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In Juarez, Transgender Women In Limbo Await U.S. Asylum Exception

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stick with immigration for a few more minutes.

The U.S.-Mexico border has been closed to most migrants during the pandemic, including those seeking asylum. The majority of those who try to enter the U.S. have been quickly expelled to Mexico. Now the Biden administration is expanding efforts to grant humanitarian exceptions for migrants considered vulnerable. That includes transgender people stuck in Mexican border cities. Angela Kocherga from member station KTEP in El Paso, Texas, reported this story in Juarez.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: A hot breeze blows through an open window in a dilapidated hotel in downtown Juarez. This has been home to a group of migrants, all trans women waiting for the chance to ask for asylum in the U.S. Before, they had been kicked out of several shelters and ended up on the streets.

ALEXA PONCE: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Alexa Ponce, a 25-year-old trans woman from El Salvador, says that's when they banded together and found their own place. The shelter they named Casa de Colores opened in November of last year, supported in part by donations from U.S. nonprofits. At one point, nearly 50 trans women from Central America lived here. They even adopted a little dog, Trixie.

PONCE: (Through interpreter) I learned that family is not only blood but there are also families you choose.

KOCHERGA: On one wall at Casa de Colores, they painted a silhouette of a woman with hair sprouting into a leafy tree. On another, a ballerina is holding an umbrella. Back home, the trans women say, they face discrimination and violence. Twenty-seven-year-old Fernanda Levin is from El Salvador.

FERNANDA LEVIN: (Through interpreter) In my country, you're either a boy or a girl. Anything else is prohibited. You can't find work. You can't build a family. You're a shadow.

KOCHERGA: Levin arrived in Juarez more than a year ago, just before the pandemic closed the U.S.-Mexico border to most migrants. In recent weeks, some trans women have been granted humanitarian exceptions and allowed to cross the border to ask for asylum and wait while their cases are decided by U.S. immigration courts.

LEVIN: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: It's a bittersweet feeling, says Levin, as she and the last few residents packed up and prepared to close down Casa de Colores.

LEVIN: (Through interpreter) I'm happy I'll be able to fulfill my dreams, but we're sad Casa de Colores is closing. We're thinking about the girls that come after us. Where will they go? What will happen to them?

KOCHERGA: Along with worry, those leaving for the U.S. are filled with anticipation. Twenty-three-year-old Yazmin Ferrer, a trans woman from El Salvador, has not seen her mother since she left to work in the U.S.

YAZMIN FERRER: (Through interpreter) It's been 20 years since I've hugged her.

KOCHERGA: Ferrer will join her mother in Iowa. She wants to become a nurse. For years, they've only spoken on the phone or via video chat. She says her mother accepts her for who she is and is waiting with open arms.

FERRER: (Through interpreter) I'm excited and joy fills my heart.

KOCHERGA: A few days ago, the last eight residents of Casa de Colores walked across an international bridge from Mexico to the U.S. to start new lives.

For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.