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Juárez shelter for trans women closes as U.S. relaxes some asylum barriers

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CIUDAD JUAREZ – The final days at Casa de Colores were hectic as the last residents living in the old hotel turned migrant shelter prepared to leave.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” said Fernanda Levin, a 25-year-old trans woman from El Salvador. “I’m happy that I’ll be able to fulfill my dream, but we’re sad that Casa de Colores is closing.

Fernanda Levin was one of the last residents at Casa de Colores on Monday. The shelter, which was founded in November 2020, was shut down this week after the mostly Salvadoran migrants living there were allowed to enter the United States to request asylum. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

This dilapidated hotel has been a home for mostly Central American trans women, stuck in limbo in downtown Ciudad Juárez, waiting for the chance to ask for asylum in the United States.  

They had been unable to seek relief under a policy commonly referred to as Title 42. Under the rule, U.S. Border Patrol agents can quickly expel some undocumented immigrants before they are allowed to legally ask for asylum. It began in March 2020 in what the Trump administration said was an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and has been kept in place under President Joe Biden.

But the Biden administration has recently implemented exceptions to the rule that allow a growing number of migrants allowed in under “humanitarian exceptions.” They include some transgender migrants and some migrant families with young children. 

Corrie Boudreaux of El Paso Matters documented the final weeks of the Casa de Colores shelter.

At issue, however, is how the most vulnerable are being identified and selected.

“What exactly is the criteria, who chooses them; that I can’t tell you,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit organization that provides temporary shelter to migrants and refugees.  “I just don’t know.”

According to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, “This humanitarian exception process involves close coordination with international and non-governmental organizations in Mexico and COVID-19 testing before those identified through this process are allowed to enter the country.”

In recent weeks, groups of between a dozen and as many as 50 people have been allowed to cross from Juárez to El Paso almost daily, Garcia said. Most other migrants are still being expelled.

“Here in El Paso, Title 42 is still being enforced,” Garcia said

It’s also not clear how many migrants are being granted humanitarian exceptions.  

The migrant trans women in Juárez have been waiting between six months to two years for the chance to cross into the United States to ask for asylum. The Casa de Colores shelter, funded by U.S. donors and international organizations in Mexico, opened last November.

Nearly 50 trans women lived at the shelter at one point. Most of the residents were from El Salvador, where they faced discrimination and the threat of violence. “We can’t be what we want to be. In my country, you’re either a boy or a girl,” Levin said.

She said transgender people are forced to live in the shadows. In Ciudad Juárez, they started their own shelter after some of the trans women ended up on the streets. They even adopted a little puppy named Trixie. One of the shelter residents said they found a new home for the little dog.

Alexa Ponce expresses her hopes for life in the United States during the final days of her stay at Casa de Colores in Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“I’ve learned that family is not only blood. Family is also a decision,” said Salvadoran  Alexa Ponce, 27.  She said she felt an “avalanche of emotions” as she and the others worked to pack up and close down the shelter.

“We created this out of necessity. But we now see there must be a way to make it endure, even when we’re no longer here,” Ponce said.

The mostly empty rooms were filled with memories. There are a few cans of food, an envelope of Tang and  an English/Spanish dictionary in one room. In another, only a single platinum blonde wig was left behind.

A single wig is left behind in one of the bedrooms at Casa de Colores as the few remaining residents of the shelter cleaned out the building. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In other rooms, the walls are painted with large images. One is of a woman with hair sprouting into a leafy tree.  Another has a ballerina holding an umbrella.

We started a beautiful project and now we’re thinking about the girls who come after us. Where will they go? What will happen to them?” Ponce said.

Casa de Colores closed its doors when the last residents left Wednesday for new lives in the United States. 

“The shelter was started by eight girls, now it’s ending with eight girls,” Levin said.

On Wednesday, those eight women walked across the Ysleta international bridge from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso. They will depart for other cities in the United States to live with relatives or sponsors as their cases move through immigration court.

For some, the excitement of a new life is tempered by the unknown.

Yazmin Ferrer, a trans woman from El Salvador, was one of the last residents remaining at Casa de Colores. Ferrer entered the United States on Wednesday to request asylum. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Yazmin Ferrer, 23, a trans woman from El Salvador, is looking forward to being reunited with her mother, who left for the United States to work when Ferrer was just a toddler. Her mother now lives in Iowa and Ferrer has only spoken to her on the phone or via video chat.

“It’s been 20 years since I’ve given her a hug. My heart is full of joy,” said Ferrer, who wants to become a nurse.  “I want to move forward.  I couldn’t do that back home, but hope to achieve it in the U.S.”

Cover photo: Residents of Casa de Colores wave from the rooftop of the shelter on April 12. The shelter, which provided a home for trans migrants in Juárez, closed this week as the last of its residents entered the United States to request asylum under a new exception to pandemic restrictions. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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