones; immigration judges only approved 35 percent of asylum cases in 2018, a record low, according to data provided by the Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

First published on May 2, 2019 / 5:56 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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