Transgender Activist Among 18 Immigrants Pardoned by Cuomo

Dr. Freddy Molano with Lorena Borjas (center) and Liaam Bowes-Lyon at the Community Healthcare Network. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Ever since she immigrated from Mexico in 1981, Lorena Borjas has dedicated her life to protecting transgender women who are victims of trafficking, slavery and the cruelest violence in the streets of Queens. From the day she set foot in New York City, she took in these immigrants and gave them all she had, which was not much.

Borjas, 57, remembers that she shared a tiny apartment with up to 20 transgender women, all of them sex workers trying to survive in neighborhoods where they were marginalized.

“We were women without families and who had run away from our countries, persecuted for expressing our identity, for being ourselves. Here in New York, we did not have the life and freedom we had been dreaming about. We also endured violence and abuse here. In those days, it was a real crime to be a transgender immigrant of color,” remembered Borjas. “I started out helping Mexican women, and that work gradually extended to all my Latin American sisters. By the time the 1980s came, we were a growing, if ignored, community.”

It was precisely during her first years of activism that Borjas was found guilty of the crime of facilitating a crime in the fourth degree. Still, at the time when she was arrested in 1994, the Mexican immigrant was actually a victim of human trafficking.

However, Borjas gained her hope back when she received a phone call from the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo last Wednesday to inform her that her sentence had been reprieved by the leader.

“I thought that someone was pulling a prank on me, but I was overcome with joy when my attorney told me that it was all true, that I had been pardoned by the governor. I want to tell him that I will not betray his trust and that his pardon will change my life and that of other women. I am very grateful,” said the activist, on the verge of tears.

This week, a few days before the end of the year, Gov. Cuomo issued a pardon for 18 immigrants, whom he described as “contributing members of society and face the threat of deportation and other immigration-related challenges as a result of previous convictions.”

The leader also issued pardons to 39 other people who committed misdemeanors and non-violent crimes when they were between 16 and 17 years old and who have been crime-free for the last 10 years or more, and commuted the sentences of two individuals who have “demonstrated substantial evidence of rehabilitation.”

“These New Yorkers have proved their rehabilitation, in some cases for decades, but have been unable to gain legal status or fully re-enter society due to the stigma of conviction,” said Cuomo in a statement. “While the federal government continues to target immigrants and threatens to tear families apart with deportation, these actions take a critical step toward a more just, more fair [sic] and more compassionate New York.”

“All I want to do is help”

“What I lived through helped me fight for justice for my sisters. My goal in life is to help them in everything I can. I share my story to let them know that, yes, we can have a dignified life away from the streets,” said Borjas, who has become a well-known advocate for immigrant and transgender communities in New York and across the country.

In the last few years, as a counselor for the Community Healthcare Network’s Transgender Family Program in Queens, Borjas has focused on obtaining legal resources for victims of trafficking, but it was not until 2010 that she decided to clean her own criminal record with the help of lawyers at the Transgender Law Center.

The Transgender Law Center provides free legal counseling and representation for transgender people.

Lorena was able to legalize her immigration status thanks to the 1986 amnesty, granted during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, but lost her permanent residence when she was found guilty of enabling a crime in 1994.

Still, Borjas continued performing community work, focused mainly on facilitating HIV testing and hormone therapy for transgender sex workers.

“I never thought I would recover my permanent resident status. It was something I thought was farfetched and nearly impossible,” said Borjas. “I devoted myself to helping other women get their U and T visas, but I would go home and get depressed thinking that my own case was lost; that there was no hope.”

Borjas said that she will apply for a green card in January 2018 with the help of the attorneys at the Transgender Law Center.

“This time, my green card will have my female name, which is my real name,” said Borjas proudly.

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