Lerman Montoya

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018

Detained in Eloy: An Arizona Drag Queen’s Story

ELOY – As you approach the Eloy Detention Center, 65 miles southwest of Phoenix, the cotton fields amid the rocky desert catch your eye.

Barbed wire surrounds the immigration facility, which is run by CoreCivic, a private company that contracts with U.S Immigration Customs Enforcement. Inside, the visitation room is long and painted white, with detainees sitting on blue plastic chairs next to white plastic tables.

Edgar Higuera is one of the 667,839 people being held at detention centers across the United States or on bond waiting to find out whether they will be deported back to their home countries. As he sits for an interview, he is present and alert, eyes wide from his morning cup of Folgers coffee. His hair is perfectly styled and his eyebrows are completely in place, which you would expect from someone who has made his living on the stage.

Higuera has lived most of his life in the United States and never thought about the possibility of returning to Mexico, where he was born.

He was brought to the United States with his family when he was 11. He went to school in Phoenix, attended college, and eventually began working to support himself and his family.

Because of a Halloween dare, Higuera began dabbling in the world of drag entertainment. A friend bought him a wig and dress, and after that night, Higuera said, his life changed forever.

As he got more into the drag scene, he chose Deborah K as his stage name.

[2up_image-standard source1=”https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Edgar-3-350.jpg” caption1=”11 year-old Edgar Higuera holding his nephew Jonathan. “I want to be there for him. He’s growing up and I want to be a part of of his life,” Higuera said. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Higuera)” source2=”https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Edgar-350.jpg” caption2=”Edgar Higuera posing for a portrait. (Photo courtesy of Edgar Higuera)”]

Performing classic Mexican ballads and Top 40 hits, Higuera became one of the best-known drag queens in Arizona, winning regional and local pageants and competitions around metro Phoenix.

He also became an advocate in the LGBT community, spreading awareness about sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. He volunteered with One N Ten, a local nonprofit that assists homeless lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender youth with housing and social services.

All that changed, however, that night in April 2017 when he was arrested for driving under the influence.

Being undocumented and having committed a felony under Arizona law, Higuera found himself out of his usual sequined gown and instead, wearing a dull and stiff khaki prison uniform.

Still, inside the Eloy center, his hair is perfectly styled and his eyebrows are completely in place.

He said he passes the time working at the library, reading books, hanging out with a friend and catching up on the new gossip.

Higuera’s last court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 28. He’s hopeful he will get out on bond and be able to return to the stage as Deborah K. The judge presiding over his case told Higuera to write a letter to the court, detailing how he would change his behavior if he were to get out.

If he’s released, Higuera said, he won’t drink alcohol and will continue advocating for issues he’s passionate about, like using his platform in the LGBT community to spread awareness about drinking and driving and the dangers of the night-club scene.

“I learned from my mistakes and I want others to learn from my mistakes,” he said. “I understand the harm I could’ve done and completely want to change how I live my life.”

Higuera’s detention hasn’t only affected him, it also has impacted his family. He helped his mother, Gloria, financially as well as his young nephew in her custody. However, after he was sent to Eloy, his mother had to begin working extra shifts as an office cleaner to pay for a lawyer for him and continue providing for her grandson.

Higuera no longer has a lawyer because his mom wasn’t able to pay the thousands of dollars in fees.

In Spanish, Gloria Higuera said she worries Edgar will lose his case if he has no representation in court, and she fears for his life if he returns to Mexico, where hypermasculinity, machismo and homophobia is prevalent in society.

“I do not know what will happen to my son. I am very afraid something bad will happen,” she said.

Marcos Williamson of Transcend Arizona, a nonprofit organization that works to support LGBT and HIV positive people in detention centers, said undocumented LGBT detainees who seek asylum must prove they fear persecution if they return to their native country. Unless asylum applications are submitted within one year of entry into the U.S., the process becomes much more difficult. That complicates a case like Higuera’s, he said.

Immigration courts not only determine whether the asylum applicant is genuinely fearful of persecution, they also look at whether the applicant’s home country is safe for his or her return.

Mexico’s recent acceptance of progressive laws, including same-sex marriage in 2016, has made U.S. immigration courts skeptical of asylum applications from Mexican nationals based on their sexuality.

“The courts rely on reports but they do not show the full truth,” said Ray A. Ybarra Maldonado, an immigration lawyer in Phoenix. “Local law enforcement (in Mexico) don’t do what they’re supposed to do. There is still tons of corruption and little government oversight focused on protecting people.”

Transcend Arizona is working closely with Higuera, connecting his mother with legal help and advocating for him while in detention.

“There are many challenges a lot of LGBT people run into after being deported,” Williamson said. “Some people have an extensive network of family and friends in their home countries and some might not have any due to family rejection and immigration to the U.S.”

“He has no one to go to,” Gloria Higuera said. “He will be completely lost and confused.”

Edgar Higuera echoed his mother’s concern.

“I have nobody there in Mexico,” he said.