Opinion | Where L.G.B.T.Q. Migrants Find the True Meaning of Shelter

TIJUANA, Mexico — Steam curls off a plate overloaded with fresh tamales as refugees gather around a buffet-style dinner table, laughing together on a chilly evening here. Nearby, a pregnant woman shoos away toddlers underfoot, and one woman flips the hair of a blond wig so grand, it practically sweeps the cracked concrete floor. Across the room, a jovial young man teases a group of excited boys who are lining up to hit a rainbow-shaped pinata — a nod to the L.G.T.B.Q.-friendly space of Casa de Luz, where everyone gathered for this posada celebration in December.

Casa, which opened in February 2019, is one of a handful of Tijuana shelters catering to a group that includes trans women, gay men and mothers traveling alone with children — among the most vulnerable and endangered refugee populations, according to a 2017 Amnesty International Report. Casa de Luz houses 35 residents, on average, many of whom are from Central America, seeking asylum in the United States as they escape dangerous homophobia, extreme economic instability and various threats of violence in their countries of origin. Residents of the shelter say Mexico’s government does not condone such mixing of shelter populations and therefore will not provide federal or state funding to those who serve mixed communities.

Irving Mondragón, a Mexican who manages Casa de Luz, says it is exactly that form of mixed community that migrants need. “We are a family, so we help each other in our way,” he said.

When I began photographing the residents at Casa, my focus was documenting the network of activists and advocates collaborating to build community and provide resources to the region’s refugees.

The migrant caravan of late 2018 — the largest of its kind at the time and an inspiration for various immigration policies deployed by the Trump administration — left an estimated 1,500 migrants stranded along the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, a sprawling city of 1.3 million people, with the busiest border crossing in the world. Here, thousands of refugees were left without reliable shelter, food, access to water or support. Many were met at the border by armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, vitriolic anti-Latino immigrant sentiment from former President Donald Trump and wait times of several months to have their asylum cases heard in court.

In that vacuum of U.S. and Mexican governmental support, human rights activists, advocacy lawyers and other groups and individuals joined with migrants to build ad hoc networks of legal, financial and material assistance. Networked community care was integral to the survival of L.G.T.B.Q. individuals and mothers traveling alone with children.

Sofia Bravo, a trans woman from El Salvador who has struggled with drug addiction, is one of the more recent additions to the Casa family. She was at the worst moment in her life when she arrived at Casa de Luz, she told me. Like many of its residents, she spoke lovingly of the space, which has offered food, shelter and a welcoming, identity-confirming home for L.G.T.B.Q. asylees.

In particular, Covid-19’s economic and social restrictions and health ramifications and dangers have hit refugees hard in the past year. Being a mixed community allowed the shelter to support its children; residents pooled funds to hire tutors via Zoom, and they shared child care duties. Parents in essential jobs were able to continue working because their children were cared for, despite closed schools.

On a Saturday morning in December 2020, all seven children then living at Casa de Luz piled onto the shelter’s single sofa and waited patiently under a poster that read, “We must love and support one another.” Genesis and Paola, both 8, volunteered to share their storytelling homework first, presenting their notes alongside photos gathered on a cellphone to a teacher who listened attentively via Zoom. A weekly tutor leads the students on nature walks through the Tijuana landscape and helps the children write their personal stories.

Organizations like Al Otra Lado, which provides free legal help, prepare the shelter’s residents for their day in asylum court, and they also help one another. More important, residents say, is the community they’ve built, a physically and psychologically safe place to be queer, to be migrants, to live through the pandemic.

“If I leave Casa de Luz, I would love to still be a part of it,” Ms. Bravo said. “I want to be an example and help others who arrive.”

There are few creature comforts at Casa. Many residents live in tents or other makeshift spaces within the building. There is no hot water — or privacy. Many hope to join family or friends in the United States, where being trans, gay or a single mother isn’t as dangerous.

Asylum seekers have a difficult road ahead, navigating the rapidly shifting refugee policies of the U.S. government and the threats of homophobia and violence on their journey. Casa de Luz can’t solve these problems, but it — and other places like it — can ensure that its residents don’t face them alone.

This article is part of Fixes, a series that explores solutions to major social problems. To receive email alerts for Fixes columns, sign up here.

Tara Pixley is a photojournalist and an assistant professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University. This article was produced with support from the World Press Photo Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative. Reporting on this story was assisted by the translation and other support of Pepe Rojo and Christina Aushana.

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