Moving from one migrant shelter to another, Susana Coreas – a transgender asylum seeker from El Salvador – endured rundown buildings, broken toilets, and eviction, so she jumped at the chance to open a refuge of her own.
Coreas, 40, was working as a cleaner in a bar in Ciudad Juarez, on the US-Mexico border, when her bosses said she could live in an old hotel they had bought.
Coreas and seven others fixed up the building, and it became Casa de Colores – House of Colors – now home to 43 LGBT+ migrants and asylum seekers, seeking a safe place to live, as they wait to cross to the United States.
“It was never my plan to create a shelter,” Coreas said.
“At the end of the day, I did it to survive, and that includes the people close to me.”
Coreas is one of thousands of migrants stuck in Mexican border cities, waiting for a chance to ask for asylum in the United States.
Since the pandemic started, the border has been closed off for the vast majority of those seeking asylum.
President Joe Biden has begun to allow entry to those who were in his predecessor’s ‘remain in Mexico’ programme, which sent asylum seekers back to Mexico, while their cases were reviewed.
But those yet to file claims have little choice but to wait, and new migrants have continued to arrive.
“The number of people in migratory limbo is growing,” said Raymundo Tamayo, country director in Mexico for the International Rescue Committee, which has given economic support and security kits to Coreas and her associates.
“Migration policies have changed really quickly in recent months,” he added.
Under pressure from critics, the Biden administration said that he would raise the cap on refugee admissions this year, but not as high as its initial goal.
For gay and trans people in El Salvador, local gang violence and entrenched social prejudices can be a deadly mix. Human Rights Watch said in a recent report [that] they often face violence and discrimination.
Discrimination, as well as the lack of economic opportunity, and the desire to be with her son in the United States, drove Coreas’ decision to leave El Salvador with a migrant caravan in January last year.
Long waits to request asylum at the border, and lockdown restrictions over the last year, have further squeezed tight capacity in migrant shelters, which were already struggling to meet demand, due to the Trump administration’s policies.
After a series of bad experiences in other shelters in Ciudad Juarez, Casa de Colores was born.
Coreas, who used to run a construction firm back home, and her fellow volunteers garnered donations of food, money, and other help, to make the shelter what it is today.
“Maybe that’s why we grew so quickly … from not existing to becoming part of the Ciudad Juarez network of shelters,” she said of her business experience.
“Several people have told me it’s unprecedented.”
Coreas pays rent to the building’s owners from donations, and is negotiating permanent premises for the shelter, so it can continue to offer safe haven to other LGBT+ migrants when she and her friends move on.
“The idea is, when we leave, the shelter moves there and stays for future generations and for the long term,” she said.
By Christine Murray, Thomson Reuters Foundation