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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

An overview of LGBT asylum in America

A no-entry sign in Fyn Harbour / Ein "Ver...Image by Markus Merz via Flickr
Source: Edge Boston

By Joseph Erbentraut

While our own country’s LGBT movement has remained fixated on issues of open military service and marriage equality in the last few years, it is not difficult to understand why, to LGBT people in so many other parts of the world, the United States represents an almost inconceivably accepting alternative to their experiences of discrimination, violence and persecution in their home countries.

In Uganda, LGBT people have been outed in local press and face the threat of a pending anti-homosexuality law that criminalize open queer identity - or "aggravated homosexuality," as the proposed law calls it. In Turkey, an LGBT group was ordered to be shut down by a criminal court under reportedly false claims that one member was engaging in prostitution -- at least three other gay groups in that country have fought similar legal battles in recent years. A 32-year-old Malaysian gay man received death threats and fears for his life after making pro-LGBT comments in a YouTube video. In Lithuania, lawmakers there are working to push legislation that would make the publicly promoting homosexual relations" illegal.

Recently reports emerged from Iran that two young men - aged 20 and 21 - who had filmed themselves having sex on a mobile phone were scheduled to be stoned to death after government agents discovered the film. The purpose of the killing, according to early reports is "to instill fear in the people of Iran."

Tip of the iceberg

Such examples are only a random sampling of recent headlines that have been reported by Western media. These stories represent only the tip of the iceberg of grave discrimination that many LGBT people face on a near-daily basis. As such, emboldened by the United States’ increasingly inclusive take on issues of sexual orientation- and gender identity-motivated persecution, LGBT people from around the globe are pursuing asylum status here.

Since 1994, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under then-Attorney General Janet Reno, has recognized queer people as "part of a particular group" (currently the closest thing to specifically LGBT-inclusive wording in their policy) that’s eligible for protection in the States. The hopes of those applying for asylum aren’t too different from anyone else’s -- a comfortable life working in a job they enjoy and feel passionate about, finding a loved one and maybe even starting a family. But even when successfully granted asylum status, they still encounter major obstacles in their efforts to find stability, safety and community while rebuilding their new lives.

Looking beyond the incendiary rhetoric that often revolves around the issue of immigration in today’s political climate, EDGE spoke with a number of leading voices fighting for the rights and protections of LGBT asylum seekers and asylees here in the U.S., including one Venezuelan transgender man who’s already ridden the process’s arduous ride.

Challenging road to equality

The ability of being granted asylum -- and getting a provisional green light toward eventual U.S. citizenship -- on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a relatively new prospect for LGBT people and, though DHS does not track asylum seekers’ reasons for applying, the number of queer applicants appears to be experiencing an uptick in recent years as word of the policy has spread.

But the process isn’t necessarily becoming any easier. In fact, in some ways, it’s actually getting more difficult. The first step for any person - LGBT or otherwise - pursuing refuge in the U.S. is to make arrangements to arrive in the country. Ideally, they would pursue that quest legally by obtaining a visa, but any inclination that a visitor may wish to stay permanently in the States negates that route. This is particularly the case for single Middle Eastern men. As such, many asylum seekers enter the country via other, illegal means, putting them at risk of being detained or deported.

Should they arrive in the States, asylum seekers face a strict deadline of one year by which they must file their claim of asylum with DHS, unless they are able to be granted a six month extension under a case of extraordinary circumstances -- like emotional duress or housing instability.

Either way, the cards are largely stacked against queer applicants’ favor at nearly every step of the process. Many come to the States with little to no money and few friends or family who accept their LGBT identity. They are often on the heels of extreme mental or physical trauma and frequently are not aware of the options they have for accessing a legal route toward staying in the country.

Some of those options are even available pro-bono. Steve Ralls, spokesman of Immigration Equality (IE), an organization that helps connect LGBT asylum seekers to free legal services -- a crucial component to any gay refugee’s quest to successfully begin a new life by gathering their evidence of discrimination and persecution for when the applicant meets with an adjudicator. IE reports a success rate of roughly 95 percent.

"Getting here in the first place is challenging. It’s a very tough road for many of them and finding a good lawyer is key," Ralls told EDGE. "In our experience, these are people who have been physically attacked or disowned by their families, detained by police and, in some cases, have been raped or sexually assaulted by family members in their home country."

Find a good lawyer

Some of those options are even available pro-bono. Steve Ralls, spokesman of Immigration Equality (IE), an organization that helps connect LGBT asylum seekers to free legal services -- a crucial component to any gay refugee’s quest to successfully begin a new life by gathering their evidence of discrimination and persecution for when the applicant meets with an adjudicator. IE reports a success rate of roughly 95 percent.

"Getting here in the first place is challenging. It’s a very tough road for many of them and finding a good lawyer is key," Ralls told EDGE. "In our experience, these are people who have been physically attacked or disowned by their families, detained by police and, in some cases, have been raped or sexually assaulted by family members in their home country."

A success story

But many judges who hear asylum cases are open to hearing about the struggles of LGBT people, giving a chance to those who arrive in the States seeking a fresh start.

Jules Salvatierra, a Venezuelan transgender man and former IE client who now lives in Los Angeles, has experienced his own success story in seeking asylum here. At the age of 40 in the summer of 2007, after experiencing rejection from his family, Salvatierra realized he had been trying to hide as a gay woman for too long -- he wanted to begin taking hormone treatments and transition into becoming a man.

But the South American nation is not a particularly safe place for trans folk, who face a disproportionate level of violence and harassment, and he described the political climate as growing increasingly unstable under the rule of Hugo Chavez. Salvatierra chose to leave behind his home, his catering company and family to start anew.

"I left it all behind because I had to live my life the way I wanted to. I said to myself it’s now or never, you have to do the thing in your life that makes you happy," Salvatierra said. "I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it [in Venezuela]."

Arriving "without a penny in [his] pocket," he lived in a shelter for women living with mental illnesses for seven months, where he faced a great deal of harassment. It wasn’t until he picked up an LGBT magazine that he realized asylum was an option. He contacted IE and began working on his claim before his interview on August 31. When it was all said and done, his claim had been approved.

Salvatierra describes the day he received his approval letter as "the happiest day in my life."

"You cannot imagine how afraid I was," he said. "I couldn’t believe it happened after all those awful moments I had to live through. It had happened. It was just like, ’Wow.’ I could be myself freely for the first time and for the rest of my life."

Today, Salvatierra lives in his own apartment and has a part-time job at a homeless shelter where he had been volunteering before being granted refuge. He enjoys going to the movies -- mostly independent films -- going to the beach and communicating with people in one of the three languages in which he is fluent. His goal is to return to school in pursuit of a psychology degree and, yes, he’s been able to commence hormone therapy, which he described as "amazing."

"This has been a miracle and it made me feel like God is there for me and everybody who really wants him to help," Salvatierra added. "He doesn’t care if I’m gay or trans, he’s there for people. I now know that I shouldn’t be afraid of anything because I made it through this."


Still daunting challenges

But Salvatierra’s success story is not the reality for many LGBT people who seek asylum here in the States. Late last year, Jair Izquierdo, a 33-year-old Peruvian gay man, was detained and eventually deported for overstaying a tourist visa after he failed multiple appeals of his 2005 asylum application. Izquierdo had been in a five-year relationship and had entered into a New Jersey civil union. Were they a heterosexual, married couple, Izquierdo’s partner could have sponsored him for citizenship.

Even when LGBT asylees like Salvatierra are successful in their claim, they still face the daunting challenge of acclimating to their new surroundings quickly and securing housing, employment and a social support network. Neil Grungras, founder of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) said the gay community needs to work harder at accepting outsiders who could use a helping hand while getting their footing in the States.

Grungras said he’s spoken with many asylees who have felt isolated here, doubly marginalized by both the LGBT and immigrant communities. To help counter this problem, a pilot LGBT refugee program was recently established in San Francisco, but few comparable programs exist at this time.

"The LGBT community needs to learn how to take care of our own when they escape countries of persecution by taking people into their homes, learning how to get over our xenophobia, Islamophobia and learning to become welcoming," Grungras said.

"Without that, we won’t really have an environment where people can start their lives over again and get relief from their suffering," he added.

Hope for reform

With all of these considerations in mind, and with a newly geared-to-the-right Congress recently sworn in, is there hope for legislative changes that could make the road to refugee easier for LGBT asylum seekers? Grungras is not particularly hopeful.

"I don’t think the asylum system is going to change in a way that will favor LGBTs," Grungras said. "It’s stacked so that you can never get here in the first place to apply for asylum and I don’t think that’s going to change. We’re talking about a major change in the whole thinking of the U.S. immigration system here.

But Ralls is somewhat more optimistic, even as legislation like the DREAM Act and other proposed immigration reform failed to gain much momentum under the last Congress. He said advocates have "a real shot" at making positive procedural changes -- such as softening the one-year application deadline for asylum seekers.

"We’re not packing up," Ralls said," we’re pushing forward with the understanding that we have a less friendly Congress, certainly compared to the past few years."

Even while progress will not be easy, advocates on the issue do not need to look far to find inspiration for, in a story like Salvatierra’s, the values of resilience and dedication shine far brighter than even the darkest disappointments. Regardless of background, the story of any individual who risked it all for a chance to simply live one’s life openly should provide needed context for our current movement’s many preoccupations and insecurities.
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