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The Plight of Undocumented Transgender Women During a Health Crisis

Vice

Vice is shining a spotlight on the issues facing undocumented transgender Latinx women during the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States.

In tonight's "Undocumented" episode of the Showtime newsmagazine docuseries, reporter Paola Ramos met with two trans women to learn the risks facing this community amid a health crisis.

During normal times, trans women and undocumented people are vulnerable, especially at the intersection of these groups. In Latin America, the life expectancy for trans women is 35; and the Vice subjects had fled their native countries to escape the lethal hate crimes faced by their peers.

Seeking asylum at the border, the two women in the Vice episode were released from ICE custody but continue to be monitored. Each showed a tracker attached to her ankle. The women, who are HIV-positive sex workers living in a coronavirus epicenter, New York City, are especially at risk for the virus.

They are scared, the woman, whose identities and faces were obscured for protection, told Vice. "But we have to" keep working in order to live, without the ability to utilize the social distancing or masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Only God knows how we would recover, or if we would recover. That's our fear," one said.

Undocumented people have provided many of the essential services during the pandemic, but they are unable to receive any benefits of the federal safety net provided by the CARES Act. Without legal status, "sex work becomes their only way of survival," Ramos reported.

There are many other risks at play. Densely packed ICE detention facilities have become hotbeds for the virus's spread. The New York Times reports that, as of mid-May, 36 people tested positive at a New Jersey location, with four deaths among staff members. 

"The guards weren't taking safety measures," one of the trans women told Vice of her own experience in detention, which was made even more harrowing by the threat of a deadly disease. "The experience in ICE has been one of the worst ones of our lives." 

"Only eight of us got out and we're scared for our friends," she added.

Even before COVID-19, trans people raised the flag about dire conditions in ICE facilities. In 2019, 29 migrants detained in ICE's only transgender unit, the Cibola County Correctional Center, handwrote and signed a letter accusing guards at the facility of abuse and medical neglect. In 2018, Roxsana Hernandez, a 33-year-old Honduran trans woman seeking asylum, died in custody at Cibola. Many believe it was due to medical neglect.

Paola Ramos

There have been some signs of progress in visibility. Ramos (pictured above) above has seen the mainstream media paying more attention to essential workers and undocumented people. But "what's still missing in mainstream media is the focus on undocumented transgender folks," she said. It why's Vice did the reporting it did, in order to open the eyes of views to their struggles.

"Many of us are thinking about what it means to survive a pandemic. But if you're undocumented and transgender, that meaning has turned into something completely different," Ramos said. "You have to go through so many other barriers, you have to think through so many other plans."

What did Ramos learn from her reporting that shocked her?

"It is shocking to understand that for some people, staying home is not an option. That's not part of the vocabulary," Ramos said, adding, "The transgender undocumented migrants that we talked to are forced to do sex work because it's their only way of survival."

The sight of their dehumanizing trackers is also a grim reminder for these women "that no matter what they do ... they're being seen and being portrayed by society as criminals," even to the clients they have sex with for survival, said Ramos, a reality that was "hard" for a reporter to hear.

However, Ramos was also surprised by the resilience she found among the activists and organizers who are helping provide transgender undocumented people with basic resources. The episode also visits with a Queens collective as it prepared food and other necessities for those in need — another sight not seen in mainstream reporting.

"It's the two sides of the story. It is extreme desperation ... but we also found this extreme resilience that also is often left out of the conversation," Ramos said.

What wasn't shocking for Ramos was how the Trump administration has continued its hard-line stances toward migrants. If it wanted to, it could free all those in its detention centers to prevent a more deadly outbreak of COVID-19. But don't expect that outcome anytime soon.

"Detention and deportation have always been in line with how this administration operates. And so, it's not surprising to expect more even amidst a crisis," Ramos said.

However, as the Vice episode shows, helped those in need is still possible with the work of concerned activists. "I think something that this pandemic has illuminated is that a lot of people cannot depend on the federal government so they're taking change into their own hands," Ramos said.

Ultimately, Ramos wants her reporting to be "the start of a conversation" for both Democrats and Republicans in fixing America's broken immigration system. "Even when you are released from ICE, that's just the beginning of the story for many people. What it means to get by, and what it means to rebuild one's life, and what it means to rebuild this American dream that everyone comes here for, that just starts when you leave ICE," she said.

So how can Americans help members of this vulnerable community? They can donate to groups that support transgender undocumented people and provide them with food and other essentials. But also, "I think it's a matter of people understanding, first of all, that undocumented transgender folks exist. They are out there. And also that they're deserving of opportunities," Ramos said.

Even for Ramos, the experiencing of reporting on this issue has been "eye-opening" of her own privilege, as she talked with people that cannot even afford masks and gloves during a health crisis. "If I think survival is hard for me ... it's way harder for other people. I think it's just always important to keep that in mind," she said.

Another thing to keep in mind? Transgender migrants come to the United States with "a very simple dream, which was to move beyond what's expected for them," Ramos said. What's expected "in many cases is just to live a longer life with a little bit more dignity."

Vice airs 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific on Showtime. Watch the clip from "Undocumented" below.

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