In May, a group of transgender women arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, as part of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan that had set out from Honduras a month prior. One of the members of the LGBTQ contingency, Brytani — whose last name will not be used for her safety — said although they had been received warmly throughout Mexico with food and messages of support, many hostels refused to let the transwomen stay once they arrived in that border city. The exception was Caritas, a migrant shelter. On the day Brytani and the others left to claim asylum — international protection from harm at home — persons unknown blocked entrance to the hostel, locked the doors so no one could escape and set the shelter on fire. According to Brytani, a Garifuna (black, Afro-Carribean) transwoman from Rio Esteban, Honduras, three of the workers who had helped them when others refused were burned.
“That will stay with me for a long time,” Brytani told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
Over the past month, hundreds of migrants like Brytani have been suddenly released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement imprisonment each day, and activists are scrambling to create an ad hoc support infrastructure. Where the government’s ever-shifting policies regarding migrants and asylum seekers create chaos, Memphians affiliated with networks like Showing Up For Racial Justice, Memphis Feminist Collective, Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz (CUUV), Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, Centro Cultural de Memphis and Immigrant Families Together have formed a group they are calling Migration Is Beautiful to create some semblance of benevolent organization. They are organizing volunteers to meet migrants at the Greyhound bus station on Airways Boulevard with bagged meals and collecting donations of clothes, toiletries and cash at First Congregational Church (aka First Congo) in the Cooper-Young neighborhood.
Memphis’ central location makes this Mid-South city a natural throughway for migrants headed North and East. However, some also stay here.
Brytani, who I first met folding clothes in the donation room at First Congo, arrived a little over four months ago in a separate caravan than the one that has most recently drawn the ire of President Donald Trump. Once she arrived at the Tijuana-San Diego border, she was held a week with men in the hielera, or ice box, a double entendre derived from the ICE acronym but also for brutally cold temperatures inside. After a week, she was shuffled around from San Diego to San Luis and El Paso, Texas, then finally to the Cibola Detention Center in Milan, New Mexico, which holds the greatest percentage of asylum seekers in the United States
There, Brytani was held with other transwomen, including a woman named Roxana who developed pneumonia. When Brytani pleaded with guards to turn up the heat as Roxana’s health deteriorated, she says they refused saying, “Why the f — did you even come if you are just going to complain?
Trump has addressed the migrants with dehumanizing language, calling them violent criminals and framing them as a violent threat by dispatching 5,200 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border just in time for midterm elections. He, consequently, withdrew them before the caravan ever reached the border. Meanwhile, activists like Nour Hantouli of the Memphis Feminist Collective, who uses they/them pronouns, emphasizes their humanity.
“These people are fleeing economic and political crises created by the United States, and until we learn how to confront that we’re going to have to be dealing with the consequences,” Hantouli says.
“These are not just consequences, these are human beings. Everybody is desperate in one way or another,” Hantouli says. “They’ve dealt with so much trauma from the journey and the subsequent captivity in the detention centers. We see children with no shoes or no shirt. No one has warm clothes because they’ve never needed them.
Hantouli says they admire how the migrants “press on” despite the trauma they’ve experienced. Likewise, volunteers press on, too, preparing meals and meeting unreliable buses at all hours of the day and night. While scheduled to arrive at 4 a.m., 8 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 6:15 p.m., and 9:45 p.m., the buses are often hours late and part of improvised support plan includes tracking Greyhound bus schedules. Resourceful leaders have used technology, such as scheduling apps and social media, to ensure no migrants arrive without being met with food and supplies, and to communicate the changing needs of those arriving to potential volunteers.
Although Trump has stated the migrant caravan should enter the country legally, many recent migrants like Brytani are claiming asylum, a legal method of entering the United States that can only be enacted by stepping foot in the country.
After years of familial abuse and sex trafficking throughout her preteen and teenaged years, Brytani began working with Casa Alianza, a Latin American group that rehabilitates and defends street children. Brytani became a state’s witness in hopes of saving other children who had been trafficked and who had fallen into pornography rings.
She says once a police officer came to Casa Alianza with photo evidence related to a pornography ring investigation and asked her, “Is this you?” It was.
As part of the legal proceedings related to pornography and sex trafficking rings, Brytani had protected status as a state’s witness along with another person, Marco Juliano. Brytani says corrupt government officials and a university professor paid off judges and witnesses. Despite death threats, Brytani chose to keep testifying. However, after Juliano was killed — strung up and hanged — Brytani knew she had to leave.
After being released from detention in New Mexico where she met lawyers who volunteer to help with asylum cases, she spent three months in New Orleans, where her case is being processed. She is hopeful and says her lawyers have given her a 95 percent chance of gaining asylum, thanks to documentation Brytani has personally kept, as well as the documentation from Honduras.
Like those met with food and supplies at the bus station, thanks to the efforts of local volunteers, Brytani says she has been received well, especially by her sponsor, Jennie Dickerson, who opened her home.
“I miss my country, but I can’t go back because I will get killed,” Brytani says. “If Honduras became calm, I would return, but I can’t. I am happy to be here and grateful. I want to study and get a job and do well. This country is where I have the chance to do that.”
Hantouli says Migration Is Beautiful has served over 2,000 people — averaging about 120 a day — and are prepared to meet the needs of the migrants indefinitely.
“People keep asking us how long this effort is going to take, but we don’t know that it’s gonna get better,” they said.
“This might be the new normal.”
How to lend a hand
- Volunteers interested in aiding the donation efforts can contact Nour Hantouli at email@example.com or sign up to support refugees as they arrive.
- Those interested in supporting Brytani can donate to the Gofundme account set up in her name.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change.