'Living My Dream': After Years, Transgender Asylum Seeker Finally Makes it to the US

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Luna Guzmán poses in New York City's Times Square. After years of struggling to make it to California from Guatemala, Luna has been granted humanitarian parole, and allowed to wait for her asylum court date in New York City. (Courtesy Luna Guzmán)

Luna Guzmán lived through years of brutal abuse and discrimination in her hometown in Guatemala, and has long dreamed of seeking asylum in California. When The California Report Magazine produced an audio documentary about her last December, though, it seemed those dreams might be on hold indefinitely.

We followed Luna, now 27, for more than two years, from a migrant shelter in Tijuana to an ICE detention center near San Diego, even tracking her down when she was sick with COVID, fighting for her life in the ICU.

When we first met her at the migrant shelter in November of 2018, she was wearing men's clothes in order to protect herself from harassment. She told us she was desperate to live in place where she could fully express her gender identity.

“One day soon I want everyone who knows me to say, ‘Luna made it. She fought for her dreams and they came true,’ ” she said.

Luna has survived so much; from sexual violence to learning she was HIV positive as a teenager. Her story and her courage inspired some of our listeners, who sent her money to help her with housing in Tijuana. Some even did a tribute performance for her at a tiny drag bar in Modesto.

But until recently, it seemed like Luna’s chances of coming to the United States were over. She had been held in ICE detention and deported twice without a real chance to plead her asylum case.

Then, a couple weeks ago, we got a voicemail from Luna. Her excitement pulsed through the phone as she exclaimed, “I am in the US! I am in San Diego. I was able to cross yesterday!”

Luna Guzmán arrives at the US-Mexico border on May 9, 2021 to ask for humanitarian parole. (Courtesy of Luna Guzmán)

This time, she had the help of an attorney, from the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, who helped her with an application for humanitarian parole. It was approved, allowing her to come into the US while she waits for another chance to go in front of an immigration judge and ask for protection.

An organization in New York City, called the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, agreed to sponsor Luna and help her with housing, medical care and finding a lawyer to represent her in immigration court. They sent her a plane ticket from San Diego to JFK.

Luna Guzmán arrives at JFK Airport in New York City on May 18, 2021. (Courtesy of Luna Guzmán)

When she arrived in New York, a volunteer took her to a shelter that houses transgender women in Jamaica, Queens. She’ll eventually be able to get her own apartment, through a program in New York City that guarantees housing for people living with HIV. With her humanitarian parole status, Luna is eligible for Medicaid in New York, which can help her get HIV meds, hormones or eventually, gender-affirming surgery. And QDEP can help her with English-language classes and mental health services, too. She was also able to finally get a COVID-19 vaccine, which had been difficult to access in Tijuana.

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It almost sounds too good to be true – like some kind of fairy godmother swooped in and gave Luna a start at a new life. We confirmed it all with QDEP's co-director, Ian Zdanowicz, himself a trans immigrant from Poland. He said his organization helps with services, but they also give trans migrants and former detainees like Luna a sense of community.

Luna Guzmán shows off her new pink high-top sneakers in her room at a shelter that houses transgender women in Queens. Being in New York and being around other trans women has given her the freedom to start to express her gender identity more freely, she said. (Courtesy of Luna Guzmán)

"I really want to make people's experience of those first few months or years in new place as bearable and, if possible, as joyful as we can," said Zdanowicz. "Because I think we went through so much trauma in our life and now just painful experiences... It just helps to to go through those experiences together and support each other in that."

In April and May, Zdanowicz said QDEP – in partnership with the Transgender Law Center and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project – has been able to sponsor 15 LGBTQ migrants from the border for humanitarian parole, bringing them to New York City, including Luna. There’s no guarantee border officials will grant humanitarian parole, though, so with each migrant, Zdanowicz said he’s holding his breath until they finally get across the border.

“Our organization is not super trusting of Biden's administration,” he said. “I was really surprised that they let them through, gave them parole without detention. Other parts of the country are still detaining people. For example, in Juarez, they let some people in with parole, but they give everyone an ankle bracelet. So it's very messy.”

Luna will still have to present her case in front of an immigration judge in New York. But this time, she’ll have a lawyer to represent her. With the pandemic, the backlog of immigration cases could take many months, even years to resolve.

Luna Guzmán rides the subway in NYC. (Courtesy of Luna Guzmán)

While Luna is waiting, she can start to live the life she’s dreamed about. She’s been sending us videos of her dancing to street musicians in Times Square, and wearing her new pink high tops to take the subway.

“I’m living my dream, right?” Luna said in a recent voice message. “I may not be in California, but I am in New York. I know the universe will bring good things, and I’m going to be OK.”