Breathe Free - Ishalaa Ortega Profile

In honor of WorldPride NYC, we revisit a series of profiles of LGBTQIA+ immigrants to the U.S. from around the world. Seeking asylum from their home countries, these brave members of our community spoke with NYC Pride about the happiness and heartache of their journey to create a new home in the United States. We thank Immigration Equality, the leading LGBTQIA+ immigrant rights organization in the country, for connecting us with these amazing individuals.

This article was originally published in June 2017.

Never one to accept less-than treatment, Ishalaa Ortega has always fought for LGBTQIA+ rights. “Nobody asks to be an activist, you witness something wrong and you try to fix it.” She grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. In 2001, after being assaulted by the police, she left Mexico for the first time and headed for California. But soon she learned that hate is universal.

Ishalaa was living in California in 2003 when she was assaulted with a hammer. In and out of consciousness, she was raped by her assailants. “I was lucky I was big and strong, I was able to wake up. I fought them right before they pulled a gun to kill me.” The cowards ran off and Ishalaa was left severely injured. She went to the hospital looking for care, but was forced to wait over six hours for police to arrive. Instead of understanding, Ishalaa was met with a torrent of questions: ”Are you HIV positive? Are you a prostitute? Do you have STDs?” She struggled to understand why these questions mattered when she was clearly suffering. Soon after, she moved to Las Vegas, hoping that a new scene would bring better days. She lost her job and a year later Ishalaa was forced to make the decision to return to Mexico, even if it meant living as a man.

“I started a war against a system that was broken,” says Ishalaa, reflecting on her activism in Mexico. There had been sporadic legalization of gay marriage and enactment of nondiscrimination acts, but these were not widespread. In 2011, Ishalaa was given a television show and used this platform to bring attention to issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community in Latin America. This platform put weight behind her message and she became well-known in Mexico for her opinions. She tried to branch out, living for a year in Mexico City.

2013 found her back in Tijuana, right as Fernando Castro Trenti began his anti-LGBTQIA+ run for election to governor’s office of Baja, California. Ishalaa began to protest, giving quotes to the media, protesting, and marching to protect the LGBTQIA+ population. Trenti invited her for a face-to-face sit down. Ishalaa refused and threw a rally in protest. Shortly after, the death threats began whispering.

One night, after speaking with the organizer of a local LGBTQIA+ foundation, Ishalaa made her way home when she was approached by a strange man. At first she couldn’t understand what he was saying: “We’ll kill you, wrap you in a blanket, and throw you in the street.” She grabbed at the stranger and he ran off.

Ishalaa immediately went into hiding. She hid her car, shut off the lights, and locked the doors. Faced with imminent danger, she called a friend to come pick her up. Her decision had been made, it was time to seek asylum.

That evening, Ishalaa presented herself at the United States border and asked for asylum. At first she was searched by a woman, but once they discovered she was trans she was told to wait until a man could come. She was placed at the front of the processing line, forced to sit in front of thousands, exposed. For three days, she was kept awake given no mattress to sleep on, gawked at, and laughed at by every person, officers included, who waited on that line to speak to the processor.

Two months later, Ishalaa was released from a detention center. She spent the next two years making no money for fear of losing her asylum due to an undocumented job. During this time, she found strength through her activism, starting campaigns for trans women who had been incarcerated. In August 2014, Ishalaa came to New York for a conference. “I felt this Tijuana feeling and I thought, ‘I am going to live there, I feel it, this is home in the United States.’’’

With the help of Pamela Denser of Immigration Equality and Alex Barlow, Milbank Pro Bono fellow, on January 13, 2016, Ishalaa was finally granted her asylum. She got her GED, started a degree in communications at LaGuardia Community College, and has her sights set on law school.