Our Voices

RFK Human Rights Award Laureate brings LGBTQ+ activism, immigration rights together in life’s work

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ 2024 Human Rights Award recipient Arely Westley, a trans-Latinx Honduran woman, knows well the fate of many of her sisters. She escaped from her native country of Honduras just two years after transgender activist Vicky Hernández was murdered on the streets of San Pedro Sula in 2009.

And yet, for Arely, a new life in the United States was fraught with difficulty, discrimination and inhumane treatment.

“I was a trans person, an undocumented person, who spoke little English at first,” Arely, now a Campaign Director at BreakOUT!, a New Orleans-based organization advocating for LGBTQ+ youth impacted by the criminal and juvenile justice system. “There were many things I was carrying on my back at the same time.”

Charged with low-level controlled substance and illegal re-entry charges, Arely was held in both criminal and immigration detention.

In 2022, while detained at the Central Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Louisiana after seeking health care, Arely was placed in solitary confinement due solely to her identity as a transgender woman and was denied hormonal therapy.

“They tried to convince me to sign paperwork saying I had requested to be in isolation. I refused – I knew my rights,” she recalled in a recent interview with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “As humans, we are not designed to be in cages,” she said, describing the brutal experience as lacking in access to basic hygiene and edible food, “sleeping and eating next to a toilet. It takes you three to four days to see a nurse if you are ill.” Her experience in prison helped her bring together advocacy work in two historically separate arenas – for LGBTQ+ youth and for immigration advocacy.

“I did not think of this as my life’s plan at the time,” she said. “But it all came together after I began to advocate for myself. Once I started the work, my whole life changed, seeing the resilience of Black people, of Latinx people, of trans people.”

At BreakOUT!, Arely expands Latinx LGBTQ+ participation in youth organizing, healing justice, and leadership development programs. She has also served on boards and engaged in consultancy work with organizations dedicated to immigrant and LGBTQ+ rights, including the Southeast Dignity Not Detention Coalition, Home is Here, and Creating Change.

At the Southeast Dignity Not Detention Coalition, Arely has been a leading voice in the coalition’s work to shut down immigration detention centers in Louisiana, the state with the second-highest concentration of immigration detention centers in the country. At Home is Here, a grassroots nonprofit organization with a mission to cultivate community-based systems of support with newly arrived immigrants in the Gulf South, Arely regularly drives four hours to visit the same detention center where she was held and provides detained people with know-your-rights information and newly released people with access to wrap-around support services. And in recognition of her work as a leading advocate for LGBTQ+ youth, Arely was invited to participate as an ambassador at the annual Creating Change conference, where she helped plan the nation’s foremost political, leadership, and skills-building conference for the LGBTQ+ movement.

At a precarious political time for the United States, Arely calls on the nation’s leaders to spend face time at the nation’s detention centers. “We need to invite people who have the power, who want to implement (and perpetuate) discriminatory (immigration) laws, to see we don’t have access to healthcare, put in isolation, without access to anything. We’re here seeking asylum, and the opportunity to be safe in a country,” she said.

As the 41st RFK Human Rights Award Laureate, Arely says “this award doesn’t only belong to me, but to my Black and Latina sisters. And to those who are fighting every day for freedom and equality in the country. This is not work I do by myself.”

What better way, she said to honor Vicky Hernández’ name “is to call out the people who have (been abusing) their power. To keep pushing and fighting to make sure we are trying to stop this from ever happening again.”

Celebrate Arely Westley with us in Washington, D.C. on June 6. Learn more and register for the 2024 Human Rights Award ceremony today.