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Helping a gay man at Otay Mesa Detention Center

Photo credit:
Kuyateh Law Group - Facebook

I am feeling nervous. I haven’t heard from Baltazar and unless he calls me, I may never know what happened to him.

Baltazar is a 20-year-old gay man at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. An asylum seeker from El Salvador, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border looking over his shoulder, fearing that the gangsters who had chased him from his home country and threatened him in Guatemala and again in Mexico would find him again.

Because I’m just a friend and not his lawyer, I can’t initiate a telephone conversation with Baltazar. He has to call me.

The last time I talked with him, I told him I hadn’t yet received the declaration he had written to go with his asylum application. He had a court date coming up in July, and we were on a short deadline. The declaration details an asylum seeker’s life. It must be submitted to the court in English. I offered to have it translated by a superhero of mine, Michael Reimer, who translates for a living and offers his services pro-bono to folks like Baltazar.

Since then, I received the declaration but it was several days later than I anticipated. I suspect it took longer to get to me because Baltazar included a sweet note thanking me and a big red heart he crafted from plastic bags that are used to package chips and other snacks that detainees can buy from the commissary at Otay Mesa prison.

I’m guessing that it might have taken longer to get to me because the CoreCivic employees who run the detention center may have held it up. The red heart might have been some kind of contraband in their eyes and needed extra attention and supervision.

Of course, it could have just been that I’m in Julian and it got hung up in the mail. When you live in a rural area, you expect some delays. But when you start interacting with a prison, you begin to feel paranoid. Every little thing you or a detainee does has extra layers of difficulty.

There may be good reasons for some of it, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t feel the frustration when security, bureaucracy and financial interests meld together.

I emailed the declaration to Michael, who needed a couple of days to put the translation together, and in the interim, I read Baltazar’s life history.

Trigger warning for those of you with soft hearts.

Both of Baltazar’s parent died of HIV when he was 3-years-old. His aunt took him in and raised him, but he always yearned for his parents and siblings. When he was 15, he understood his sexual orientation and he fell in love with his best friend. They were careful to keep their love secret because of the discrimination that gay youth face from schoolmates.

Then Baltazar’s aunt moved, and his new classmates began bullying him. He quit school, which provoked questions from his aunt and her family, and he told them why he wouldn’t go back to school. Their response: They raised a man, not a “woman” and they were ashamed that he was a member of the family.

This familial rejection was soon followed by societal discrimination, and each time he found work, local gangsters began attacking him for being gay, forcing him to flee. Hatred and fear of gay men with verbal and physical assaults followed the teen-ager from El Salvador to Guatemala to Mexico. As he said in his declaration, “the network of the gangs in Central America is very big.”'

In southern Mexico, he was beaten and threatened again, and although he went to authorities there, he got no support. Then he heard about the caravans of migrants coming to the United States and he decided to join them.

I was happy to be able to help Baltazar a little, mostly by encouraging him not to give up and to fight his case even though it’s from within the prison system. But now, I’m worried. His court date has passed. I don’t know for sure if he got the translation in time to present it.

He had begged me to help him find a lawyer and a sponsor.

Now, all I can do is sweat it out, and hope for the best for Baltazar.