Free At Last

Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco was granted asylum, but challenges remain as she gets used to her new life outside detention

On April 22, after six months in an all-male detention center in Florence, Nicoll Hernández-Polanco—a transgender woman from Guatemala—was granted asylum. The 23-year-old immigrated to Mexico in her early teens, and attempted to cross into the U.S. twice before the age of 18. Her third attempt was last October, when she reached the Arizona-Sonora border and turned herself in to border agents to request asylum. She fled ongoing violence in both countries over her status as trans.

While in detention, she says she was physically and emotionally abused by guards. During the first few weeks in detention she had to shower with other men, and consequently was sexually assaulted by another detainee.

Her case attracted national attention, as part of a growing movement demanding the federal government to place LGBT immigrants in a vulnerable group that should not be detained, especially those fleeing violence in their native nations.

Hernández-Polanco is among the between 4 to 10 percent of asylum seekers and refuges in the country who are LGBT, according to the Rainbow Welcome Initiative—a Chicago agency funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement that focuses on these cases. The University of California Los Angeles' Williams Institute approximates that there are more than 260,000 undocumented LGBT immigrants in the country, and between 15,000 and 50,000 of them are transgender.

Since the Refugee Act of 1980 passed, it took years to clarify that LGBT people can apply for asylum based on fear of percussion over "membership in a social group."

Once on U.S. soil, according to Fusion—a collaborative news organization between Univision and ABC—Immigration and Customs Enforcement apprehends about 75 transgender immigrants in any given day, most of whom are transgender women like Hernández-Polanco. One in five transgender detainees report sexual abuse while in ICE custody.

For the few who win asylum, then there's the challenge of learning English and adjusting to the American routine. In the case of Hernández-Polanco, she stopped going to school in the third grade, which makes it even harder to find stable employment. She says she wants to get a GED and then enroll in Pima Community College or another higher education institution. She's always been interested in a tourism-related career.

These days, she's been living with members of Mariposas Sin Fronteras—the Tucson-based LGBT immigrants advocacy group that, alongside others around the nation like the Transgender Law Center, helped publicize her experience in detention.

I sat down with Hernández-Polanco at her temporary home to chat about the beginning of a new life.

The Tucson Weekly first featured her story in March 5's "Free Nicoll."

What did it feel like to hear, not only that you could leave detention, but that you had been granted asylum?

It was an interesting day. Court began at 11 a.m., because I also had a bond hearing. First I was given a bond of $3,000. Then they began to interrogate me for the asylum hearing. At times, the judge tried to discredit my story, because when I first arrived at the border, I told the agents a little bit of what had happened to me in Mexico, but not the abuse I suffered in Guatemala, too. The border agents were men and I did not trust them. Then, when I met my two lawyers (Heather Hamel and Vidula Patki worked on Hernández-Polanco's case pro-bono), they are women, so I felt more comfortable and I felt like I could be more honest with them. The judge saw that as having two opposite stories. I got scared.

I heard someone say that I should be deported, and that I wasn't a woman. I started to cry. It was 5:30 p.m. when the judge said, "OK, it is getting late. We have to make a decision. I am giving you asylum. Behave in the United States. Do not get in trouble and be a good citizen."

What if the judge hadn't granted you asylum?

I trusted God. I knew what was meant to happen would happen. If I hadn't been able to stay, I would have felt good in the sense that I fought. I let everyone know that LGBT people in detention deserve respect. That is the happiness I carry inside of me, and if God's will was for me to get deported, at least I fought. The guards and other people think we don't have the same rights as them, but we do.

After the hearing, did you return to the detention center?

I had to go back to pick up my belongings. I was handcuffed inside and the guards didn't know what to do with me. I was in-and-out. I couldn't even say good bye to my friends.

After the nationwide attention to your case, and the physical and emotional abuse you were so open about, what was it like in there? Did the guards and male detainees change the way they treated you?

They knew I was going to speak up if they violated my rights. After all of the news stories, I was given like a bodyguard. A guard would follow me everywhere—the bathroom, the courtyard, everywhere. I felt like the queen of Florence.

How are you feeling lately?

Psychologically, I am struggling. It is hard. I don't even want to think or remember anything that I have been through. I want to go to a forest or the mountains and scream as loud as I can. Get it all out. Cry. I still have a difficult time being around people. I had been on my own for so long, having all of this support is something I am still adjusting to.

What are your plans now?

I am starting a new life, a new puzzle. I want to go to school, I want to learn English to have a better education in this country and know how to express myself. I want to work as soon as I can. I am trying to get an ID and a passport from the Guatemalan consulate. I want everything to happen right now. I have to start from scratch. I have some clothes that was donated to me. There is so much that I need.

I also want to keep fighting for the LGBT people in detention because of what I have suffered. They are my family and I believe we have to defend them, protect them and support them. It doesn't matter where we are from, we have to be united.

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