Samuel Aguilera is a unique attendee at the Afghan Refugee Response Collaborative Summit in San Antonio.
Held recently by the city’s Immigration Liaison, the summit drew more than 100 attendees, mostly from nonprofit organizations that provide asylum services to refugees.
Aguilera, an ASU Online student in the social justice and human rights master's degree program through the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, gave a pilot presentation featuring his research on the detention experiences of transgender asylum seekers.
He has a long history as an advocate for the LGBTQ community in the San Antonio area. He can trace his passion for social justice back several decades, from early experiences serving as an advocate at domestic-violence shelters in San Antonio to volunteering at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence in El Paso.
Aguilera, a recently retired high school and middle school teacher, said some of his earliest efforts were in response to overwhelming misconceptions about same-sex domestic violence.
Breaking barriers with research
While working as a volunteer for a domestic-violence shelter in El Paso, he approached leaders with a request: He wanted to work specifically with members of the LGBTQ community.
The center was skeptical that domestic violence existed in that community, and Aguilera took it upon himself to prove the issue exists in every community.
Aguilera’s solution included drafting a survey touching on domestic violence, police response and victims services. Within six months, he received 100 completed surveys, a sample size that exceeded his expectations.
He presented the survey results to different agencies, including the District Attorney’s Office. To his surprise, the district attorney stopped him in the middle of the presentation and said, “OK, how can we fix this?”
Aguilera suggested changes to intake processing. “In the system, they only had certain options to choose from: victim, perpetrator or mutual combatant. Just three options,” Aguilera said.
The solution was the new designation “same-sex violence victim,” where previously only “mutual combatant” had been available. The change granted access to assistance from the Crime Victim Compensation Program that had been unavailable.
“These funds are available so that victims of crimes can pay for medical expenses related to a crime,” Aguilera said. “Say you’ve been assaulted, you need to go to a doctor or different medical appointments because of the injuries you sustained as a result of the assault, the crime victims funds pay for that. You need mental-health counseling? You're traumatized? Crime victims funds pay for that. You need to relocate, you don’t feel safe where you live? You need help with child care? Crime victims funds pay for that. It’s a terrific public fund that not a lot of people know about.
‘Completely supportive’ ASU program
Wins like that have fueled Aguilera’s drive to make a difference within the LGBTQ community, especially when it comes to transgender women.
The road to meaningful change has been long; 20 years ago, Aguilera felt he wasn’t able to make much of a difference for the transgender community in El Paso, and that weighed on him.
“Flash forward to now, I see this opportunity where I can make up for the things I maybe overlooked or did wrong,” he said.
He found the opportunity within his program through ASU Online, which provided the framework and faculty support Aguilera needed to delve into issues surrounding LGBTQ immigration and how it intersects with domestic violence, gender identity and sexual orientation.
“My experience with the program has been nothing short of positive and inspirational,” he said. “Every professor I’ve discussed my research ideas with has been completely supportive and has helped me refine my approaches.”
For Malay Firoz, an assistant professor of anthropology, teaching in the program is fulfilling. It allows him to engage with issues of pressing political importance, some of which directly touch the lives of students.
The program’s interdisciplinary framework perfectly leveraged Aguilera’s history of volunteer work and his passion for supporting underserved transgender communities. His current research takes a deep dive into the reality many transgender asylum seekers experience upon reaching the border.
“I spend most of my research in the social justice and human rights program on queer migration,” Aguilera said. “I’m writing a paper right now for my Migration, Asylum and Refugees class with (Professor) Firoz on the medical and structural violence against Latinx transgender asylum seekers in detention.”
Firoz is an enthusiastic supporter of the program’s interdisciplinary approach.
“Students are able to draw on their backgrounds, personal experiences and professional training to inform and enrich their perspectives in class,” he said. “It makes the learning process feel far more engaging and meaningful.”
‘There’s a lot more work that needs to be done’
While research like Aguilera’s is instrumental in advancing advocacy and social justice for transgender communities, it is in short supply.
Aguilera is passionate about his chance to change that.
When asked about Aguilera’s current participation in his class, Firoz said he immensely enjoyed working with the driven grad student.
“Samuel is an excellent writer and has produced some very insightful and impactful analyses of the challenges facing transgender migrants in U.S. detention centers. I look forward to engaging with him throughout his time at ASU and beyond.”
Aguilera says he is already looking forward to next year’s summit, where he plans to make a full presentation on the research he is conducting right now.
“I want to pursue this because I believe there’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” Aguilera said. “I want to contribute to that body of knowledge. We can empower these women.”
This article was written by Margot LaNoue for ASU Online.
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