Image by RoboSchro via FlickrBy Jessie Mangaliman
After his visitor's visa expired in 2006, Philip Belarmino, an English professor from the Philippines, consulted a San Francisco attorney. He wanted to see if he could stay longer to be with his parents and sister who are permanent residents in the Bay Area.
That bureaucratic immigration path led instead to revelation of a stunning personal secret, recounted during an emotional testimony in an immigration courtroom in San Francisco last month: When he was 9, 11 and 16, Belarmino said he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by other boys.
Recounting the abuse, said the 43-year Bay Area resident, was "like forever. It was like re-entering a harrowing, hellish experience."
He feared a forced return to the Philippines, "of being hurled back in the world of cruelty."
That wrenching testimony convinced Judge Loreto Geisse to grant Belarmino political asylum in the United States, ending for now the government's effort to deport him. The Department of Justice, which has until June 22 to appeal, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Political asylum in the United States for gays and lesbians who fear persecution if returned to their home countries is not new and no one knows how many such cases are granted each year. Immigration Equality, a New York City group that advocates for gay and lesbian immigrant rights, won 55 similar cases last year.
Thousands of cases are won each year by victims of war and political persecution, but grants of asylum for gay men like Belarmino are relatively few and far between. The last known Bay Area case, a gay Mexican man who feared a return to Mexico, was in 2001 and was appealed successfully before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"These cases are very challenging and they're very difficult to win," said Karen Musalo, clinical professor of law, and director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of Law.
"They are firmly legitimate under the law," she said. "Kudos to the lawyer."
Ted Laguatan, a veteran immigration attorney from San Francisco, said he represented Belarmino in his previously unsuccessful efforts to stay in the U.S. He was denied an extension to his visitor's visa and denied a student visa. He faced deportation after overstaying his visa.
Laguatan said he didn't know Belarmino's personal story at first. He knew the basics: Belarmino grew up in Manila, the Philippine capital, and taught for 17 years at a public university. He is the second to the youngest in a family of six children.
In a conversation in 2007, Belarmino revealed that he is gay. He also revealed the sexual abuse, how he kept it secret from his family, and how he feared reporting it to the police, worried about harassment and more abuse.
"I saw his anguish," Laguatan said. "I had deep concern for Philip, and I wanted to help him as competently and diligently as possible."
For the past two years that Belarmino was fighting deportation and seeking asylum, his family didn't know he is gay, and that as a child he endured abuse.
Belarmino came out to his family the day he also got political asylum.
"If it weren't for the case, it would have remained a secret," said Bess Naguit, Belarmino's sister. "In our hearts, we knew Phil wanted to spare us the sadness, the grief and the pain."