By Patrick Saunders with the Georgia Voice
A transgender woman’s longtime quest to live in the United States after fearing for her life in her native Honduras is finally over. On Oct. 22, the Atlanta Immigration Court granted a withholding of removal and protection under the Convention Against Torture, ruling that Marisela Castro would “more likely than not” suffer persecution if she returned to her home country.
The case dates back to early 2012, when the Georgia Asylum Immigration Network referred the matter to the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, who agreed to take it on pro bono. But Castro’s journey to escape Honduras and live in America began long before the matter ever landed in a courtroom.
Physical violence, rapes escalate to murder
Castro was 13 or 14 and living as a boy when she realized she liked boys, which was a problem in Honduras for her and her other gay friends.
“We were always being chased or being called a ‘faggot’ or ‘gay’ or derogatory terms like that,” Castro tells Georgia Voice through a translator.
Physical violence and the rapes of Castro and her friends occurred in the years ahead, until escalating another level in 1999, when she was 21. She and two friends were at a carnival when they were confronted by gang members who shouted death threats and anti-LGBT slurs. The three attempted to flee, with only two succeeding.
“Unfortunately, one of my friends was captured and dragged away, but I was able to get away from them,” Castro says.
A few months later, the friend was found, impaled with a sharpened stick up his anus and his neck broken. Castro was too afraid to go out after that, and while her church made efforts to take her in and protect her, it wasn’t enough, and she fled the country for the United States in 2005. But immigration authorities on the Texas border arrested and deported her after trying to cross into the country illegally.
There was another grim discovery upon her return home.
“I found out that my other friend had been beaten up so bad that his guts were basically just hanging out,” Castro says. “I felt I wasn’t going to survive because both my friends had been killed and I had been identified by the gang members as one of the three [from the carnival], so I fled the country again and ended up in North Carolina the same year.”
This time she made it over the border, staying under the radar with stints in Florida and Virginia over the next few years before ending up in North Carolina, where she was arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking in 2011. The charges were later dropped, but because she was undocumented, she was put in deportation proceedings.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement eventually sent her to the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville, Georgia, and soon after, the attorneys at Sutherland came on board the case.
Appeals and transitions
The attorneys at Sutherland, led by Associate Samuel Casey, had to prove to the Atlanta Immigration Court that Castro would more likely than not be subject to persecution or torture if she returned to Honduras. They lost in the initial trial in 2013, but appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
During the appeals process, Castro was undergoing counseling and came to understand that she identified as female. She began hormone treatment, began going by the name Marisela, and transitioned to life as a woman.
The case then ended up back in Atlanta Immigration Court for a retrial in September, where her attorneys were able to prove what Castro’s fate would likely be were she to be sent back to Honduras.
Judge Madeline Garcia ruled in favor of Castro and told her to “be good,” since certain crimes could render her ineligible for protection. Castro and her attorneys left the courthouse shortly thereafter.
“I reflected back on all those struggles I had experienced,” Castro says of her reaction to winning the case. “I was very content and happy that I could stay in this country, but the main thing is I miss my mother because there’s nothing I believe I can do about protecting her or going to her. But now I’m at the point where I start a new chapter of my life.”
‘Once that is done she just gets to live her life’
Castro’s new chapter is one that comes with its own set of challenges. She scratched and clawed her way to get to where she is now—a transgender woman of color in the American South. Those are better circumstances than being a transgender woman in Honduras, but not ideal by any means, considering the escalating number of transgender women of color killed in the United States in the past year, nearly half of whom were killed in the South.
The now 33-year-old Castro lives in Durham, North Carolina. Sutherland’s Casey and the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Keren Zwick continue to work to get her get a work permit and an official name change.
“However, once that is done she just gets to live her life,” says Casey.
“I’m not sure which direction I want to go as far as a career and am still in the process of getting my documentation finalized,” Castro says. “Until I get that all worked out and have it in my possession, that will be a different story.”