May 20, 2024 2:23 pm

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Supreme Court unanimously sides with Guatemalan transgender woman

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 13, 2023The United States Supreme Court on Thursday, May 11, unanimously ruled in favor of Estrella Santos-Zacaria, a Guatemalan transgender woman fighting for her life to remain in the America. The Court’s decision will allow Santos-Zacaria another shot at remaining in the country after her lawyers argued she faces death and persecution if deported.

Guatemala has a history of anti-LGBTQ activity, advancing a bill (5940) last year banning transgender identity from school sex education and requiring media outlets to label transgender content as “not recommended” for children under 18. Additionally, there is no legal recognition of same sex marriages in the predominately Catholic country.

Santos-Zacaria testified in court that she had been sexually assaulted in the small town where she grew up, and the townspeople threatened to kill her for her gender identity and attraction to women.

After fleeing her country to Mexico, she also argued she was sexually assaulted by a Mexican gang before fleeing to the United States. She was quickly apprehended by immigration authorities shortly after. Santos-Zacaria has already been removed from the United States twice before, once in 2008 and again in 2018.

At first an immigration judge decided Santos-Zacaria did not have a strong enough case to argue she faces persecution if deported but Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson thought otherwise. This opinion would make it easier for non-citizens to challenge their removal orders in a time where immigration courts are already experienced tremendous backlogs.

A 5th Circuit Judge considered Santos-Zacaria’s past agreement that there was a safe place for her to return to in Guatemala, but the Justices still ruled it was wrong, citing that her native country has not done enough to support equality for LGBTQ individuals. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals also found that Santos-Zacaria had not exhausted her litigation options, under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In 1980 the United States passed a federal law, the Refugee Act of 1980, where migrants fleeing their home country can remain in the country if they face persecution on “account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” However, this statute states a migrant must have exhausted all options with the Board of Immigration Appeal (BIA). Santos-Zacaria also did not file a motion to reconsider with the BIA, which the 5th Circuit also considered when making their decision.

All nine Supreme Court Justices agreed with Justice Jackson’s opinion, that now historically impacts how the law handles transgender people and non-citizens living in the United States.

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