“I decided to come to the U.S. to save my life,” says Luz, a transgender asylum seeker, in Sylvia Johnson’s short documentary Luz’s Story. In Honduras, Luz was shot multiple times by alleged gang members who targeted her for her trans identity. She barely emerged with her life. As soon as she was released from the hospital, she was transferred to a Honduran prison on charges of defending her identity. Upon her release 10 months later, after being abused in prison, several gang members again threatened her life.
Luz entered the United States via an official port of entry and asked for protection through political asylum. She was promptly imprisoned. “I had already been imprisoned [in Honduras] and didn’t want to experience another situation like what I had been through,” she says in the film.
Later, Luz would learn that her Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Center, had previously been a criminal correctional prison. In October 2016, it was shut down due to inhumane conditions that resulted in several inmate deaths. Shortly thereafter, ICE offered a contract of $30 million a year to the same facility. It reopened in January 2017. Since early 2018, Cibola has incarcerated more than 180 women in its “transgender pod”—the only known ICE-run detention facility for transgender-identifying women. According to Johnson, the incarcerated women, such as Luz, were seeking protection from violence and persecution they had suffered in their home country.
Luz says she spent three excruciating months in Cibola—two of which were in solitary confinement. “It was really, really horrible for me,” she says. “I went into a depression that made me want to hurt myself.”
Johnson, who works part-time at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, told me that the women in the trans pod face extraordinary hardships and obstacles to winning their cases. “While in custody, they face a shocking lack of medical and mental-health services,” she said. “They are put in abusive solitary confinement, they experience high levels of sexual assault, and they face discrimination from the government and the corporation that detains them.” Johnson cited the deaths of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez in 2018 and Johana Medina Leon this year as grave evidence of ICE’s inability to detain trans women safely.
Luz’s Story, a collaboration between Johnson and the photographer Eduardo Montes-Bradley, is just one horrific account of the trauma experienced by many trans asylum seekers.
“I was completely blown away by the resilience of Luz’s spirit and how vivacious she is despite what she has gone through,” Johnson said. “Luz has been through things that no human being should ever have to experience, and she is warm, kind, full of life, and unafraid to speak her truth.”