Empowering Border Butterflies to help LGBTQ+ migrants at the southern border

Over the past decade, the erosion of the asylum system, coupled with restrictive policies implemented by the previous administration and border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, created a daunting set of obstacles for LGBTQ+ migrants. Navigating the asylum process became increasingly challenging, and the backlog of cases and work permit applications grew exponentially. LGBTQ+ migrants found themselves in a precarious situation, struggling to apply for asylum, survive while awaiting their case adjudication and secure the protection they desperately needed.

When confronted with the immigration crisis at the southern border and, more specifically, the significant challenges and resource gap for LGBTQ+ migrants, a transformative, transnational initiative called the Border Butterflies Project (BBP) emerged. This collaborative effort, led by the Transgender Law Center (TLC), Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement and other partners, aims to address the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ migrants, who often carry with them the weight of past traumas and escapes from violence.

At the end of 2021, CDP awarded a grant from the CDP Disaster Recovery Fund to TLC to support the Border Butterflies Project. This crucial support enabled the collective to make a lasting impact on individuals who have been made vulnerable by the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender and forced migration status.

A key aspect of successful disaster recovery is building culturally competent support networks. When LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers are released from the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they frequently encounter a severe lack of culturally competent resources.

For example, LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers face insufficient access to removal defense attorneys with experience supporting LGBTQ+ clients. Their situation is exacerbated by a scarcity of safe and culturally-sensitive housing options and a lack of appropriate medical and mental health resources. The funding received from CDP for the Border Butterflies Project made a direct impact on addressing these critical needs.

These funds helped the TLC and its coalition partners expand their outreach, increase policy advocacy efforts, and empower LGBTQ+ and migrant leaders and organizers to become self-advocates through “Know Your Rights” training. TLC also provided essential and holistic resources to LGBTQ+ migrants at the southern border “to ensure LGBTQ+ migrants are freed from detention, can access safety and have their immediate needs met.”

Through strategic collaborations, TLC staff and other BBP partners provided direct legal services to more than 1,000 people, including 14 in immigration detention and 30 who were briefly detained by CBP. Services included expertly crafted parole requests for detained clients, preparation for and representation in Credible Fear Interviews, preparation of asylum applications, and referrals to removal defense attorneys competent to represent LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers.

In three particularly complex cases, BBP provided direct legal representation in asylum trials. Of those three, two were adjudicated in the transgender migrants’ favor. The remaining case is pending as of June 2023.

Legal work for each client began in Mexico, where BBP also connected about 600 LGBTQ+ migrants to humanitarian assistance, including food, shelter, and medical and mental healthcare. Critically, BBP staff ensured that LGBTQ+ migrants were resourced before reaching their U.S.-based sponsors’ homes with at least a cell phone, adequate clothing for the journey and food during travel.

With support from CDP, the Border Butterflies Project successfully transformed the lives of more than 1,000 LGBTQ+ migrants. By recognizing and addressing their unique needs, the project fostered a profound sense of safety, dignity and empowerment for those who have persevered through unimaginable hardships. Through ongoing support and collective efforts, the Border Butterflies Project continues to make an enduring and profound impact, illuminating a brighter future for LGBTQ+ migrants seeking safety and protection for themselves and future generations.

Photo: Border Butterflies Project staff member Emem leads a “Know Your Rights” training. Photo courtesy of Transgender Law Center.