CIVIC CENTER — As she sat in immigration court on Nov. 19, Kim Watson chanted a Buddhist mantra she uses to recognize and accept the state of her life.
“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” she whispered.
Then Nazrali gave Watson news that provided even more peace of mind than repeating those mystical words.
She could stay in the country, he said.
“It was a wild moment,” Watson recalled. “I felt joyful and grateful. I really appreciated that the judge would allow me to stay with my family.”
Watson, a 52-year-old transgender woman who has become a heralded champion and unrelenting advocate of the LGBT community in the Bronx, had been facing deportation to her homeland, Barbados.
During the past three years, she had been fighting her removal from the United States — and from her husband and daughter.
While tourists view the Caribbean island nation as a breathtaking paradise, Watson saw her homeland, with its anti-gay laws, as perdition for members of the LGBT community and people suffering from HIV.
She and her lawyer had argued that if she were deported, she would have likely faced torture or worse.
“I feel like if America had sent me back, they were signing off on a death sentence,” she said last week.
On that day in court three weeks ago, Watson’s case was finally supposed to go to trial. She had experts on Barbados and other witnesses ready to testify on her behalf.
Just before the trial started in the Manhattan court, the Homeland Security lawyer said he would not challenge Nazrali’s request for a deferral of removal, a rarely granted protective status that allows an undocumented immigrant to remain and work in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Justice set up regulations in 1999 that protected undocumented immigrants from torture and inhumane treatment in their home countries.
There are two forms of the protection. One, which comes with greater security for the immigrant, is known as a withholding of removal. The other is the deferral of removal.
The U.S. granted 506 withholding or deferral protections out of the 26,317 applications it adjudicated in 2013, according to the most recent figures from the Justice Department. Only 131 deferral protections were granted that year.
“What’s great about this case was that the government of the United States saw that she was in danger and they were not willing to expose her to that danger,” Nazrali said.
He describes Watson’s life as a true Horatio Alger story, one in which she overcame years of abuse and drug addiction to become a celebrated advocate for impoverished transgender men and women in the Bronx.
Watson was born in 1964. From a young age, she said, she suffered serious abuse at the hands of her father and his friends because of the way she looked.
“I have always had feminine traits and characteristics and it was these features that made me stand out,” Watson said.
She said in school her classmates bullied her, hurled rocks and bottles at her and shouted derogatory comments.
The treatment of LGBT individuals is no better today in Barbados.
Dr. David Murray, a professor at York University in Canada, prepared a report for Watson’s case detailing the persecution that LGBT individuals and people who are HIV positive currently face there.
Murray, a socio-cultural anthropologist who specializes in research on homosexuality and sexual and gender identity in the Caribbean, said that Barbados’ “anti-buggery” laws strengthen social stigma against homosexuals and make LGBT individuals less likely to seek help from police if they are the victims of a crime.
“Transgender female individuals like Ms. Watson may be identified homosexual by the public including the police, who may then treat them as criminal or deviants based on the pervasive homophobic social attitudes,” Murray said in his report.
The U.S. State Department also said in its 2014 report on Barbados that discrimination against LGBT individuals was among the nation’s most serious human rights problems.
The Barbadian consulate in the city did not respond to a request for comment about Watson’s case or its anti-buggery laws.
At age 23, Watson left Barbados to escape abuse and to try to enroll in fashion school in New York City.
She arrived in the United States on a tourist visa in 1988. When the pass expired, she remained.
The city offered her refuge from persecution she faced over her identity in her homeland, but she continued to struggle with mental illness and substance abuse.
While homeless, she was twice arrested for selling controlled substances in 1997 and 1998. Nazrali said that at the time she was going through a wrenching identity dysphoria that led to the run-ins with the law.
However, more than a decade ago, Watson said she went to rehab and started receiving counseling for PTSD and her other identity issues.
She said she earned a bachelor’s degree at Pace University and began grassroots organizing for LGBT issues and for HIV education.
Then she said she met her “knight in shining armor” eight years ago.
“I met my husband and through the graces of that, he’s helped me,” Watson said.
The couple married in 2007, have an adopted daughter and live in Kingsbridge.
The two run a Bronx organization called CK Life, which provides space for transgender individuals to gather and offers scholarships. Her work has been honored by Bronx elected officials and citywide LGBT groups.
She has still struggled in recent years.
In 2012 she pleaded guilty to federal charges of trying to get a U.S. passport and obtaining disability benefit payments and Medicaid payments while not being eligible. Those charges are what led to her deportation hearing.
Nazrali said she served six months in jail. He blamed the incident on her ongoing struggle with identity dysphoria and said she has since gotten her life back on track.
“She’s an asset to the United States,” Nazrali said. “She’s tending to a very overlooked minority.”
In fact, he hopes that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Barack Obama would recognize her achievements and pardon her.
The deferral of removal status comes with limitations. She cannot leave the United States, and federal officials could revoke the status if they determine that returning to Barbados is no longer a threat to her life.
A pardon would allow Watson to apply for a green card and eventual citizenship.
Nazrali said she is deserving of a second chance.
“I think she can be a worthy citizen. It will allow her more creative freedom and mobility in what she does,” he said.
Watson said she will continue her work in the United States, regardless of whether she ever receives citizenship.
“My mission is to continue to help trans-men and trans-women and anyone that is dealing with poverty,” she said.