Houston, TexasWhen Kataleya Nativi Baca stepped through the gates at Tijuana’s border crossing into San Ysidro, California, wearing a black mask and tugging a small polka dot suitcase, she was giddy with anticipation. The date was April 8, 2021, and for the past 19 months, she’d been marking time in the Mexican border city dreaming of this moment.
Kataleya, 30, is a transgender woman who fled violence and persecution in her home country of Honduras. She’d imagined the United States in broad, rose-colored strokes—a peaceful country where there was no discrimination, where she could get a job and have a small house to call her own. “Everything is going to change for me,” she recalls thinking. At last, there would be an end to the cruel stares, snide remarks, and threats of violence. No longer would discrimination keep her from getting what she wants from life.
Danielle Villasana, a photographer with The Everyday Projects, and I traced Kataleya’s journey north toward the U.S. border in National Geographic magazine. We caught up with her again during her long limbo in Tijuana. And now, months after her acceptance into the U.S., where she’s waiting for a decision on her claim for asylum, we wanted to see how she’s doing.
Since 2018, we’ve also been following another transgender woman from Honduras, Alexa Smith Rios, 21, who’s from the same town, San Pedro Sula, as Kataleya. They move in different circles, but their stories have much in common: Honduras is one of the deadliest places in the world for LGBTQ+ people: Transgender women have been assaulted or killed by police, gang members, strangers on the street, and members of their own families. Alexa says she had no choice but to leave home. She calls her mother several times a day; they tell each other that the pain of distance is better than the risk of staying in Honduras. “Something could have happened to me there,” she says.
‘You have to live the reality’
Kataleya left San Pedro Sula after her brother beat her and threatened to kill her, breaking her collarbone and sending her to the hospital. She traveled overland from Honduras to Guatemala and across Mexico to Tijuana.
In San Ysidro, U.S. border authorities shuffled her over to a female guard for a routine pat-down. She says the guard refused to search her, insisting that Kataleya was a man and must be checked by a male guard. Kataleya stood her ground; eventually, another female guard agreed to search her. But the message she took from that incident seemed eye-opening: America would not be offering salvation from discrimination.
“I imagined many things, but you have to live the reality,” Kataleya told me this summer as we talked in her apartment in Houston, Texas.
Kataleya’s first stop after leaving the border was Casa Ruby, an LGBTQ+ shelter in Washington, D.C., run by transgender women of color. She was assigned there by a program called Border Butterflies, which helps LGBTQ+ migrants as they adjust to life in the U.S. “They received me very well,” Kataleya said. “And then things started changing.”
A group of three Salvadoran transgender women ridiculed her for not having family members who could send her money. When she asked a staff member to help fill out an application to change her gender on official documents, she says she was told that she needed to do things for herself. A roommate started a petition to have her expelled from the shelter.
“No one signed it,” Kataleya said, but it ratcheted up the tension in the house. There were screaming fights over donated items, from bottles of shampoo to cans of processed chicken. “I prayed at the side of my bed morning and night with tears in my eyes,” Kataleya said.
Outside, the neighborhood felt unsafe. If she and Nancy, another transgender woman from Honduras Kataleya had met in Mexico, passed a group of men, “they would harass us.” One night when she was standing outside the shelter, a man exposed himself to her.
“It was horrific,” Kataleya said. “I never imagined that what I experienced in Mexico, I would experience here too.”
By June, Kataleya said she “couldn’t stand it anymore.” She decided to move out with Nancy, who wondered if one of the men they chatted to on dating apps might put them up. “It’s too dangerous,” Kataleya said. “We’re trans women.”
They moved into a house in Leesburg, Virginia, an hour outside D.C., where two of their friends lived, along with 15 other migrants, most from El Salvador. The house was musty, and cockroaches scurried into the corners when Kataleya walked into rooms. The hallways were stacked with the detritus of previous tenants: crumpled air mattresses, a black trash bag spilling over. Particle board walls subdivided the house, into eight bedrooms. Kataleya and Nancy moved into one not much bigger than their queen-size air mattress, which they inflated every night. By the time they woke up, it was flat.
At first, Kataleya said she had no complaints. The woman who rented them the room was friendly, and her husband gave the impression that “he wouldn’t break a plate,” Kataleya said. But soon he started asking questions. Why were their breasts so small? he wanted to know. “He would treat us like men,” she said. “He was transphobic.”
One day, less than a month after they’d moved in, his anger boiled over. “I’m the one in charge here! I want you to leave. I don’t want to see you here anymore!” Kataleya recalled him bellowing as he beat his chest with his fists. “He was an ogre.”
He threatened to call the police if they didn’t leave by the next day, so Kataleya and Nancy packed their things and moved out.
Nancy decided to stay in Leesburg. With the last of her cash, Kataleya bought an air ticket for Houston. A Honduran man named José Luis Ramirez Garcia, whom she’d messaged with on Facebook for a few years, said she could come and stay with him.
Kataleya landed in Houston on a Sunday night with just the $123 she had left. Five days later, she’d settled into the two-bedroom apartment José shared with his nephew, Abel, in a sprawling complex of low-rise buildings at the edge of the city.
“We understand each other,” Kataleya said. “He knows I am a trans woman, and I know he doesn’t have it in him to kick me out into the street.” It was difficult, she said, to be dependent on a man she’d only just met in person for food, shelter, affection, and community, but she was determined to make it work.
“I’m starting anew,” Kataleya said. “I don’t want to keep moving.”
She cleaned the apartment. She cooked meals for Abel (who asked not to be identified with his last name because he’s undocumented), José, and one other man who had crossed the Rio Grande by raft the month before and was sleeping on a stack of twin mattresses in the living room.
Kataleya prided herself on her skills as a housewife, and the men were pleased. “Wow,” Abel said when I visited in August, leaning back on a reclining chair. “She’s a very, very hard worker. Honduran women are like that, very neat.”
Abel, who had been in the U.S. the longest and held the lease on the apartment, had taken in so many migrants over the years that his friends jokingly referred to his place as el asilo de inmigrantes—the migrants’ refuge. To make their lives in the U.S., migrants lean on family networks, and at Abel’s, they referred to each other by their family affiliation: cuñado, tío, sobrino—brother-in-law, uncle, nephew.
Asked what he thought of Kataleya’s situation, Abel shook his head slowly, hesitating. “She has no friends, no family,” he said.
One afternoon, while the men were at work, Kataleya turned up the karaoke machine while she got ready for a party at Abel’s brother’s house. She sang along at full volume, danced, spun in circles, and took selfies, preening under the soft light of the dining room lamp. I asked her if she was happy. She paused for a beat to think about it. “Sí,” she said. “Ahorita,” at this moment.
By that evening, though, José and Kataleya had started arguing. Days later, after another altercation with José, she called Danielle Villesana, the photographer, sobbing and threatening to kill herself. José left messages on my phone laced with vicious curses directed at Kataleya. He said that whatever happened to her was no longer his responsibility. Nancy wired money to Kataleya so she could return to Virginia. Just two weeks after arriving in Houston, she was on a flight east—for yet another new start.
But she and Nancy started arguing, and within another two weeks, Kataleya packed up her few possessions and moved again—this time from Leesburg to Baltimore.
‘Little things are big things when you’re that precarious’
Eli Maurus is a Tijuana-based attorney for the Transgender Law Center, a legal organization advocating for transgender peoples’ rights who represented Kataleya’s claim to enter the United States. Maurus, whose pronouns are they/them, says Kataleya likely is safer in the U.S. than in Mexico or Honduras. But for asylum seekers, especially LGBTQ+ people, the early years after crossing the border are fraught with uncertainty and instability. “Little things are big things when you’re that precarious,” Maurus says.
Kataleya entered the U.S. during a period this spring when vulnerable people at the southern border were accepted into the country to wait for a court decision on their asylum claim. It can take years for cases to be heard and a judge to decide if they can stay or must leave. And once they’re in the U.S., it takes more than a year for them to receive authorization to work. They’re required to maintain an address and a telephone number and navigate a complex immigration system in a language they may not understand. In many states, they’re not permitted to access social or health services.
“Rational choices lead to irrational conclusions in migration,” Maurus says. If, for example, a migrant needs to take a job to pay rent and put food on the table, as most people must, doing so without work authorization puts her asylum request at risk. Asylum seekers move often as their circumstances change. Each time they move, they have to file a change of address within 10 days, which can delay the work authorization. Filling out a form incorrectly can mean losing your asylum case.
After a migrant’s focus shifts from the immediate demands of escape and survival, new difficulties arise, Maurus says. “It's a new place, a new language in many cases, a new culture, and they're living with strangers. It can be very lonely.”
Many asylum seekers have severe PTSD from the violence they suffered that drove them to the U.S. and face continuing dangers, Maurus says. “It can come out in a lot of ways that cause people to be homeless. People start to use drugs or alcohol. People will get violently angry over nothing.” PTSD is “not necessarily something we have the resources to contend with.”
Estuardo Cifuentes is a gay man from Guatemala who was granted entry into the U.S. in March 2021 as an asylum seeker and now works out of McAllen, Texas, for Project Corazon, a legal initiative that assists vulnerable migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border. LGBTQ+ migrants often “have this idea that there’s no discrimination in the United States,” he says. But “they come here and realize there is no safe place for them.”
'I really suffered a lot'
Alexa Smith Rios said she made three attempts to leave Honduras, with Mexico her initial destination. The first time she was in the country, police apprehended her and deported her back to Honduras. The second time, she decided to return home to be with her family. In late 2020, she started out again, this time intending to reach the U.S.
By early this year, she had crossed from Guatemala into Mexico, traveling with her boyfriend, Norlan Alexander González Cruz, and one other Honduran man. They walked and hitchhiked through jungles and plains. There were days when she didn’t eat, nights when they slept on the ground or on the streets. They rode on the roof of a freight train—La Bestia (The Beast)—where many migrants have died or been injured.
As they neared the U.S. border, hooded men they believed to be members of a Mexican cartel ambushed the train, sending everyone leaping to the ground and scattering into the brush. (Alexa heard that one man was caught—cartels are known to kidnap migrants for ransom.) Alexa and the others walked three days to reach the border town of Piedras Negras. “I really suffered a lot,” she said.
In May, she crossed into the U.S. seeking asylum. The August sun was setting, and the cicadas were trilling as we sat talking under an oak tree in the front yard of the house in Memphis where she was living with Norlan and five other Hondurans. It’s a neighborhood of old wooden houses with wide porches, some of which were abandoned and painted with graffiti. Most of the storefronts on the main street were boarded shut, and a couple of people slumped on steps, seemingly drunk or high. The past “two months have been really hard for me,” she said.
Alexa said she often heard gunshots at night, not that that scared her—it’s nothing compared to the violence in Honduras. What weighed on her was that she had no one to talk to. “I’m very lonely here.”
Alexa said that her mother had borrowed 12,000 lempiras, about $400, from members of MS-13, a violent, powerful gang in Honduras, to help Alexa get to the U.S. Every day, she said, her mother called, begging her to send money to pay them back. She has none to send. “It’s dangerous,” Alexa said, “I’m scared something will happen to my mother.”
Injury is etched into Alexa’s body. An angry, ragged scar runs the length of her left thigh. She says she got it when she jumped over a wall and broke her leg running away from a man who was trying to assault her. The tattoo of a skeleton draped in the robe of a Catholic saint—Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, Our Lady of the Holy Death—marks the crook of her right hand. The folk icon is revered by people who live on the edges of society, close to death. Alexa said she resents the weight she’s gained since she came to Memphis—she eats for consolation.
She tells herself she’s grateful to be in the U.S. and alive. She feels safer than she was back home, but she can’t imagine the future.
In Honduras, Alexa said, she often prayed for protection and luck at her altar to Santa Muerte, where she kept a figure of the saint on a stack of dollar bills encircled by flickering candles, a bottle of perfume, and offerings of chocolate bars, marshmallows, and gummy candies. She doesn’t have an altar in Memphis. “My life is too unstable for that,” she said.
In San Pedro Sula, she could talk to friends and laugh off her problems, but in Memphis, she said, everyone shuts themselves into their homes at night. She longs to hug her mother. She said she and Norlan were fighting constantly, and the others in the house wanted them to leave. She wanted to go to Dallas, Texas, to live with her sister but said she didn’t have enough money to buy a bus ticket.
When I asked Alexa if she ever thinks she shouldn’t have come to the U.S., she looked at me with soft incredulity. “Yes, of course.”
In Mexico, LGBTQ+ migrants fleeing the same dangers Alexa and Kataleya faced in Honduras keep arriving at the border city of Matamoros. Fernando, 37, who asked that his full name not be used, was a driver at a sugar factory in Guatemala, where he’d endured a lifetime of anti-gay slurs, discrimination at work, and random beatings. He said a passerby might decide on impulse to punch him in the face for being gay, which happened 10 or 15 times, he estimates. Once, after a stranger beat him so badly that he broke his arm and needed two operations, he left home.
It took him several months to reach Rainbow Bridge, an LGBTQ+ shelter in Matamoros, making his way across the scorching Mexican countryside avoiding immigration checkpoints, hitching rides when he could, walking when he couldn’t, and asking strangers along the road for drinks of water. He’d heard that the new U.S. President Joe Biden was less strict at the border than the previous one and that the shelter could help him with the paperwork he needed to cross into the U.S.
Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says that although the Biden administration has rolled back many of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, “it kept in place the most significant one.” Referred to as Title 42, it’s a U.S. health law invoked during the pandemic to prevent immigrants from entering the country. Title 42 allows enforcement officers to return would-be asylum seekers who have crossed into the U.S. at the southern border to Mexico without assessing their cases through the U.S. immigration system. This practice goes against international law that guarantees people the right to request asylum.
Kataleya, Alexa, and 16,000 other vulnerable asylum seekers, such as LGBTQ+ people, children, those with medical emergencies, have entered the U.S. this year as exemptions to Title 42, according to a U.S. government filing.
“There’s really a patchwork of policies in place at the border right now,” Bolter says, and new rules or changes often are conveyed by word of mouth rather than official announcements. The “system that is operating at the border right now is very similar to the system that was operating at the end of the Trump administration,” she says, adding that even the allowances for LGBTQ+ migrants may be temporary.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
On August 3, two weeks after Fernando arrived at Rainbow Bridge, U.S. immigration authorities notified Project Corazon that they’d no longer process new asylum applications.
Estuardo Cifuentes, of Project Corazon, who founded Rainbow Bridge when he was still living in Matamoros, says he’s spent the past few months—a time of leniency “too good to be true”—working 18-hour days trying to file as many asylum applications for eligible migrants as he could. When he got that August 3 message, he says the frenetic pace unwound into a kind of despair, and he sat on his couch barely moving.
In April, Texas and Missouri filed a lawsuit to reinstate a policy implemented by Trump in January 2019, and canceled by the Biden administration, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico.” In August, a federal court in Texas ordered the government to resume keeping asylum seekers in Mexico rather than allowing them to enter the U.S., an order that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The Biden administration is tentatively planning to reinstate MPP by mid-November if further appeals don’t succeed. The program led to tens of thousands of migrants setting up vast tent-city camps along the U.S. border, and advocates say it leaves people already fleeing danger vulnerable to more violence. In the two years the program was in place, human rights organizations recorded hundreds of assaults, rapes, death threats, and kidnappings in the camps.
When I visited Rainbow Bridge on August, 19 migrants were living in the shelter’s four rooms on the second floor of a townhouse in a residential neighborhood, including Fernando, several Hondurans, and a few Haitians and Mexicans. Whirring fans dissipated the searing heat. Some of the residents were splayed out on their mattresses, scrolling through their phones; others were sitting on chairs, staring blankly. One woman was in the kitchen defrosting some chicken for dinner.
Fernando said this is how they spend their days, their frustration silently building, unsure if a path will open up for them to enter the U.S. “We’re just waiting,” he said.
He’d had no news about his asylum application, and he’d heard that the pandemic restrictions at the border were getting stricter. Fernando said he couldn’t see any other way out of Mexico, so, like thousands before him, he scrambled onto a raft in the middle of the night, paddled across the Rio Grande, and slipped into the United States, undocumented. By November, he’d made his way to Houston.
Aurora Almendral is a journalist from California, based in Southeast Asia. She wrote a global story about women and migration for the February 2021 issue of the magazine. Follow her on Twitter @auroraalmendral.
Danielle Villasana is a photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer whose work focuses on human rights, gender, and health in Latin America. The National Geographic Society, the International Women's Media Foundation, and Women Photograph all support her long term projects. Follow her on Instagram @davillasana.