CIUDAD JUAREZ – The final days at Casa de Colores were hectic as the last residents living in the old hotel turned migrant shelter prepared to leave.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” said Fernanda Levin, a 25-year-old trans woman from El Salvador. “I’m happy that I’ll be able to fulfill my dream, but we’re sad that Casa de Colores is closing.
The dilapidated hotel has been a home for mostly Central American trans women, stuck in limbo in downtown Ciudad Juárez, waiting for the chance to ask for asylum in the United States.
They had been unable to seek relief under a border pandemic health order known as Title 42. Under the rule, migrants were not allowed across the border through pors of entry to request asylum. Others who cross into the U.S. without documents are sent back to Mexico before they can seek asylum. The order that took effect during the Trump administration in March of 2020 as effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and has been kept in place by the Biden adminstration.
But recently the Biden administration has expanded the number of migrants allowed into the country under “humanitarian exceptions.” They include some transgender migrants and some migrant families with young children.
At issue, however, is how the most vulnerable are being identified and selected.
“What exactly is the criteria, who chooses them; that I can’t tell you,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit organization that provides temporary shelter to migrants and refugees. “I just don’t know.”
According to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, “This humanitarian exception process involves close coordination with international and non-governmental organizations in Mexico and COVID-19 testing before those identified through this process are allowed to enter the country.”
In the past few weeks, groups of between a dozen and as many as 50 people have been allowed to cross from Juárez to El Paso almost daily, Garcia said. Most other migrants are still being expelled.
“Here in El Paso, Title 42 is still being enforced,” Garcia said. It’s also not clear how many migrants are being granted humanitarian exceptions.
The migrant trans women in Juárez have been waiting between six months to two years for the chance to cross into the United States to ask for asylum. The Casa de Colores shelter, funded in part by U.S. non-profits opened last November.
Nearly 50 trans women lived at the shelter at one point. Most of the residents were from El Salvador, where they faced discrimination and the threat of violence. In my country you're either a boy or girl. Anything else is prohibited" Levin said. "You can't find work. You can'at build a family. You're a shadow," she said.
In Ciudad Juárez, they started their own shelter after some of the trans women ended up on the streets. They even adopted a little puppy named Trixie. One of the shelter residents said they found a new home for the little dog.
“I’ve learned that family is not only blood. Family is also a decision,” said Salvadoran Alexa Ponce, 27. She said she felt an “avalanche of emotions” as she and the others worked to pack up and close down the shelter.
“We created this out of necessity. But we now see there must be a way to make it endure, even when we’re no longer here,” Ponce said.
The mostly empty rooms were filled with memories. There are a few cans of food, an envelope of Tang and an English/Spanish dictionary in one room. In another, only a single platinum blonde wig was left behind.
The residents painted the walls with large images. One is of a woman with hair sprouting into a leafy tree. Another has a ballerina holding an umbrella.
“We started a beautiful project and now we’re thinking about the girls who come after us. Where will they go? What will happen to them?” Ponce said.
Casa de Colores closed its doors when the last residents left Wednesday for new lives in the United States.
“The shelter was started by eight girls, now it’s ending with eight girls,” Levin said.
On Wednesday, those eight women walked across the Ysleta international bridge from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso. They will depart for other cities in the United States to live with relatives or sponsors as their cases move through immigration court.
For some, the excitement of a new life is tempered by the unknown.
Yazmin Ferrer, 23, a trans woman from El Salvador, is looking forward to being reunited with her mother, who left for the United States to work when Ferrer was just a toddler. Her mother now lives in Iowa.
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.
“It’s been 20 years since I’ve given her a hug. My heart is full of joy,” said Ferrer, who wants to become a nurse. “I want to move forward. I couldn’t do that back home, but hope to achieve it in the U.S.”