Coming Out in Uganda Was a Death Sentence. The U.S. Border Was a Trap

John Stanton

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CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — Margaret didn’t know what was going to happen when she approached the bridge between Juárez and El Paso, but she knew she couldn’t wait anymore. Six months since fleeing her home after being raped and repeatedly beaten for the crime of being a lesbian, the 20-year-old Ugandan was barely holding onto the last shreds of hope.

Since arriving in Juárez in March, Margaret had waited, waited to get a number from Grupo Beta, the government organization that’s frequently accused of corruption as it oversees the unofficial “line” tens of thousands of asylum seekers unable to pay their bribes are forced to wait in for months in order to cross the bridge, waited inside the walls of the Buen Pastor shelter deep inside one of Juárez’s most dangerous neighborhoods, waited for someone, anyone to help.

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So when New Mexico-based lawyer Nancy Oretskin came to the Buen Pastor that September morning and suggested bypassing the line and trying to cross, she quickly agreed. Although she was physically safe within its high, concrete block walls, the neighborhood is violent, and gangs had already killed several people within blocks of Buen Pastor. And while Margaret appreciated the help the shelter had given her, life was still difficult: Almost no one spoke English, and the cramped conditions had resulted in an outbreak of chicken pox. In many ways, Buen Pastor had become a prison.

The plan was simple: Oretskin would accompany Margaret and her friend Kodi, a political refugee from Cameroon, to the bridge shortly after noon that day, when fewer pedestrians would be crossing, giving Oretskin a better chance to make their case. There’s little love between immigration attorneys and Border Patrol agents, but Oretskin has long sought to avoid open conflict when possible, and has an uncanny knack for charming the normally hostile officers.

It was a gamble, to be sure. Even before President Trump came to power, it was never a sure thing that asylum seekers could get into the U.S. to plead their cases. And in the years since Election Day 2016, things had only gotten worse as Trump systematically twisted the asylum system into a tool to punish anyone who dared come to the United States for sanctuary. Those policies had emboldened the worst impulses of CBP, resulting in the historic tensions between immigration attorneys and CBP which were exponentially increasing to the point that even asylum seekers accompanied by members of Congress were being turned away.

Still, there was a chance. A chance that Margaret would be let into the U.S., a chance she’d be able to make her case to an American judge that she deserved asylum, a chance that, finally, she would be free.

And so on a hot, dusty afternoon Margaret and Oretskin took their first steps onto the bridge to the United States, unsure of her future.

MARGARET FIRST LEARNED how to hide herself when she was 13. “That’s when I understood I was I gay,” she said quietly as we talked in the Buen Pastor shelter in mid-August, absent-mindedly turning over a book adorned with smiling, happy white faces in her thin hands. (Editor’s note: Because of concerns that her family may face reprisals for telling her story, “Margaret” has asked “Rolling Stone” to use an alias she had used in her home country, rather than her real name.)

In Uganda, especially in 2012, coming out could mean a death sentence. Existing laws in the country made being gay a crime, and the government was actively considering legislation to impose the death penalty against anyone found to have engaged in “aggressive homosexuality.” Even people who knew someone was gay could be jailed under the law, which would be adopted two years later despite international outrage. Two years before, the unfortunately named Rolling Stone tabloid ran a hit list of of gay Ugandans under the headline of “Hang Them,” which featured the pictures of 100 people the tabloid outed as allegedly homosexual. “We thought by publishing that story, the police would investigate them, prosecute them, and hang them,” editor Giles Muhame said at the time. (Editor’s note: The Ugandan tabloid is in no way connected to this publication.)

In her hometown, the small city of Entebbe, Margaret could find no refuge, and even at home she would find no support. Margaret said her mother called her a “disgrace” and demanded she never speak about the subject again. Even among her friends at school she learned to keep her secret, worried teachers would discover her identity. “I just had to shut up about it,” Margaret says. “If they found out about it, I would have been expelled, so I just hid it because I cared about my studies.”

In 2014, as Margaret struggled to navigate being a teenager hiding in plain sight, President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill into law: The next day the Ugandan tabloid Rep Pepper ran its own hit list, doxing 200 people it claimed were queer. Although the law would eventually be struck down by the country’s supreme court over a technicality, it unleashed a wave of violence against the LGBTQ community and created a dangerous climate in the country, which has continued to this day, according to human rights activists. Government officials, including Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s powerful minister of Ethics and Integrity, has conducted a relentless campaign against the LGBTQ community. In the past three months, four LGBTQ activists have been murdered in Uganda, including one who was killed earlier this week.

By last year, Margaret had spent nearly six years masking her identity, in constant fear of being discovered, with only a few of her closest friends knowing she was queer. Although she’d enrolled in college, rumors were spread about her sexuality, and, in the face of discrimination from her peers and the school, she had quickly dropped out. It was a hard lesson for her. “You’re supposed to keep yourself secret,” she explains. “You’re not supposed to let anyone know about you.”

But for all her determination, Margaret was still a human, subject to all the social needs and pressures of any young person. So in September of last year, she decided to go to the Nyege Nyege music festival, about eight hours from her home in Entebbe. Although not officially a queer event, the three-day electronic-music festival has long had a reputation for being one of the few times a year LGBTQ people can openly mix, dance, and have fun without worrying about discrimination or criminal repercussions. Lokodo tried to block the festival on the grounds that it would promote homosexuality and immoral behavior, but eventually relented under pressure from human rights groups and the festival’s financial backers.

When Margaret arrived at the festival, she had no reason to think she was in danger, and for the next three days everything went well. Though she says there were people there who many suspected were government or military spies, the festival went off without a hitch.

But the morning after the festival, as she was leaving Margaret was dragged off the road, blindfolded, beaten, raped, and left in the bush to die. “I tried to call for help, but I couldn’t,” she says. She was bleeding badly and could barely move. The men who attacked Margaret were in plain clothes, and although she doesn’t know if her attackers were police or soldiers, they had made clear that they had targeted her because they believed she was a lesbian.

A local woman found Margaret and took her in, making herbal medicines that helped stop her bleeding. Margaret called a friend who eventually took her to a doctor in Entebbe, where she was careful not to reveal her sexuality or why she thought she had been attacked. She tried talking to her mother about the attack, but her mother refused to listen, telling her that “she didn’t want to discuss it.”

So Margaret retreated further from the world, largely keeping to herself, focusing on the private courses she was taking in medical-information technology. In early March, a friend invited her to a housewarming party. Margaret knew there would be other LGBTQ people there — it was a small, private party — and she assumed it would be safe to attend.

But, according to Margaret, the party would come to an abrupt end. Part way through the evening of March 2nd, gunshots were heard outside, warning shots from members of the police who had been summoned by the neighbors. “They shot bullets in the air outside of the house, and then kicked down the gate to get in…everything was confusion,” Margaret says. “When they came in, they were hitting us with batons. They hit me on the back, and I fell to the ground, and they began kicking me in the stomach…and then they left.” Several of her friends were taken into custody, Margaret says. “I don’t know what happened to them.”

Within days of the police raid, she would flee her country. “It was scary,” she says. “But I was determined to move. Because if I stay in my country, I’d die.”

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL HAS GROWN more restricted over the past decade, thanks to restrictions on visas and heightened scrutiny of foreign travelers after 9/11, which has limited migrants’ ability to fly directly into the United States. As a result, tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia have made the long, often dangerous trip to the U.S.’s southern border. There are no definitive statistics on the number of migrants who have come through the southern border seeking asylum, but according to data collected by Syracuse University, since August 2001 more than 83,322 people from countries other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle nations have had their asylum claims heard in immigration courts located in the four border states.

That migration has turned turbulent border cities like Juárez and Tijuana into something like international waiting rooms. The path has become so well-worn that ethnic neighborhoods like Juárez’s Little Havana and Tijuana’s Little Haiti have begun to develop as migrants increasingly put down roots in their host communities.

For most, the journey starts somewhere in northern South America, in countries like Brazil or Colombia, where migrants can fly from their home country without a visa. From there, the vast majority will move north over land, often by foot, traveling for months at a time through Central America and Mexico.

It’s an extraordinarily dangerous trek: Migrants drown during the crossing of the dangerous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, for instance, and with most not speaking the language and clearly foreigners, blackmail and kidnapping is common. In many cases, they will end up spending time in one or more jails along the way, particularly in Panama, which often detains migrants for days or weeks at a time.

Once in Mexico, non-Central American migrants who are detained are typically given temporary travel papers that allow them to move openly through the country to the U.S. border. While that makes it possible to use the countries cheap and relatively efficient bus system, it is still dangerous. Migrants are regularly robbed, often by the bus operators, and cartels and other gangs stop buses to demand money from passengers.

Margaret’s trip was, comparatively, direct. When she left Uganda, she had enough money to do most of the journey by plane, cutting out much of the danger many migrants face coming to the United States. Days after the police attack at her friend’s party, she packed a bag with some clothes, documents from the doctor who had treated her after she was raped, and her phone, and fled.

After first flying to South Africa, she went to Brazil, then Argentina, before finally landing in Mexico City. Once there, she informed Mexican immigration officials that she was going to the United States to ask for asylum. She was taken into custody and held in detention before ultimately being released with her temporary travel documents. Officials took her to a bus station, where she booked her trip to Juárez.

The trip took several days, and at some point, her bag, which had been checked onto the bus, was stolen — along with all of her money, her phone, and most importantly nearly all the documentations she’d brought with her. Without her phone, she couldn’t contact her friends in Uganda to wire money, leaving her nearly penniless when she finally arrived in Juárez. Still, she assumed there would be plenty of time to contact friends once she crossed the border, where the U.S. government would likely help feed and house her while she made her case.

Margaret arrived in Juárez late in the evening on the March 24th. Officials from Grupo Beta gave her and the other migrants she was with a place to stay that night. “I thought when I got here, to the port of entry, they’d let us go through,” she says simply. But instead of being taken to the bridge to El Paso the next morning, as she had expected, officials instead gave her a number and took her to the shelter.

THIS ISN’T HOW ASYLUM is supposed to work. Indeed, before the Trump administration blew up the asylum system, there was a fairly orderly, if unpredictable, process that tens of thousands of migrants had used.

Under U.S. immigration law, any person who is on American soil can apply for asylum — whether or not they cross the border at a point of entry. Traditionally, most asylum seekers have come to these official border crossings, since it’s simply a matter of walking up to the first American official you see and asking them for help.

Immigration officials then conduct a “credible fear interview,” during which they assess whether or not a person has a reasonable claim for asylum under federal and international law. Whether or not a credible fear is found can be subjective, up to the individual officers who conduct the interview. Traditionally, however, if you can show you are part of a persecuted religious, ethnic or racial minority, or have expressed political opinions for which you can be persecuted, or are LGBTQ, you would most likely “pass” the interview, at which point you’d be taken into custody to await a formal asylum hearing.

The decision to come to the U.S., made every day by thousands of desperate people around the world, is an understandable one. Over the past two centuries, the United States has positioned itself as a symbol of freedom and democracy, the defender of democracy, and a society where even the most outcast are welcome. For most of the 20th Century, the idea of America as a shining city on a hill became a powerful tool in the fight against the Soviet empire, and so became ingrained in the global consciousness.

It’s a remarkable bit of public-relations work, given that our foundational documents were written by slave owners, and generations of leaders since have focused their outward gaze more on domination than democracy. But it’s a myth taylor-made for a young nation looking to replace the old European guard with reinvented colonial ways under flashy, new terms.

But within months of coming to power, the Trump administration began taking extraordinary — and extra-legal — steps to halt immigration to the country, legal or otherwise. Those efforts have only escalated within the past 18 months, ranging from new checkpoints inside Mexico manned by armed Americans to a new policy to deport anyone who comes to the U.S. through Mexico, regardless of the merits of their asylum claim. As a result, tens of thousands of people from around the world who were drawn here by the hope of being taken into America are instead stuck in some of the most dangerous cities in the world just across our southern border, where they’re forced to wait for months — if they can survive that long.

“This isn’t a humanitarian crisis. It’s a humanitarian assault,” says David Leopold, a veteran U.S. immigration attorney. “They are affirmatively forcing people to stay in a city that everybody agrees presents a variety of dangers. Let’s be really clear — people are dying because of this.”

ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE NEW POLICIES Trump has deployed is known as “metering” at ports of entry. Initially used at the Tijuana border crossing in 2017 and expanded borderwide this year, metering is an opaque process through which the Department of Homeland Security limits the number of applicants that can apply for asylum. On any given day, the number will change — some days five families will be seen; on others, five individuals; and on others, nobody at all.

In some places, like Tijuana, the U.S. relies on Mexican officials to control access to the border. But in Juárez, DHS has set up new checkpoints just inside Mexican territory, where anyone walking across the border must first show passports before even being allowed to exit Mexico. Manned by armed Customs and Border Patrol agents and surrounded by a wall of razor wire and Klieg lights, these checkpoints are a show of force aimed at deterring people from trying to ask for asylum.

Whether it’s working to deter significant numbers of migrants is unknown. What’s clear is that those who won’t give up, like Margaret, are waiting for months to even ask for asylum, even as they start to lose hope.

By the end of July, Margaret had stopped checking the Facebook page Mexican officials use to announce which refugees will be accepted that day to meet with U.S. officials and ask for asylum. The last time she checked, maybe 500 people were called, she said, and the number was currently stuck at 12,000.

“Some days they take 10,” she says. “Some days they don’t take any.”

The end result has been that tens of thousands of migrants end up stuck in Tijuana, Juárez, and other border cities, none of which have any sort of humanitarian capacity to deal with the influx of new people, and all of which are incredibly dangerous. In Juárez at least 129 people were murdered in August alone, and migrants are routinely raped and beaten there and in other cities.

The entire process is completely random and arbitrary, and can be disheartening. And, given Trump’s open disdain for the asylum process and DHS’s stated goal of making the process as difficult as possible, this appears to be the point. “To me this is criminal,” Leopold says, who argues the broader effort to restrict asylum claims is “effectively blocking the asylum law. They’ve essentially repealed the asylum law without Congress doing a single thing.”

THE BUEN PASTOR SHELTER isn’t on most maps, which is probably a good thing. Because its tucked deep within one of Juarez’s most dangerous neighborhoods on a short, narrow dirt road, the cartels, pimps, coyotes, and cops who prey on immigrants probably have no idea it’s even there.

Margaret rarely ventures outside its high, barbed-wire-topped walls and steel gate, and when she does, it’s only for quick trips to the corner store or to church. Gang killings are routine in the area, and criminals who prey on migrants would spot her dark black skin from a mile a way.

And even if she could leave, Margaret wouldn’t have any place to go. At the shelter she met Kodi and she knows a few other African migrants, but she doesn’t speak Spanish and knows nobody else on either American  who continent. She tried looking for work, but with no documents, that wasn’t an option.

Run by local methodists, the Buen Pastor shelter is one of a handful of ad hoc shelters that have begun taking in the thousands of migrants seeking asylum but are stuck in Juárez. Despite the church’s best efforts, conditions at the shelter are bad.

Like almost every shelter in northern Mexico, Buen Pastor relies on private donations of food, medical supplies, clothes, and medicine to help the scores of migrants who have found themselves stuck here. Meeting even the most basic of needs is a constant struggle — shelters across the city report difficulties ensuring that they’ll have enough food for residents on a daily basis.

In August, a chicken-pox outbreak hit the Buen Pastor. The shelter tried its best to contain the outbreak, moving the infected into a small room away from the main chapel where residents sleep. But with temperatures well into the hundreds for much of the month, the sick kept a window connecting the two rooms open, hoping for some measure of relief. Margaret, who sleeps between two pews below the window, tried to warn the ministers running the shelter that the disease was airborne. But it was too late, and the illness quickly spread.

“People are doing the best they can, out of the goodness of their hearts,” says Christina Wegs, the global advocacy director for sexual and reproductive rights and health for CARE, an international human rights organization. Much of CARE’s work has traditionally centered around mass displaced populations from Syria, Congo, and Venezuela. But like other international human rights groups, CARE has become increasingly concerned about the situation at America’s southern border, particularly when it comes to women and members of the LGBTQ community.

And the situation is dire. “The capacity is totally inadequate,” Wegs says of the patchwork network of shelters and kitchens that are serving migrants. “These are basically just people responding to a need.”

For members of the LGBTQ community, it can be particularly difficult. Because of the conditions in their home countries, “these LGBT asylum seekers are arriving traumatized…[now] they’re in this state of limbo,” Wegs says. “And Juárez is such an unsafe city. People are living with palpable fear.”

BY THE TIME NANCY ORETSKIN ARRIVED at Buen Pastor on the morning of September 12th, the pressure and uncertainty had become too much for Margaret. When we had first met weeks earlier in late August, the strain on Margaret was already written across her face, a dark resignation in her eyes barely contained by her bravery and a still-resolute faith in God, who — since she realized she was a lesbian seven years before — had remained silent despite her prayers.

But it was time to stop hiding, and time for Margaret to put her faith in a country that for decades had told the world it would always stand as a beacon of hope for those yearning to be free.

By her side was Oretskin, a ball of constant, exasperated energy who has piercing eyes harder than a lie detector, and who’s blunt and tenacious to the point of abrasiveness. A former professor at New Mexico State University, Oretskin over the past several years has become something of a minor celebrity among the African diaspora that ends up in Juárez and El Paso, thanks to her successful representation of several Africans, including a gay man from Ghana and a Somali hunted by Al-Shabaab in 2014. 

Margaret had found Oretskin through the migrant grapevine after being in Juárez for several months. Communicating over Whatsapp, the two had discussed her case, and also Margaret’s friend Kodi’s case, and when Oretskin arrived on the morning of September 12th, she was convinced Margaret and Kodi both had solid cases. “I believe they could both easily win if they’re given a chance,” Oretskin says.

Despite the many hurdles DHS has thrown up to asylum, Oretskin hoped that the often haphazard way the new rules are enforced could work in Margaret and Kodi’s favor. While traditionally asylum cases have always been extremely difficult for Mexican and Central American migrants to win in the El Paso immigration court, in the past some of the DHS officers and immigration judges have been slightly more sympathetic to people from African nations.

And Oretskin had realized that whether or not you could get past the guards on the bridge to make your claim often was a crap shoot, depending on who was manning the post, the time of day, and how you approached them. “It’s completely random,” she says. “There is no playbook.” 

Still, Oretskin had something of plan. She’d decided to cross Margaret and Kodi just before a shift change of border agents, when the heat of the day meant fewer migrants and other travelers would be crossing, giving her a chance to make their cases. As her clients stood by, Oretskin made a straightforward, calm appeal to the agents on their behalf, pointing out that the wait line wasn’t official, that their claims were compelling enough that they, she thought, would almost certainly pass a credible fear interview, and stressing that they had waited patiently for months in the dangerous city of Juárez.

THE GAMBLE WORKED, but it would prove to be a temporary reprieve.

According to Oretskin, after she made her case to the Border Patrol officers at the checkpoint, they conferred with a supervisor who agreed to let them through. Oretskin accompanied Margaret and Kodi across the bridge onto U.S. soil and into the Immigration and Customs offices on the far side. Both were taken into custody late in the afternoon.

That was the last time she saw of her clients, and what happens next is unknown. Normally, they would then be given credible-fear interviews, and assuming they passed, be scheduled for asylum hearings. Kodi eventually turned up in a New Mexico detention center a few days later. Young and gregarious, Kodi is part of Cameroon’s English-speaking population. His life at home unraveled after university officials accused him of being part of an Anglophone rights group that the dominant Francophone government had deemed a terrorist organization. Kodi denied he was a member, but local police beat him anyway and blinded him in his right eye. It remains unclear whether he’ll be granted asylum or sent back.

And for Margaret, a few weeks after her successful border crossing, things took a dark turn. Oretskin couldn’t find her for weeks before DHS disclosed she was being held in the El Paso detention center.

And on Wednesday, she called Oretskin to tell her that U.S. officials had determined that, despite being a lesbian from a country in which it is illegal to be one, and despite having already suffered beatings and a rape, Margaret had no “credible fear” or any way of knowing what would happen if she were sent back. The inexplicable decision once again throws Margaret’s life into turmoil — as soon as early next week she will have a final shot at remaining in the country when a judge hears an appeal of the finding.

When I met Margaret in late August, she had a simple plea. “I pray that everything works out,” she said. “Because it has been so tough. Ever since I was 13, I just wanted to be free, instead of hiding who I am. I just want to be free, that’s all. And happy.”

If the judge denies her appeal, she’ll almost certainly be put on a plane and deported to Uganda, back to a life of terror and hiding, with only her faith in God, and her silence, to protect her.

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