By Felisa Cardona
Transgender woman Alexandra Reyes cries as she recalls abuse she suffered in Mexico. An immigration judge granted Reyes a form of asylum that allows her to stay in the U.S. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post )
When Alexandra Reyes' father caught her wearing her sister's shoes and clothes, he tied her up and beat her with spiked pieces of a tree.
"It was so horrible, I would scream," Reyes said in Spanish. "He told me he had a son, not a daughter, and he did not accept me."
Reyes, 32, was born a boy named Carlos but began living life as a girl at age 8, infuriating her traditional Mayan family in Cenotillo, Mexico. One night, an aunt walked into Reyes' bedroom and tried to kill her with a machete because she didn't want Reyes in the family.
The Mexican police wouldn't arrest Reyes' abusers. So 10 years ago, she paid a smuggler to get her across the border. She walked four days and four nights through the desert into the U.S. and made it to Colorado, where a friend told her she would be safe.
Now, she gets to stay here.
Last week, an immigration judge granted Reyes a form of asylum that allows her to stay in the U.S. based on the persecution she suffered as a transgender woman in Mexico.
The Board of Immigration Appeals withheld her removal from the U.S. after determining the Mexican government would not protect her from abuse if she was deported.
"It would be physically dangerous for her to walk down the street," said her attorney, Bryon Large. "She could be sexually assaulted."
As a condition of her asylum, Reyes must obey the law and can't leave the U.S. for any reason if she hopes to be allowed back in.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not keep statistics on the numbers of transgender immigrants granted asylum. But Large said the relief Reyes got is rare for a Mexican national because some immigration judges think there is tolerance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Mexico.
Same-sex marriage is allowed in Mexico City, and many gay tourists flock to beach resorts throughout the country, leading to the misconception that the country is welcoming, said
Large, who argues that pockets of intolerance abound in rural Mexico.
In defending Reyes, one of the cases Large used to persuade the board was of a gay Mexican immigrant who fled to Canada but was denied asylum. After he was deported back to Mexico, he was killed.
Asylum is easier to obtain for immigrants from countries such as Jamaica, where gays are imprisoned, or Iran, where members of the LGBT community are executed, Large said.
Reyes found herself in trouble last year after she bilked a cab driver out of a $500 fare. The cabbie drove her from Aurora to Breckenridge and back, but a friend she was meeting declined to pay the fare as promised.
Reyes went to the cab company a week later to pay the bill, and the company called the police, who then called Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"I am still ashamed," she said.
Reyes paid restitution in the cab driver case. In the meantime, she was moved to an immigration detention facility in Aurora for deportation proceedings.
Biologically male, Reyes spent 11 months in custody housed with men, but she says she was treated well and didn't have any problems despite a lack of privacy.
Reyes' case was referred to Large by the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, and he began working pro bono to gain her release and asylum.
For now, Reyes is sharing an apartment in Aurora with friends and waiting to receive a work permit from the government.
She takes female hormones but has not yet had sexual reassignment surgery. She finds the American people accepting of her differences.
"What I have seen here is people are more open than people from my country," she said. "Sometimes I miss Mexico, but I am scared to return."
Reyes is trying to learn English and deciding what kind of work she wants to do.
"I want others to know that nothing is impossible," she said.