The abuse and banishment of Marbella Gomez* began when she was barely a teenager living in a small Honduran town.
Marbella was born as a boy named Marvin but from a young age identified as a female. She felt most comfortable when she wore effeminate clothing, and later, when she dressed and lived as a woman.
But taking on a female role in her town of Marcala was a dangerous proposition. She was raped and beaten by local police when she was 16, and later attacked and robbed by gang members in her family’s home.
At the age of 22, Marbella left Honduras and tried to enter the United States, which she heard was accepting of transgender people. She was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Texas.
After being released from detention and allowed to come to Los Angeles to live with a friend, she learned about the USC Gould School of Law’s Immigration Clinic and its work with other transgender victims of violence.
On Feb. 14 – four years after her detainment – Marbella and students with the Immigration Clinic won a major victory when U.S. Immigration Judge Ira Bank granted her asylum in the Los Angeles Immigration Court.
“It’s amazing and wonderful,” Marbella said. “I am very happy. It took a long time, but I feel free.”
Today, Marbella works at a swap meet and lives in a small apartment in Los Angeles. She is taking English classes, and eventually plans to apply for American citizenship and legally change her name from Marvin to Marbella.
Marbella is one of more than a dozen transgender clients who have been represented by the Immigration Clinic’s students in the past five years. Many learned about the clinic from other transgender individuals while in immigration detention.
“Marbella’s case was complicated by the violence she experienced in Honduras and the fact that the attacks affected her ability to provide the precise details demanded by the ICE prosecutors who were opposing her asylum claim,” said Niels Frenzen, director of the Immigration Clinic. “The clinic’s students used the expert witness testimony of a therapist to explain to the court why our client’s memory was not perfect.”
For the USC Gould students who worked on Marbella’s case, the victory is gratifying. For years, they pieced together a case that showed that Marbella had been and would be persecuted on account of her gender identity if she were to be deported to Honduras.
“Marbella was subjected to horrific persecution in Honduras based on her status as a transgender individual,” said Kara Mahoney, a third-year USC Gould student who represented Marbella at her asylum hearing. “These past experiences have made her fearful of future persecution if she were forced to return to Honduras, in addition to the fact that there is significant danger facing transgender individuals in Honduras, including the recent murders of six transgender women.”
Andrea Fontana JD ’10, Corrina Freedman JD ’10 and Anna Lee also worked on the case.
Launched in 2001, the Immigration Clinic provides pro bono representation to clients, such as Marbella, in a variety of immigration cases. USC Gould students have represented individuals fighting for asylum, relief under the Violence Against Women Act and other applications for relief from removal. Many of the clients seeking asylum are victims of torture, rape and severe violence.
The clinic’s student lawyers currently represent clients from more than 25 different countries and have about 90 open cases. Most come from Africa, with others from Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and South and Central America.
Mahoney said the clinical experience has cemented her desire to go into public interest law.
“Marbella’s case, in particular, has given me incomparable experience in providing primary legal representation for a client,” she said. “Working with Marbella has taught me an enormous amount about interacting with clients and helping them to understand the legal process they are going through. Hearing about Marbella’s plans for the future and determination to move forward to more positive events in her life, I am thrilled to have had the chance to work with such an inspiring woman.”
* Marbella’s last name was changed for the article.