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SPLC wins asylum for transgender woman who received death threats in Guatemala

A transgender woman who was beaten and threatened with death when she refused to collect extortion money for a Guatemalan drug cartel, was raped and tortured by Guatemalan police, and received death threats from her coworkers because of her gender identity, has been granted asylum in the United States, the SPLC announced today.

“Guatemala is a country widely recognized as hostile to LGBT people, and we’re glad the judge saw that our client’s life was at serious risk if she were to return,” said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the SPLC, which is representing the woman.

Identified in court documents as S.A.C., she fled from Guatemala in October 2016 because she feared for her life. Once she crossed the U.S. border in early December 2016, she turned herself in to U.S. Border Patrol. She has been detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia – an immigrant detention center for men – for over nine months.

“We’re proud that the SPLC’s intervention and representation of S.A.C. resulted in a decision to grant asylum,” said Dan Werner, director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), an SPLC project that provides pro bono representation to detained immigrants in the southeastern United States. “But make no mistake: in remote facilities like Stewart, lack of representation and asylum denials are the norm. SIFI’s efforts on behalf of clients like S.A.C. are a stopgap measure in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.”

S.A.C. sought refuge in the U.S. after learning about the anti-discrimination laws for LGBT individuals and nationwide marriage equality following the Obergefell decision. Even though she is in detention, she feels safer in the U.S. because she is far away from the constant threats she faced in Guatemala. She said the Guatemalan police and drug cartels targeted her because of her gender identity.

“S.A.C., like many asylum seekers, has been treated like a criminal by our country’s immigration system and housed in a prison-like facility after living in fear and fleeing her native country,” Dinielli said.

Unable to maintain employment in baking, designing accessories, sewing and other activities because of anti-LGBT discrimination in Guatemala – and suffering harassment as well as death threats from her coworkers in those jobs – S.A.C. turned to sex work. While she was a sex worker, Guatemalan police raped her, she said in court documents.

She was also targeted by members of the drug cartel (narcos), who beat and threatened to kill her if she did not perform sexual favors for their clients and collect extortion money from businesses. She believed the narcos posed a real threat after learning that they killed one of her transgender friends.

“I decided to leave Guatemala because of the threat to my life and the other persecution I experienced at the hands of the drug cartel,” she said in a court statement.

Since launching SIFI earlier this year, the SPLC has provided or arranged for the representation of 76 immigrants who were detained at the Stewart Detention Center. By ensuring that skilled SPLC and SPLC-trained volunteer attorneys are available at no charge to protect the due process rights of detained immigrants, SIFI endeavors to win every meritorious deportation defense case arising out of recent and anticipated immigration enforcement actions.

SIFI is the largest deportation-defense program in the country, with offices at Stewart, as well as at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, and the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana.

A recent national study found that only 6 percent of detainees at Stewart were represented by counsel between 2007 and 2012 – far below the 37 percent representation rate of all immigrants in removal proceedings nationwide. This lack of representation contributes to a 7 percent grant rate to asylum applications, contrasted with a 43 percent grant rate nationwide.