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I’ve recently been, reevaluating all I’ve ever known in my 19 years of existence on this planet. The people I’ve met here in Tucson are some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met: courageous, unrelenting, inspiring. The past two weeks have been the most informative weeks of my life, witnessing things that I could never experience in a classroom setting. It has completely changed my perception of my country, a place I thought championed the core values of equality, justice, etc. Those I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard, however, tell a completely different story.

My work focuses mostly in Mariposas Sin Fronteras, a Tucson-based group that concentrates on supporting and eventually releasing LGBTQ+ folks from detention centers. The past couple of days at work has been mostly informational, in that I’ve spent most of the time researching what it means to be both queer and undocumented. While I currently consider myself a queer person of color, I am privileged in the fact that I am a U.S. citizen. My parents’ immigration stories are different in the fact that they are relatively short and would not necessarily be categorized as long and arduous journeys. My mom came to the States from Cuba in the late 1960s, while my father emigrated from Puerto Rico in the late 1970s. Due to my dad’s inherent U.S. citizenship status simply by being born in Puerto Rico, the process of moving was quite easy (in a legal sense). My mom, however, was able to move to the U.S. and obtain her green card because she had relatives that were living in the U.S. at the time. While going through the process of obtaining a green card and ultimately gaining citizenship status was somewhat extensive, it certainly does not compare to the stories I’ve heard of those seeking refuge in the U.S. from Mexico and Central America.

Abuse, harassment, even rape and sexual assault. These are atrocious human rights violations that are unfortunately commonplace in the many stories I’ve heard of LGBTQ+ migrants in their countries of origin. However, while actively trying to flee said persecution, they find themselves in even more abusive situations at the hands of border patrol agents and ICE. And don’t even get me started about the journey: the desert climate is harsh and unrelenting, while the terrain is rocky and uneven and ultimately unforgiving. Migrants spend a surplus amount of days just trying to cross the desert, all while fighting off dehydration and starvation that is certainly eating away at them. Encounterings with gangs and even organized crime/violence is commonplace, with many recounting stories of horrible abuse and beatings while journeying to the U.S. While these stories are heartbreaking to hear, I’ve never felt more honored to be able to listen to them, to brave individuals risking their lives in order to provide for a better life for themselves and/or their families. I’m proud to be working with them and I stand in solidarity with them, always.

What I found was absolutely staggering. I feel as if I have been under a rock this whole time, with no clue as to the increased militarization of the border and thus, border patrol and ICE agents. When reaching the U.S. and subsequently apprehended, the story becomes even more sickening. Especially for LGBTQ+ migrants, the conditions in U.S. detention centers are essentially worse than prisons. Many experience harassment, abuse, etc. on a daily basis. Notably vulnerable is the trans detainee population; in many cases, trans women are usually placed in all-male facilities and vice versa, positioning them in a place in which verbal and sexual harassment is commonplace. However, telling officials does virtually nothing to help the situation, as they are placed in solitary confinement. Imagine the psychological toll this must takes on those individuals, having essentially no human contact for the majority of the day.

Why do we allow this? How can we call ourselves the land of the free while targeting the most vulnerable populations of our country? I think we, as Americans, have to reevaluate our positions in this society, our privileges and our ability to be complicit in violence and abuse. Where has our humanity gone? Why are we criminalizing something so natural as migration. Why something so simple as crossing a border? If you don’t want to believe me, listen to our own Lady Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”