By Becky Z. Dernbach, Medill, Immigrant Connect

For Mya* and her partner, the decision to sponsor two Honduran transgender sisters seeking asylum in the United States just made sense.

Photo credit: Tony Webster / Flicker

“I keep thinking about those ‘refugees are welcome here’ lawn signs,” said Mya, a professor in the San Francisco Bay Area. “What does this actually look like in practice? Sponsorship, I feel like.”

Mya, a fluent Spanish speaker who’d volunteered helping people fill out asylum applications in New York, and her partner, a health practitioner who specializes in transgender health issues, had just relocated to the Bay Area. Their new home had an extra bedroom and bathroom.

When a friend sent Mya a Facebook post detailing a need for sponsorship in the Bay Area for transgender women seeking asylum, Mya got in contact with Elaina Vermeulen, a transgender detention release specialist with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project is one of the groups helping to release the transgender asylum seekers on parole. Many transgender asylum seekers are detained in one facility: Cibola County Correctional Center, a private prison in New Mexico operated by CoreCivic.

A 2015 study by Transgender Europe, a transgender advocacy organization based in Berlin, found that Honduras has the highest number of murders of transgender people relative to the total population.

“In our Central American countries, our rights have been trampled,” Monserrat*, one of the Honduran sisters Mya is sponsoring, said in Spanish. “Migrants wanted an opportunity to be able to get out of that hell.”

Under existing policy, people who arrive at the border asking for asylum are typically detained immediately and indefinitely unless they have a sponsor to receive them.

Under existing policy, people who cross the border asking for asylum are typically detained for the duration of their asylum case unless they have a sponsor to receive them.

“Most asylum seekers who come to the U.S. are coming to the U.S. because they have family here,” said Ariel Prado, program manager with the Innovation Law Lab. However, he said, many asylum seekers come because the U.S. is their only option.

While in detention, Monserrat says she was put in solitary confinement for nearly three weeks and was denied her hormonal medication. But she couldn’t be released until she had a sponsor.

“The only way for an individual who is in the process of asking for asylum to be released is to a sponsor and a host, unless they’ve won asylum and been granted a release,” said Vermeulen.

While the Santa Fe Dreamers Project focuses on paroling transgender detainees in Cibola, Showing Up for Racial Justice has created a sponsorship matching program for asylum seekers across many detention facilities with varying nationalities, genders, and familial statuses. SURJ hosts a form on its website on which people can sign up to support the sponsorship process and host people in their homes. The Santa Fe Dreamers Project has a Google form for prospective sponsors.

Lawyers coordinating with these groups petition ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)  and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) to release detained individuals from custody to sponsors. Sponsors host asylum seekers in their homes while their cases are pending, and serve as the address on record to receive documents from courts about hearings. Advocates say sponsors should also have the ability to support someone who has experienced trauma.

“One of the biggest roles of the sponsor is to be there as a human face through all the really inhuman things that are happening,” Mya said.

After Mya reached out to Vermeulen, they spoke on the phone several times to make sure it would be a good fit.

“We want to make sure we’re sending individuals to really trans-competent, trauma-informed homes,” Vermeulen said.

Mya, Monserrat, and her sister enjoy In-N-Out Burger the night Monserrat arrived in the Bay Area. (Photo courtesy of Mya)

From there, things happened quickly. Mya sent proof of citizenship, address and income, as well as a letter detailing her family’s community support networks and connections with the transgender community. Twelve days after Mya sent her documentation, she picked up the first of the two sisters at the airport.

“One of the things that struck me about the whole process is how much power I had in it all — I could have been anyone with income and citizenship — and how little power the women who are detained have and how little credibility what they say is given,” Mya said.

Mya speaks Spanish fluently and had experience with asylum cases. Her partner is transgender and specializes professionally in transgender health. For them, sponsorship was a logical fit.

But you don’t need a special set of skills or knowledge to sponsor someone seeking asylum, said Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen of the Unitarian Universalist Association, one of the groups coordinating sponsorship with SURJ.

“I think we all bring skills and you never know what skills you bring that might actually be amazing,” Nguyen said. “The willingness to live with uncertainty and problem-solve like a champ and deeply respect someone else’s decision-making, those are the key things.”

“You have to find a way to both support them and also let them function like your roommate,” said Kari Points, who coordinates the sponsorship team for SURJ. “We want to avoid situations where you feel like a white savior toward people. They’re adults, they’re going to live their life, they’re living in your house.”

Monserrat and Mya both said being able to communicate in Spanish was important. But Points notes that not all asylum seekers speak Spanish, and that roles are available for sponsors without these language skills.

Advocates stress that sponsorship is a serious commitment, and that other roles are available for people who cannot be sponsors.

“It’s actually an enormous commitment to ask someone to host someone in your home for six to 12 months,” Points said. Some people SURJ vets wind up getting involved in other ways: “putting money into somebody’s commissary account, accompanying them to ICE check-ins, helping a family buy groceries, or helping them find appropriate medical and mental health care or legal representation,” she said.

Mya and her partner have experienced the first few weeks of sponsorship as “both filled with joy

One of the sisters’ stuffed animals sits on the stairs that lead up to their bedroom at Mya’s house. (Photo courtesy of Mya)

and really difficult in some ways.” They’ve been learning to adjust to the new rhythms of having two new people in the home, enjoying spending time at the gym pool together, and accompanying the sisters to and from lots of doctors’ appointments.

It’s also an added financial responsibility, including paying for food, travel expenses, and clothing for the sisters, as well as providing an allowance so they have flexibility. One of the sisters developed an infection that resulted in an emergency bill Mya is figuring out how to pay for. “We’re drawing on our communities in lots of ways for that too, and lots of other sponsors do that too,” she said.

On Thanksgiving, Mya and Monserrat’s family enjoyed dinner together with a deep sense of thankfulness for each other. “We shared what we were grateful for and there was a lot of mutual gratitude from both them and us,” Mya said.

For Nguyen’s family, sponsorship of refugees and asylum seekers is deeply personal. Her father and his parents, refugees from Vietnam, were sponsored by a family in Milwaukee in 1975 through Lutheran Social Services. Nguyen says the call to sponsor asylum seekers is fundamentally a call for people to live their values.

“I would really urge people to dig deep around what they have been taught about hospitality in their lives and to think deeply about what you would want if it were you,” she said. “What would you want if you were fleeing violence and you were a resilient powerful person fighting for your life and you were in ICE jail, and the thing that would get you out is someone saying ‘I will have your back for a while’?”

With thousands more asylum seekers from a recent exodus trying to enter the country, SURJ and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project hope to scale up their sponsorship placements.

Monserrat is thankful to have been released and appreciates having sponsors who treat her with respect, unlike so many people she encountered in Honduras, on the journey, and in immigrant detention. But she keeps thinking of the friends she left behind in Cibola.

“There are more Central American sisters out there who long to get out,” she said in Spanish. “They wait for the miracle of news to be delivered saying, you are getting out of here.”

  • Mya prefers not to have her full name used, and the name Monserrat is a pseudonym. The precautions are being taken to protect them from retaliation by immigration authorities.

Photo at top: Mya and Monserrat’s sister welcome Monserrat as she arrives at the airport. Name on the sign has been blurred to protect anonymity. (Photo courtesy of Mya)