New York has given me that Refuge
In this film, refugee South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her migration from Pakistan and her life in New York as a trans woman.
I CAME HERE FIGHTING, FIGHTING, SURVIVING
I joined a group of twenty-five or thirty people of all ages heading for the border. Most people making the trip pay a lot of money to guides to help them, like 50,000 quetzales. But we couldn’t afford that. We made it very far together. We hopped a lot of trains, suffered hunger, suffered cold, and worried that gangs or cartels would catch us, would kill us. There is so much cruelty on this trip, right? I know that lots of things have happened on these routes through the desert, how many people have been killed coming from Central America. I came here fighting, fighting, surviving.
My group made it to Sinaloa, and one evening there we were waiting to catch a train. It was about six o’clock and already getting dark. Some men walked into the middle of our group, and the way they looked made me nervous. Then I noticed one of them had a pistol. Suddenly one of them said, “Everyone down! Everyone down, now!” So we threw ourselves onto the ground. I didn’t have any money, but the rest of the group had some money and their phones. So the guys took everything and left, but, thank God, they didn’t do anything else to us. They were bandits, gangsters. In Sinaloa they are called EI Sufragio. […]
“AN IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL IS GOING TO COME GET YOU”
After what happened in Sinaloa, our group split up, and we all found our own ways to the border. I was solito, solito!
I decided to try to cross by myself, and I didn’t want to cross in the desert because I thought, if I go into the desert, it’s going to be really hot, and I’m going to die, right? So I tried to cross the US border in Calexico Mexicali.
I went to the line at customs. While I was standing in line, I saw a little space off the line where nobody seemed to be looking, and I tried to sneak through across the border. But an immigration officer spotted me and said, “Go back!” I didn’t go back. I just kept walking. Then the officer caught up to me, restrained me, searched me, and then put me in his car. The officer spoke Spanish, and he said, “Well, you’re so young, so boyish. How old are you? Are you a minor?” And I said, “Yes, I’m seventeen.” “Okay,” he said, “Why did you come to the United States?” I said, “I want to be here, but I don’t have family or anything.” And I started to tell him my story.
He drove me to a detention center. The officers there spoke Spanish. They were very good people. They asked me what I was doing in the United States. I told them, “I want to work, to help my family.” They only fed us soup. Every day, three soups, and always the same. There were very small rooms and there were a bunch of us there, one person next to another on the floor. There were young men together, fifteen to seventeen, around that age. Then there was a separate room with men, only men. In another area, there were women and children.[…]
I was locked up there for nine days, and after that the authorities sent me to Houston, to a camp with others from detention. We were all minors, and I was there for three or four days. The camp had small houses, six cabins on either side. It wasn’t a prison, and there were no police, only normal staff, but we couldn’t leave.
And then sent me on a plane to Fairfield, California. Maybe they sent me here, to California, because it’s the state, I think, where they help migrants the most. I was put in a house with other migrants in Fairfield that was part of BCFS [Baptist Child and Family Services]. The director of the program was named Miss Nelly.
I was there in the house with Miss Nelly for six months. It was a normal house, but there were eighteen of us living there. Everyone else had family in the United States. Everyone stayed for one month, and then their families would come pick them up. They treated us very well there. We went to school – it was a big school. We had free time, and there was very good food! They would ask us, “What do you want to eat?” lt didn’t matter how much it cost. I had a very comfortable bed. Everything was great there. They even gave us MP3 players to listen to music, one for each of us.
The program staff found me a lawyer, and they told me, “When you turn eighteen, two days before your birthday, you are going to enter a program in San Francisco, the Huckleberry House. There are rules, but you’ll be able to work and go to school freely.” I even went to the house with them to see where I was going to live. We visited, and two days before my birthday, they said, “You are going to go tomorrow.”
The next day arrived, and nothing happened. So I asked the program people and my lawyer about it, and they said, “We don’t know what’s happening with your case. We turned in your paperwork, but they didn’t accept you.” Then they said that since I was turning eighteen, I couldn’t stay at Miss Nelly’s because I would no longer be a minor. They told me, “We’re sorry. An immigration official is going to come get you.” I was so afraid of going to prison that I wanted to cry. I said, “I want to leave. It doesn’t matter if they kill me in Guatemala. I want to go now and sign for a voluntary deportation.” Then I went to my room, and ten minutes after they told me that an immigration official was coming, he arrived. They said, “He’s come for you. We’re all very sad, and we hope that you go with God and that you have good luck.” I wasn’t crying anymore in front of them, but I was thinking, I’ve now been locked up.
Mayers, Stevens, Freedman, Jonathan, 2019: Solito, Solita. Crossing Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America. Haymarker Books, Chicago, pp. 150-153.
In addition to poverty and a lack of prospects, fear of (gang) violence is a central cause of flight for many people from Central America. Around 7.5 million illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America live in the USA. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also estimates that about 100,000 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala apply for asylum in the United States each year. To avoid arrest, refugees must pay smugglers, known as coyotes, corrupt border agents and take risky escape routes. During their flight, migrants are repeatedly abducted, mistreated and sexually assaulted. Many are considered missing. As a result, at the end of 2018, a large migration train formed in Honduras, joined by thousands of people from El Salvador and Guatemala, to cross into the U.S. through Mexico under cover of the crowd and on foot. However, they were denied entry to the border on the grounds that they were not from a country at war and therefore not eligible for asylum.