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On the Front Lines: Fighting for LGBTQI+ Rights at the US-Mexico Border

On the Front Lines: Fighting for LGBTQI+ Rights at... On the Front Lines: Fighting for LGBTQI+ Rights at...

“I think it is incredibly important for LGBTQI+ individuals living in places where they don’t feel safe to express themselves freely, to see examples of queer people living full lives, embracing their queerness, and not living in shame or hiding. Visibility is a good first step toward true queer liberation.”  


Lily Kurtz, she/her, is a Migration and Human Rights Advocate whose activism focuses on defending the right to asylum at the US-Mexico border. Her work comprises crisis response, emergency response to urgent cases, educating asylum seekers, as well as collecting and tracking data for large-scale litigation. 

Lily’s activism journey started when she traveled to Tijuana for the first time as a volunteer interpreter in January 2019, motivated by prior experience living in Mexico and a strong desire to assist at the border. What began as a long weekend of interpreting evolved into a commitment of one week per month, engaging in various activities such as providing information at the Port of Entry, conducting Know Your Rights presentations, and assisting with client intakes.

As operations expanded, Lily transitioned to full-time volunteering and eventually assumed the role of Volunteer Coordinator at Al Otro Lado (AOL). AOL is a women-led bi-national advocacy, legal and humanitarian aid organization serving migrants, refugees and deportees in the United States and Mexico. This journey provided valuable insights into the challenges faced by individuals seeking entry into the US and reinforced Lily’s dedication to supporting them.

Street art in Tijuana. The text reads “On this side there are dreams too”


LGBTQI+ Experiences at the US-Mexico Border

“I felt called to go to the border because it is the physical space that both connects and divides the two countries in which I have lived and built my life. As a US-born American citizen, someone the US government does not have the power to deport, I feel it is my duty to stand up against this unconscionable racism, homophobia, transphobia and violence. I am not happy to see my tax dollars spent to detain and abuse people, and therefore I used and will continue to use my relative safety to challenge these abhorrent practices.”

Lily believes lesbian visibility is very important because lesbians face invisibility and distrust within the asylum system at the border. Their cases can be undermined if they have children or any romantic history with men, as US authorities often scrutinize their reasons for seeking asylum.

“It’s not uncommon that these relationships come about because women do whatever they can in their home countries in order to keep themselves safer, or because they find men with whom to travel to the border to make the journey less dangerous. With limited access to reproductive care, particularly along the journey and while stuck waiting at the border, some queer women become pregnant and have babies.”

She further reflects on the importance of lesbian visibility: “We need to continue to build understanding and make visible the diversity within the lesbian and the entire LGBTQI+ community so that a wider variety of narratives and lived experiences can be included, so that real stories of persecution are more difficult to discredit.”

LGBTQI+ asylum seekers endure even greater danger and mistreatment than the general population, frequently encountering violence during their journey to the border. In addition, there is a severe shortage of shelter spaces specifically for queer individuals at the border. Unlike many other migrants, queer migrants often lack eligible family members to sponsor them on the other side, leading to heightened risks of detention and increased rates of violence within detention facilities.

Collaborating to Empower Asylum Seekers 

Lily connected with Rainbow Railroad at the beginning of 2022 while with AOL, when they started a collaborative project along with Amal Argentina to offer alternate migration options for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers waiting at the US-Mexico border.

The project centered on the identification of safe relocation options outside the US for queer asylum seekers. Through collaboration with Amal, the project facilitated relocation to Argentina via a community sponsorship model, allowing more support for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, including reduced detention risk and increased likelihood of winning asylum cases and obtaining permanent status in the new country. This information was provided to LGBTQI+ asylees so they could make informed decisions about where to seek asylum.

The collaboration with Rainbow Railroad allowed for Al Otro Lado to carve out time and resources to dedicate specifically to LGBTQI+ migrants, and consequently empowered Lily as the Volunteer Coordinator to address the unique needs of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in Mexico, such as providing them access to HIV medication and transportation to and from clinics. Furthermore, additional resources allowed for more effective crisis response, such as emergency housing for chronically ill queer asylum seekers stranded in extremely under-resourced and dangerous border towns.

Individuals attempting to claim asylum in the United States are forced to wait for months or even years in some of the world’s most perilous cities. During this time, they face threats ranging from kidnapping to extortion and human trafficking.

To supporters of Rainbow Railroad, Lily shares: “Please continue to do so, your support makes this kind of work possible and without it, many LGBTQI+ individuals would not receive the assistance they so urgently need. Queer liberation work has a long way to go and we need all the support we can get along the way!”

The Power of Activism in Queer Liberation

The most fulfilling aspect of Lily’s activism is witnessing a client benefit, whether by informing them of their rights, assisting them in obtaining life-saving medication, celebrating an infrequent asylum case victory, or merely providing a meal to someone who had gone hungry for days. “It was gratifying to educate and guide new volunteers and interns, observing their transformation from apprehensive beginners to confident, impactful advocates who made a meaningful difference in people’s lives every day.”

Lily’s dream is to see a respectful and caring US immigration system

that does not involve detention, especially not-for-profit detention centers, and to see queer asylees and refugees being welcomed into the US with open arms and supportive communities.

Lily believes that every queer life is important, “There is no freedom until we’re all free.” And to LGBTQI+ individuals who are experiencing difficulties, she asserts that many communities around the world highly value the lives, safety, health and happiness of queer people.

When asked about the most difficult part of this work, Lily states that it was “seeing firsthand every single day just how little value the US government places on black, brown, and queer lives.”

To Lily, queering the system means, “To be considered fully along with everyone else, not tacked on as an afterthought,” and she practices this in her work every day, aiming “to ensure queerness is always included in every conversation I am a part of, especially when it is not particularly welcome, by using my power and privilege to make room for more queer voices to be heard by those in power in order to effect change.”