In 2013, there were approximately 267,000 undocumented LGBT immigrants in the United States, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
We were unable to find more-recent data on this community—and were also unable to determine the number of LGBTQ detainees held currently in the 211 detention centers operating in the United States, privately owned or under the aegis of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. However, there is anecdotal evidence that sizeable numbers undocumented LGBT immigrants are, in fact, being held in abusive conditions throughout our country.
This reality first caught the attention of Ubaldo Boido and his partner, Craig Scott, when they were living comfortably in Los Angeles with their dog, Twink. They moved to Palm Springs in September of last year.
“We got involved with the Los Angeles chapter of Democratic Socialists of America,” Boido said during a recent phone interview. “They have an immigration-justice committee that wanted to go down to Tijuana to visit shelters because of the immigrant caravans at that time. So, I went along, (and while there), we visited an LGBTQ shelter I’d heard about in Tijuana. That’s when we realized that this was something that really hit close to home for us. This was our LGBTQ community coming to this border-crossing point seeking refuge from persecution. We met Jamaican women, people from Honduras and someone from Brazil. We listened to these horror stories about the violence that people go through in other countries just for being queer. It was something that lit a fire in both of us, and we said, ‘How can we help? We’ve got to help.’ So we did that for a year, and then we moved here and decided to continue doing the same work.”
So it was that Desert Support for Asylum Seekers (DSFAS) came to be.
“We wanted to help people understand the process (of seeking asylum) so that they could then figure out ways to support (these undocumented immigrants),” Boido said. “We discovered there was an immigration detention facility in Calexico (the Imperial Regional Detention Center), and we decided we would begin by supporting people there. Now that’s what Desert Support for Asylum Seekers does. It’s about pen pals, visitation coordination and then helping people when they get released with transportation, shelter and food. We’ve enrolled several people at College of the Desert for ESL (English as a second language) classes, and kind of helped them get acclimated to the community here.”
Other, more-established nonprofits like the TODEC Legal Center provide important assistance in our region, while DSFAS has focused attention on other real-world assistance. However, it didn’t take long for Boido and Scott to realize this challenge required more attention and outreach than just the two of them could manage.
“We wanted to create this volunteer group,” Boido said. “Let’s be honest: Most people are interested in helping children in these circumstances. Now, that’s not a bad thing, and I’m not suggesting it is. I’m simply saying that children light a fire under straight people. … But for us, it’s always been about this LGBTQ thing—but we didn’t want to limit (the reach) of DSFAS, because we wanted to see how big of a volunteer group we could create. Since then, the group has really championed people from all walks of life, and we love that. Still, Craig’s and my calling has been about helping LGBTQ migrants.”
Once volunteers began joining in, DSFAS started to fulfill its core missions more demonstrably.
“My partner, Craig, went down to Calexico with a group,” Boido said. “They scheduled a visitation, met several of the detainees there and started a pen-pal visitation coordinator group. Our name started to spread like wildfire (within the detention center), and word of our efforts spread. We started to get lots of pen pals, and we got a lot of people reaching out and asking how they could support us. So right now, we have a list of about 60 to 80 volunteers who are actively writing letters to people in Imperial Regional.”
Still, the most-challenging support scenarios had yet to surface.
“The detention center was dropping people at the downtown Calexico Greyhound station,” Boido said. “Even after the station was closed, (Border Patrol was) leaving them to fend for themselves. So we started this coordinator group to pick up people and get them on a bus, or get them here to Palm Springs where we could get them on a flight.
“One night, we got a call about a guy from Honduras who was gay and had just won the status called ‘withholding of removal.’ But he didn’t have anywhere to go to live. They asked us if we would be willing to house him, and we agreed to let him stay on our couch for a while. It was supposed to be for two weeks, but he stayed for almost seven months. It was both a challenging and an amazing experience. Since then, he’s moved to Los Angeles, gotten his work papers and has started his life. That experience changed our whole perspective. The truth is, when you’re LGBTQ, you come here with nobody, and you’re (often) actually fleeing your family, because they’re usually the ones persecuting you and helping the police come after you.”
Boido and Scott have realized they need to obtain a bigger home where they can house LGBTQ immigrants in need of assistance.
“Since the guy from Honduras, we’ve housed a transgender woman from Russia who moved to New York City, and another person who is still living in the Palm Springs area,” Boido said. “So this migrant home we want to create, that we call The House, is a safe space for our queer family coming from all over the world. We want to focus the energies that we’ve generated through DSFAS and create a little niche for the LGBTQ folks who we love and want to support on their journeys.
“We decided to launch this (GoFundMe) campaign. … We’ve had offers for homes, and we just want to push forward to raise more funds and create this space. Ideally, we’re interested in making it a safe house so that people can come, short-term or long-term, and have a place while they go through their immigration process. We’re just really excited about it.”
As the first year of DSFAS’ work draws to a close, how are the founders coping with the demands of dealing with the U.S. government while trying to help victims of persecution start new and happier lives?
“Being honest,” Boido said, “this is hard work, and it’s emotionally draining. There are days when I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s not like there’s a huge payoff, and we’re getting a big check. But watching that transgender woman come here and seeing her try on a dress and wear makeup for the first time, and really own her transwoman self, it changes you. It really changes you—and I can’t go back. I can’t un-see how we helped somebody, and how we’ve listened to the stories of where they’ve come from and what they’ve been through.
“The GoFundMe campaign is about getting a bigger house, so that we can house more people,” Boido said. “And, hopefully, from there, we can form into a nonprofit officially. But the urgency is now. What we’ve noticed is that, yes, we can house somebody, but for that one person, there are 40 or 100 more still imprisoned in a horrible, horrible place. They’re treated like criminals, stripped of their belongings, and they have to wear a blue jumpsuit all the time. They eat rotten food. You can’t believe the horror stories that we’ve heard. They are unimaginable. You wouldn’t believe that this is what the ‘land of the free’ is doing to people who are trying to get here.”