Susana “Susy” Barrales cuts a dash in downtown Tijuana, exchanging hellos with neighbors, friends and acquaintances whenever she heads out from her modest office, where the walls are adorned with framed awards from local government entities praising her advocacy work.

The shelter she runs in the city on the Mexico border with California has become a destination for many from other Mexican cities and countries in Central America, and beyond, who hear about it on the migration grapevine.

Her niche is using her own experiences to help transgender women who are fleeing persecution and looking for support and healthcare, often in Tijuana en route to the US.

Not long after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, several of Barrales’s friends in Tijuana started dying of complications with the virus. When many of them went to pharmacies or hospitals, nurses and doctors refused to help them because the patients couldn’t verify their identities, Barrales said.

“I started knocking on doors, getting informed about how I could help other transgender women like me,” she said. The 44-year-old, from Puebla in central Mexico, added: “Then someone told me, ‘Do you know what you can do so people listen to you? Start an organization.’”

Three years after she founded La Casita UT (AKA Little Home Unión Trans), her organization has helped more than 80 people legally change their names and receive appropriate medical care, she said.

Her initial mission of serving Mexican transgender women in Tijuana expanded unexpectedly in late 2020 when there was a knock at the door.

It was a Salvadorian migrant, Wendy Méndez, saying she was worried that if she surrendered to US border officials they would deport her to El Salvador, where gangsters had raped her after she refused to smuggle drugs into a prison, and where she had feared for her life because of her gender identity.

The year prior, Camila Díaz Córdova, another transgender woman, was killed by three police officers in El Salvador after being deported by the US authorities.

By international law, Méndez should have been able to request asylum in the US and enter the legal process there, but two restrictive policies had been introduced by then president Donald Trump.

The migrant protection protocols program, known as “Remain in Mexico”, had forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to stay in Mexico, often in harsh and dangerous circumstances, link until their cases were reviewed by US courts, while the emergency Title 42 public health rule allowed officials to turn away or summarily expel people at the border.

Besides, before she could attempt to cross the border, Méndez needed medical assistance: she had contracted HIV as a result of the rape.

She’d been traveling without medication and Barrales suggested Méndez stay in Tijuana for a while.

“Susy was like a mother, she took me to the hospital and took care of me,” Méndez said, speaking from Brooklyn, New York, where she has now been living for the past three years. “Susy also made me feel beautiful again, to be comfortable with being transgender.”

Barrales recalls helping her out, especially because “she reminded me of a younger version of myself”, she said.

In May 2016, Barrales had hoped to cross the US-Mexico border again. She had previously lived in the US for more than 20 years, including five years in prison for crimes she attributed to people she befriended at work who sold drugs. She recounted how she was sexually abused and raped while incarcerated and then, after completing her sentence, deported to Mexico.

She went back to Puebla, a city she had left at 19, but all too quickly old-time neighbors followed her to her family’s house calling out sexualized insults. Her nephews wanted to confront the men, she said. But Barrales simply concluded Puebla wasn’t for her. She left for Tijuana.

It was torrid at first: she couldn’t find support and slept under a bridge for several days. In the streets, she met many migrants from different nationalities. She worked until she could pay for her own apartment, where she then hosted other unhoused transgender women.

There, a community started to grow, spending nights talking about common struggles and educating themselves about HIV and hormone treatments.

In such uncertain times, she discovered her purpose and stayed.

“I am a transgender woman, but I am also a migrant, why would I turn my back on them?” she said, adding: “We have welcomed migrants who’ve been beaten, robbed and sexually abused. We don’t want them to feel they are alone.”

Over the course of Title 42, which remained in place under Joe Biden until its termination on 11 May, Barrales said La Casita UT received hundreds of young transgender women, especially from El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela, whose citizens were being expelled from the US.

Miriam Cano, secretary of social inclusion and gender equality for the state government of Baja California, in north-west Mexico, said: “LGBT migrants come to Tijuana because of its proximity to the US, but more importantly, because they see the other side of the border as a space free of discrimination, where they can find work opportunities, many aspects they can’t find in their own countries, including Mexico.”

For her help along the way promoting social inclusion and preventing discrimination and violence, local government awards hang on Barrales’s office wall and she’s been named honorary social commissioner of Tijuana.

Early one Sunday morning, seven guests of La Casita UT stood in an unfurnished living room in the absolute quiet of deep concentration. The four Mexicans, two Venezuelans and one Salvadorian stared at their phones, trying to secure one of the limited number of appointments to request asylum released every morning by the US authorities through CBP One, the federal government’s mobile app that is now the main portal to seek asylum for those arriving at the border.

People browse the CBP One mobile app in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico.
People browse the CBP One mobile app in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state, Mexico. Photograph: Hérika Martínez/AFP/Getty Images

“We had someone who wanted to kill herself because she couldn’t get an appointment and didn’t want to go back home. She was afraid,” Barrales said. She indicated the woman, who had closed her eyes and put her head back as if in silent prayer as she waited for the app to load her request.

By 8.30am, none of the migrants had successfully secured an appointment. In the dejected silence, Barrales raised her voice: “Tomorrow will be a new day, girls, a better day.”

Between January, when CBP One was made available to asylum seekers, and 30 April, only five transgender migrants housed at La Casita UT were able to secure an appointment through the mobile app, she said.

One of them was Estefany Lozano, from Lázaro Cárdenas, on the central Pacific coast of Mexico.

“One man from my home town told me that he would kill me if I stayed any longer,” Lozano, 27, said. “My mother told me, ‘You have to leave.’ Then a friend of mine told me about La Casita.”

Lozano arrived in Tijuana on 5 February, and after three months she was able to secure an appointment through CBP One – although the interview was more than 400 miles away in Nogales, on the Arizona-Mexico border.

On 4 May, she stood in line with other migrants and when it was her turn, federal immigration officials told her to wait to one side after reviewing her Mexican identification card, which still states the name her parents gave her at birth, she said.

Others were being let in ahead of her and she fretted. Then a female officer took her to a room and asked what name she would like to be referred to by.

“She was very respectful, asked why I was fleeing my country and then took my fingerprints. Then she told me that my immigration court date will be in Tennessee,” Lozano said.

Tennessee, like a growing wave of Republican-controlled US states, is championing anti-transgender laws amid a rightwing push against abortion, gun control, immigration and wider LGBTQ+ equality.

But Lozano is encouraged by the bigger picture of her life as she looks forward, as well as back.

“Even though I’m already thinking about my future here, I often think of La Casita, especially of Susy. As soon as I make some money, I’ll send her a little gift. I’m so thankful for her.”


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