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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: Gay man provides help to LGBTQ asylum seekers in Mexico


Fernanda, a transgender woman from El Salvador, is among the LGBTQ migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, that Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers helps. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes/Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers)

A gay man from Guatemala who has asked for asylum in the U.S. runs a project that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers in a Mexican border city.

Estuardo Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, at the end of July 2019 and asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he said he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation. Cifuentes on Sept. 24 during a Zoom interview told the Washington Blade he spent a few days in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody before he was sent back to Matamoros under the Trump administration’s “return to Mexico” policy that forces asylum seekers to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico.

“I went back to Matamoros without knowing anything, without knowing anything about the process,” said Cifuentes.

Cifuentes told the Blade he met Gaby Zavala, co-founder of Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to migrants who live in Matamoros soon after he returned to the Mexican border city.

Cifuentes said Resource Center Matamoros and other U.S.-based organizations helped him find housing and legal assistance for his asylum case. Cifuentes told the Blade that he, Zavala and others also began to discuss ways to help LGBTQ migrants who live in a sprawling migrant camp adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros with Brownsville.

Rainbow
Bridge Asylum Seekers was born.

“We
managed to coordinate it, we set goals and we ran with the project,” said
Cifuentes.

Cifuentes
said some of the 14 LGBTQ migrants with whom Rainbow Bridge works live in the
Matamoros camp. He told the Blade that Resource Center Matamoros, among other
things, provides the migrants with whom he works access to health care
providers and lawyers who can help them translate their asylum forms into
English.

“Rainbow Bridge is a bridge between other organizations,” he said.

The migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. The Washington Blade visited the camp on Jan. 14, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Zavala told the Blade that Cifuentes is now working to open a shelter in Matamoros for LGBTQ migrants.

“Since
the onset of the refugee encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (the Mexican state
in which Matamoros is located), the need for safe spaces for asylum seekers
living in the camp from the LGBTQ+ community became a top priority for Resource
Center Matamoros,” Zavala told the Blade. “After several attempts to
provide that space within the encampment, it became more obvious that creating
a specific program whose only focus was the LGBTQ+ members was necessary, so I
put the effort in obtaining significant funding to initiate a first-of-its-kind
program in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, which is now known as Rainbow
Bridge.”

Zavala
said she found a “private donor” who provided financial support for
the project.

“Once I achieved that, we selected an inspiring asylum seeker, also a member of the LGBTQ+ community with extensive experience in program development as an owner of his own ’empresa’ or business back in his country of Guatemala to direct the program,” she said.

Guatemala gangs, police targeted Cifuentes, partner

Cifuentes,
32, and his partner of six years ran a digital marketing and advertising
business in Guatemala City.

He said
gang members extorted money from them. Cifuentes said they closed their
business after the gang members attacked them.

Cifuentes said Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes told the Blade the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him indirectly. He said the police placed him under surveillance under the incident and private cars drove past his home.

“This
forced us to leave Guatemala,” said Cifuentes.

Cifuentes
told the Blade he decided to ask for asylum in the U.S. because he has
relatives in this country and “I can continue my life there.”

“That was the idea … I can go there with them,” he said. “I learned about the asylum process later.”

The State Department advises Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas because of “crime and kidnapping.” The Mexico-U.S. land border remains closed to non-essential travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cifuentes’
next hearing in his asylum case is scheduled to take place on Oct. 30, but he
said it “is dependent” upon coronavirus levels in Matamoros and if
the immigration courts in Brownsville will be open. Cifuentes nevertheless said
he will continue to help LGBTQ asylum seekers such as himself who remain in
Mexico.

“I
have the opportunity to understand, to know what it is like to be there, to
understand what it is like to be a member of the community, to understand and
know what it is like to be a migrant under MPP,” said Cifuentes.
“There are many challenges and there are still more vulnerable people who
have had less opportunities.”

“I have the opportunity to provide this help,” he added.

Alinson is
one of the asylum seekers with whom Rainbow Bridge works.

He is a 41-year-old
gay man of African descent from Colombia who has asked for asylum in the U.S.
because members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attacked him
because of his sexual orientation and race. The U.S. sent Alinson back to
Mexico under MPP in order to await the outcome of his case.

Alinson on
Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview from Matamoros that Rainbow
Bridge brought him to the hospital last week for a brain scan and an
electrocardiogram after he suffered a brain hemorrage. Alinson said Rainbow
Bridge has also provided him with food and housing outside of the camp.

“It is
supporting me,” said Alinson, referring to Rainbow Bridge.

Cifuentes has created a PayPal account that accepts donations for Rainbow Bridge. The link is here.

Alinson, a gay man of African descent from Colombia, is among the LGBTQ migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, to whom Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers provides assistance. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes/Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers)

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights