Surviving in Limbo is an attempt to explore a gap within the LGTBQ+ rights movement. Despite decades of progress for the LGBTQ+ community in the United States that allows many to live loud and proud, one subgroup of this same community continues to live in the shadows because of one aspect of their identity: their unstable immigration status. Surviving in Limbo highlights this gap through the lens of healthcare. While the LGBTQ+ rights movement is representative of advances in equality that include HIV/AIDS research and legislation to end violence against transgender people (let us not forget that these efforts are surely still in progress and are even revoked by the government), LGBTQ+ immigrants without stable documentation status have a particularly difficult time navigating these resources. In an era of celebration of LGBTQ+ momentum, let us remember that there is still room to grow.
To understand how these policies truly affect people, I spoke with Mateo and Antonio. For these two men, it was their lack of access to medical treatment for health concerns related to their LGBTQ+ identity that pushed them to pursue stable immigration status.
Following the lead of the artists featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s summer 2019 exhibit Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall, I use the term LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) with a plus sign to represent the sexual and gender identities that exist beyond this acronym, that have existed and will exist outside of this moment.
Surviving in Limbo is a project that explores the complicated terminology of immigration statuses and the legal limitations that language imposes. In this piece I refer to people who do not risk the immediate threat of possible deportation as those with “stable” immigration status, while I refer to people who are undocumented or are entrenched in the legal process of pursuing a status that protects them from deportation or one that offers a pathway to citizenship as those with “unstable” immigration status.
I’d like to extend my gratitude to everyone who shared their stories with me. I spoke with people from Bolivia, Bosnia, Colombia, Jamaica, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and the United States, and I appreciate every individual for their insight and trust. While both men featured in this piece are from Colombia, Surviving in Limbo is not an attempt to generalize one nation, but rather represent the myriad of experiences originating from the same place.
It was common to see rainbow confetti stuck to New York City sidewalks and subway platforms this past summer. The slivers of tissue paper were remnants of the festivities of Pride Month, during which people from all over the world journeyed to New York City to march, celebrate, and revel in the fifty years of progress for LGBTQ+ people since the Stonewall Riots.
Known today as a key marker for the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the Stonewall Riots were a series of demonstrations carried out by LGBTQ+ New Yorkers in the six days following a police raid on June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Police raids were routine in gay bars when laws did not protect, but rather criminalized, LGBTQ+ people. Authorities pursued their own agenda; employing sodomy laws and vague charges of “indecency” to shield state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia, police manipulated the law and lack thereof to shut down mafia-run LGBTQ+ nightlife.
Eleven days after Pride Month ended this June, a crowd gathered in Foley Square, a modest clearing sandwiched between the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, just blocks south of Greenwich Village. The nearby tip of Manhattan offers views of Lady Liberty, the seafoam-stained statue that used to welcome immigrants sailing into New York Harbor. As the rally continued, the sun surrendered behind the courthouse and the moon rose above the darkened prison, as if the natural world understood this juxtaposition of justice.
From a distance the crowd appeared to be an extension of Pride Month festivities, but upon examining the posters propped up by hands of different hues, the motivation for gathering was made clear: the rally was in protest of President Donald Trump’s announcement of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) weekend raid on undocumented immigrants. While June might have marked fifty years since the police raid at the Stonewall Inn that inspired decades of LGBTQ+ action, the days that followed this year’s Pride Month focused on an iteration of police sweep that targeted a different vulnerable and marginalized group.
Rumors of scheduled and rescheduled raids permeated the nation and saturated the minds of undocumented immigrants this summer. Unlike previous raids aimed at lone adults, Trump and his team focused these raids on tracking down and deporting undocumented families. The Trump Administration designed the most recent raids with a direct and destructive goal in mind: to incite fear in undocumented immigrants living in the United States and deter prospective immigrants from coming. The New York Times reported that “children of immigrants—some of whom were born in the United States—had faced the prospect of being forcibly separated from their undocumented parents.”
For LGBTQ+ New Yorkers without secure immigration status, the sequence of rallies this summer was emblematic of their experiences: while the United States, and New York City in particular, serves as an idealized place of refuge and freedom for many LGBTQ+ immigrants in comparison to their countries of origin regarding their sexuality and gender identity, the struggle of obtaining stable immigration status complicates this aura of protection. In looking at the experiences of LGBTQ+ immigrants of various immigration statuses and the relationship between obtaining health services and stabilizing their immigration statuses, the gaps in LGBTQ+ progress are especially visible.
Both Mateo and Antonio entered the United States without permanent protection against deportation, and both men sought medical care before addressing their immigration statuses. However, their immigration statuses prohibited them from receiving care. This meant that their paths to obtaining secure statuses hit a detour upon entering the United States: the doctor’s office.
In 2010, Mateo Guerrero and his parents fled from Colombia to the United States. Like many immigrants, they entered with tourist visas. The Guerreros did not have family or an employer in the United States to act as a sponsor. We originally spoke with the intent to discuss Mateo’s role as a Leadership Coordinator at Make the Road New York, an organization that builds the power of Latinx and working-class communities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. But central to his day job are his own experiences; for staff at Make the Road New York, the professional is intimately personal.
The Guerreros originally obtained ten-year tourist visas through Mateo’s father’s job as an accountant. But when his father’s job was transferred to another country, he spent the next five years searching for work in Colombia. Mateo watched as his parents scrambled to find economic stability. The Guerrero family’s main source of income was the money Mateo’s mother earned while traveling between Colombia and the United States with her tourist visa cleaning a church in Manhattan. With only one year remaining on their tourist visas, the Guerreros were out of options and left their lives in Colombia behind to relocate to the United States. Mateo was fifteen.
The Guerreros decided to use their tourist visas to enter the United States in 2010. Tourist visas fall under the non-immigrant visa category; they are temporary in comparison to immigrant visas, which offer Lawful Permanent Residency (green card). Only the latter status can lead to citizenship. The application process for nonimmigrant visas exists on a shorter timeline in contrast to immigrant visas. The immigrant visa application requires applicants to wait through an impossibly long process during which the circumstances—like war, abuse, discrimination and famine—in an applicant’s home country could worsen, and even kill them.
However, without sponsors, the Guerreros had no other option than to enter the United States with their tourist visas. Like many immigrants with tourist visas, the Guerreros overstayed and settled into their new community in New York City to pursue economic opportunities that didn’t exist in their town in Colombia. Mateo enrolled in school where for the first few weeks he was unencumbered by being undocumented—because he didn’t know what it exactly meant. Very quickly, however, he grasped the limitations of his lack of protected immigration status. He recalled a subway ride where he asked his mother how to get social security numbers. After her eyes darted around their train car, she leaned in closer and told him those aren’t the kinds of questions you ask in a place like that.
Once Mateo understood the dangers of being open about his immigration status, he realized that he was comfortable talking about other aspects of his identity publicly. When Mateo first entered the United States, he hadn’t been called Mateo and identified as a lesbian. Before coming out as trans, Mateo’s mother cautioned him with one rule: “do not tell your dad and do not become a boy.” In an effort to abide by his mother’s wishes, Mateo spent the following summer “wearing heels and dresses.”
That subway ride was emblematic of Mateo’s experience as an undocumented immigrant; he understood that he had to keep quiet about that part of his life—a part that prevented him from leaving the country and re-entering, a part that barred his access to grants when it was time for him to attend college. The reality of Mateo’s travel limitations was particularly painful when his girlfriend in Colombia died, and he was unable to attend her funeral.
After a year of living in the United States, Mateo came out as lesbian to his father. "It was scary,” Mateo said. “He was violent."
Mateo’s father soon returned to Colombia “due to many causes.” Mateo still had support from his mom, whom he described as “my rock, my life." Despite creating a healthier environment for Mateo and his mother, his father’s absence meant that there was one less source of income for the family. Mateo’s mother worked around-the-clock.
Meanwhile, Mateo found a space to further explore who he was. Mateo’s friend told him about Make the Road New York, and over the phone he described how coming out as trans at Make the Road New York “was very easy.” His old name became “dead” and he decided to introduce himself as Mateo. However, his access to resources to aid his physical transition was hindered by his undocumented immigration status—a part of himself that was harder to be open about in comparison to his gender identity. He couldn’t transition without addressing his undocumented status.
Antonio, whose name has been changed to preserve his safety, might appear to have a story similar to Mateo’s at first glance: he too is from Colombia and fled to the United States with a tourist visa. Despite similarities, their stories are far from the same.
Growing up in Colombia, Antonio’s family tolerated that he was gay. Antonio would have preferred acceptance rather than tolerance of his sexuality, but he never complained. It could have been worse—verbal insults, disownment, homelessness. When accompanied by a boyfriend in the presence of his family, both were urged to behave as “friends.” Antonio was out about his sexuality in his personal circle, and it was only when his boss learned that he was gay that his safety was at risk.
Antonio’s workplace became torturous after his employer and co-workers discovered he was gay. Antonio’s boss assigned him more work in comparison to other employees and often forced him to work until midnight. When Antonio approached human resources to report the abuse, his complaints were ineffective—the HR rep was an ally of Antonio’s boss. Typically, such abuse would warrant a two week’s notice, but to Antonio, the benefits associated with his accounting job outweighed those of leaving, as both he and his parents received health insurance through his company. Quitting his job would mean losing life-saving protection, given that Antonio’s mother is diabetic and Antonio is HIV positive. Antonio’s boss took advantage of this dependence.
The mistreatment that Antonio’s workplace perpetuated began to infiltrate other areas of his life. A particular night of dancing began the spiral of harassment that would lead him to his “breaking point.”
While Antonio was enjoying an evening at a gay club with friends, police arrived and physically forced club-goers onto the street, beating patrons on their way out, including Antonio. This Colombian iteration of twentieth-century police raids on New York City gay bars was the beginning of a series of constant police “checks” for Antonio.
Police patrolling Antonio’s city began to recognize him in public, grab him off the street, force him into a car, and bring him to the town’s police station to “check his records.” This occurred while Antonio was out with friends, walking to work, waiting for the bus—nearly 100 times. Antonio said “I eventually stopped counting the checks.”
To avoid being picked up by the police, Antonio abandoned his social life and tried to keep a low profile, shuffling quickly from home to work. The unjustified police questioning did not appear on Antonio’s public record as a criminal offense but was rather a form of unreported homophobic harassment. “Inside the police headquarters,” Antonio said, “they can do anything they want to you.”
It was at this point in our chat that Antonio paused, his eyes becoming glossy and his voice changing from a smooth tone to broken syllables. He described the breaking point he alluded to earlier that summer morning in his sun-soaked Queens apartment: “I tried suicide many times.”
After learning that Antonio had attempted to end his own life, his friend in Miami invited him to visit her as a momentary escape. Once Antonio was approved for a tourist visa, he planned his May 2015 trip to the United States, during which he would venture to Miami and then to New York City for a solo trip. While Antonio spoke fondly of his time in Miami, the corners of his lips turned up, bunching his cheeks closer to his eyes, when he recounted his first time in New York City. Antonio’s stature transformed as he described the city, his hands resembling those of an orchestra conductor as he spoke, leaving traces of energy where they had just been. Antonio’s living room filled with life.
Antonio recalled standing in the middle of Times Square and calling his mom back in Colombia to tell her, “I made it.” To many LGBTQ+ immigrants, New York City is not only emblematic of freedom, but it is also emblematic of the ongoing story of the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. Many immigrants learn that the New York City melting pot analogy is one our culture likes to perpetuate in an effort to evade an honest look at systematic oppression of marginalized groups.
In that moment in Times Square, Antonio considered staying in New York City and never returning to Colombia. But first, he needed to address logistics.
After selling his belongings and saying goodbye to his family in Colombia, Antonio traveled back to the United States for good with his soon-to-expire tourist visa. However the visa’s quickly approaching expiration date wasn’t the only factor that expedited Antonio’s immigration timeline.
In Colombia, Antonio’s HIV medication had slowly grown ineffective, forcing him to the emergency room “almost every weekend.” These emergency room visits were traumatic in their own right, as there was stigma surrounding HIV back home. Due to Antonio’s experiences of discrimination, he viewed the population as generally uneducated; he said that “In Colombia [people] think that HIV is the same thing as AIDS.” What’s more is that if Antonio’s mother had heard this news about her son’s health, her own wellbeing could be jeopardized. Her diabetes left her with a body that is especially susceptible to heart trouble upon hearing “stressful news.” Antonio’s family still doesn’t know that he is living with HIV. As an undocumented LGBTQ+ immigrant without stable status, Antonio faced a particularly unfair side of the healthcare system, and he is far from the only one.
Ever since Mateo was twelve years old, he had wanted top surgery. But as an undocumented immigrant, healthcare—let alone medical procedures that would allow him the physical attributes of his trans identity—was unattainable. Mateo never went to the doctor while living undocumented and “maybe went to the ER once.”
It is notoriously difficult for LGBTQ+ patients to receive adequate healthcare and have access to identity-aware health professionals without factoring in how that access changes due to lack of stable immigration status, even in a place like New York City.
Juanita Erb, the founder of queer style magazine DapperQ, served as a research nurse in adolescent AIDS in the Bronx. Juanita said that many of the studies she helped carry out were state-sponsored, and despite not disclosing documentation status of patients in the findings, “undocumented patients were less likely to participate in research … a lot of our undocumented patients wouldn’t come in for those visits unless something was terribly wrong.” Juanita said that “you could have a doctor next door but if you’re fearful of being deported, you might not go.” She emphasized that community support was often already difficult for her LGBTQ+ patients who experieced the same discrimination that they endured in their home countries in their New York City cultural enclaves. Coupled with sexual orientation, unstable documentation status left many of her patients without sufficient healthcare. For LGBTQ+ immigrants in detention, this lack of access to healthcare is even more stifled.
Regardless of sexuality, public health resources are notoriously difficult for undocumented immigrants to obtain; they are generally not eligible for any public benefits on a federal level, however a few states like California offer undocumented immigrants options for obtaining insurance coverage. There exist health organizations in New York City that specifically offer treatment for transgender patients regardless of immigration status; however, Mateo noted that scheduling an appointment was difficult for him due to high demand.
Top surgery aside, securing testosterone as an undocumented patient proved near-impossible for Mateo. He stressed that testosterone did not legitimize his trans identity—he was a man with or without a prescription. But ultimately, testosterone would allow Mateo to feel most like himself.
As if adolescence didn't already present a time of vulnerability, Mateo had to negotiate what he could share with the world as a mode of self-advocacy. What would allow Mateo access to medical treatment was an adjustment to his immigration status. “It took me coming out as undocumented to say I was also trans.” And he thought that a new immigration policy in 2012 would allow him to do just that.
When Mateo began volunteering at Make the Road New York as a high schooler, President Barack Obama ratified Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that protected eligible undocumented youth from deportation. As a DACA recipient, Mateo would finally be able to begin his physical transition with public health benefits. However, Mateo’s optimism soon faded as he realized that he was ineligible to apply to the DACA program; he arrived in the United States after the age cutoff. Shortly after Mateo started helping other Make the Road New York members fill out their DACA applications, lawyers at the organization informed him that he was eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). SIJS protects young immigrants who are abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent.
Unlike DACA, SIJS often offers recipients a clear path to green cards. Referring to his SIJS status, Mateo said that “people don’t really know about this one.” For two years, US Immigration processed Mateo’s request for SIJS, but Mateo said that finding a sense of belonging was not contingent on legal approval. This mindset allowed him to “find power in owning [his] story unapologetically.”
Despite his now stable immigration status, Mateo exists in what he calls a “migrant body,” referring to both his transgender and transnational identities that connote movement and continuous uncertainty.
Antonio too had to learn to tell his own story—and retell it over and over and over again.
Antonio’s priority upon arrival was not securing secure immigration status, but rather finding a safe and reliable healthcare provider so that he could treat his HIV. In January of 2016, he connected with Hispanic Aids Forum in Harlem (HAF), an organization that grew out of the lack of resources for Latinx patients suffering during the 1980s AIDS crisis. Today, the organization advocates for this same group and offers HIV testing at some of their locations around New York City.
Like Mateo, it was while he was navigating access to medical treatment that Antonio learned about legal services that would help him apply for protected status. However, unlike Mateo, who pursued protection through SIJS, Antonio applied for asylum in July 2016, just one month before he would no longer be able to.
In contrast to refugees who petition for protection outside of the United States, asylum seekers are immigrants who apply for their safeguard within one year of entering the country. Asylum status protects “people seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Ever since a seminal Supreme Court case in 1990, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals as part of “a particular social group” and thus eligible to apply for asylum.
Working closely with a lawyer, Antonio submitted an asylum application in July 2016, just shy of one year since he had fled from Colombia. The eleven months that Antonio lived undocumented before submitting his application were “really scary.” And once Antonio learned more about the application process, he realized that while stable immigration status would relieve him of this genre of fear, recounting his life in an application meant re-experiencing trauma.
After asylum seekers check off the box that clarifies their basis for seeking asylum, the application asks applicants to describe in detail the “harm, mistreatment, threats [in] your home country.” The end of the application offers a section designated as “Additional Information About Your Claim to Asylum.” Many LGBTQ+ applicants use this section to submit a collection of documents: screenshots of dating profiles, testimony of past or current romantic partners—essentially proof of queerness to justify their application. However, Antonio’s experiences demonstrate how trauma and queerness are complicated and don’t follow a checklist or timeline.
Stacy Caplow, Brooklyn Law School Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Education, is also a practicing lawyer who often represents LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. She emphasized that some asylum seekers “haven’t reckoned with their identity” within the year that they arrived in the United States. She emphasized that the law provides for exceptions to the one year rule: changed circumstances and extraordinary circumstances. When Stacy’s clients decide to apply for asylum after one year of their arrival, she works with them to justify their late filing. Often, a psychological report will accompany these types of applications, justifying trauma or a fear of going back to the country from which they fled. Like health resources that are intended to heal the physical, mental health resources for LGBTQ+ immigrants with unstable immigration status are essential to their wellbeing but difficult to access.
“A lot of cases are straightforward,” Caplow said. “But people’s lives are complicated.” Sometimes, cases rely on statements from people who are no longer in the lives—let alone the countries—of Caplow’s clients.
Essential to Antonio’s application was an affidavit written by one of his friends who was present at the bar that night of the raid. Antonio also submitted his medical history. His HIV positive status alone did not qualify him for asylum, but it allowed his lawyer to argue that this aspect of his identity would lead to harassment, threats and mistreatment—all of which are grounds for asylum status—in Colombia. Consistent with asylum law, applicants are eligible to apply for employment authorization 150 days after filing if no decisions have been made on their case.
Antonio noted that before he was granted work authorization, the available jobs were low-wage. Antonio’s first job in New York City was bussing tables at a restaurant, while back in Colombia, he had been an accountant.
Like so many asylum seekers, while Antonio worked he waited. And waited. In fact, since submitting his asylum application in 2016, he has still has not been granted asylum.
Before granting applicants asylum, the US government requires them to have non-adversarial interviews at an Asylum Office. In 2018, however, the US Citizen and Immigration Services changed their asylum policy, giving “priority to the most recently filed affirmative asylum applications when scheduling asylum interviews.” The government agency’s website writes that “the aim is to deter individuals from using asylum backlogs … to obtain employment authorization by filing frivolous, fraudulent … asylum applications.” In giving priority to recently-filed applications out of fear that asylum applicants do not have valid claims but rather wish to obtain employment authorization, the US government did in turn create a backlog for people like Antonio who submitted an application before 2016. He is currently given the lowest priority for an interview.
Antonio had already waited two years for an interview when the new policy was enacted. Knowing his process would drag on, he became depressed. He can’t travel between Colombia and the United States to see his family, and Skype just doesn’t cut it. “We video chat …I can see that my parents are getting older and I’m scared I won’t be there.”
Antonio is right; while his parents age in Colombia, he’ll be confined to a country, to a city that promises freedom, but only for a select few. New York City in the summer of 2019 was unequivocally emblematic of tangible advancement for the LGBTQ+ community. However within that same time and place existed people like Mateo and Antonio, for whom the spirit of the summer also included a complicated undertone. While participants of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 demanded their recognition as full humans, their movement was also accompanied by waiting for that recognition through legal and social means. Living as a LGBTQ+ immigrant with unstable immigration status today is also representative of a pattern of demanding recognition without timely return.
Antonio captured his own juncture: “I’m not a resident … not undocumented. I’m not eligible for certain benefits … like scholarships for school.”
“I’m in limbo.”
Audrey Fromson is the 2019-2020 recipient of the David Axelrod Reporting Grant. All photos were taken by the author.
Audrey Fromson is a third year undergraduate studying Creative Writing and Spanish. In addition to reporting on the intersection of gender and sexual identity and immigration status, Audrey has reported on climate change in the Peruvian Andes. When she’s not writing, you can find her trying to keep her plants alive.