A farmworker in northern New England, who is a member of two marginalized communities, is sharing a rarely heard story with NECN, aiming to open eyes to what drives some LGBTQ+ people to seek political asylum in the United States.
"For as long as I can remember, I've known that I've been a man," said Christian, through an interpreter.
The transgender man added he has long held a dream to live joyfully as himself -- something he said he wasn't able to do in his native Mexico.
NECN has chosen to not use Christian's last name or reveal exactly where he lives and works, in case he or his employer could face harassment.
"I did experience violence, particularly in Mexico City," Christian said, noting he hopes people gain new insights from his story into the experiences and motivations of some undocumented immigrants.
Crossing Into the US
Christian cares for newborn calves on a dairy farm, where he said he feels far safer than in Mexico, where he worked for a wine seller.
"I had a lot of bad run-ins with people there -- clients who would threaten me, who didn't like the way that I was," Christian said. "Before that, when I was living in Vera Cruz, I had a partner. We were together for six years. And her family never accepted our relationship. And I had threats from them, particularly her dad."
He even received death threats in Mexico, Christian recalled in an interview conducted outside his home.
Wanting an end to all that, to be able to date someone with less judgement, change his name hassle-free and pursue gender-affirming medical care, Christian said he joined more than 40 migrants heading north from Mexico, subverting regular government channels to enter the U.S.
"I crossed without authorization," Christian acknowledged, recalling that federal law enforcement soon thereafter raided the home into which members of that large group had crammed.
The farmworker said he believes an immigration officer must have been worried about his safety as a trans man if he had been sent back to Mexico.
"Of those 43, I was the only one who was released," Christian said through the interpreter, adding that his gender identity is the only reason he can think of for why he was released. "In my hometown, they'd say I was the lucky one."
'Scared to Come Out of the Shadows'
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, who leads the National Center for Transgender Equality, based in Washington, D.C., pointed to estimates from the UCLA Williams Institute that indicate there are about 267,000 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are LGBTQ+. Up to 50,000 of those undocumented immigrants are trans, Heng-Lehtinen estimated.
"But there might be thousands and thousands more, who are just scared to come out of the shadows," Heng-Lehtinen told NECN. "There's many more undocumented transgender people in the U.S. than you might think."
The advocate said that, despite key contributions in sectors like agriculture, construction, food service and hospitality, undocumented transgender people often face big challenges -- like workplace intimidation, housing discrimination and more.
"Accessing basic, basic health care services is a real struggle for a lot of undocumented transgender people throughout the United States," Heng-Lehtinen said.
Christian has a lawyer and a pending asylum application. To be clear, that allows him to lawfully stay in the U.S. for now, and hold a work permit while his court case progresses.
However, he lamented, he remains in the shadows. He is unable to access many benefits, is limited in his travel and said he is part of a farmworker community whose difficult labor often goes unrecognized.
Still, Christian is where he wants to be, he told NECN.
"I feel like I can be open about my identity," said Christian. "The way that I'm living here in this country, I wouldn't have been able to in Mexico, and so this has really been so important and it has improved my life so much. I definitely wouldn't want to go back, and I would be afraid of violence if I did."
Long Waits for Asylum in New England
In Vermont, calls for more humane approaches to LGBTQ+ migration followed the death last year of farmworker Durvi Martinez.
Martinez was arrested in early 2020 in rural northeastern Vermont on suspicion of drunken driving. The trans woman was then held in male detention facilities, according to advocates with the group Migrant Justice.
On its website, Migrant Justice posted a photo of Martinez taken by Terry Allen, which NECN used in the video version of this report.
The advocacy organization said Martinez was preparing an asylum claim, describing fear of physical attacks in Mexico as a transgender person, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved for deportation.
"Our migrant workers are the heart of our farm," said Danielle Goodrich-Gingras, who employed Martinez at her family's Salisbury farm early in Martinez's transition.
Goodrich-Gingras said she was sad to learn her former employee died of COVID-19 following that removal from a comparatively healthier Vermont, and remembered Durvi Martinez as kind and popular with coworkers.
Goodrich-Gingras added she wants undocumented farmhands from Mexico or central America -- regardless of gender identity -- to feel safe in barns and fields everywhere.
"We would not have a farm without them here," the farmer said of her workers, including Durvi Martinez. "I think the more these conversations happen, the more the public is aware that these people are essential to a food system."
On the different farm where he works, Christian told NECN that he feels a true sense of duty to the calves he looks after while he waits on his formal asylum request that is based on his experience as a trans man.
He's been waiting for more than five years, he sighed.
"It is also not uncommon for people to have cases that are ongoing for six to seven years," said Erin Jacobsen of Vermont Law School. "That's just how backlogged the whole system is."
Erin Jacobsen is an attorney with a legal clinic through Vermont Law School that offers free help to groups including asylum-seekers. She said roughly a tenth of claims are related to applicants' sexual orientation or gender identity.
"People like Christian are all around us," Jacobsen noted.
While she is not involved in Christian's case, Jacobsen praised him for putting a face on one of many root causes driving migration, hoping under-discussed stories like his may spark new urgency in Washington to address asylum backlogs and to revisit humanitarian programs.
"The very reason for people needing to flee their countries of origin because they can't be open and out safely lead to some reluctance or nervousness for those individuals to then want to tell their stories once they're here," Jacobsen said, referring to how Christian shared his story in this news report. "I hope we can honor that with having really meaningful, permanent immigration reform that allows people like him to come here, be themselves, and seek a life here that's one of safety and security."
Backed-Up Politics in Washington
The longest-serving current U.S. Senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in 2013 championed a bill which passed the Senate but not the House that would've created a "tough but achievable" pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country.
"We're a nation of immigrants," said Leahy.
The Democrat pointed out that for many undocumented immigrants, including LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers, not being able to stay could have really serious consequences.
"Maybe even death," Leahy said. "I've been talking quietly with others [on] the Judiciary Committee, where I'm on leadership, in both parties, saying, 'Listen, we got an overwhelming vote in the Senate last time. Why don't we try again?' and make these people really part of the community."
Leahy knows to expect strong pushback from Senate Republicans on that committee.
"The Biden border crisis keeps getting worse," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a recent Senate hearing.
Cruz and other Republicans have repeatedly insisted the White House needs to do much, much more to ensure public safety and alleviate pressure along the southern border from waves of migrants who have been coming in record numbers throughout 2021.
"It's less secure today than it was in December," Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said of the southern border in that same hearing.
"There's no way in hell we can legalize anybody until we first understand the effect it would have on the border and whether or not it would incentivize further illegal immigration," argued Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
While clashes continue, advocates wish discussions could stay focused on people over politics.
"Thinking about immigration can sound like a thorny, complicated policy topic, and transgender rights can seem like a culture war," Heng-Lehtinen observed. "But really, these are human beings. Undocumented transgender people are people who have faced violence, who have faced persecution, who have oftentimes had to worry for their own lives, and all they want to do is come to the United States to feel safe and to be able to build a family and support themselves in their communities."
Christian said he is optimistic about his asylum application and hopes to even work toward U.S. citizenship.
For now, he added he is proud to be closer to achieving that dream of happiness and authenticity, even if he still feels marginalized because of the combination of his gender identity and immigration status.
"Our community still can't be totally open and can't live freely in the way that we want to," Christian said through the interpreter. "And I hope that one day we'll be able to achieve that and we'll be able to live totally freely in this country. I don't know how long it's going to take. We have a saying, that, 'Everything comes in due time.' I hope it does."
Doing so would enable Christian to live both out of the closet and out of the shadows, he said.
"And I hope it doesn't take too long," the farmworker added.