Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who flee persecution in their home countries and seek safety in the United States are often revictimized by unjust U.S. government policies, LGBT advocates told a standing-room-only crowd in a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday.
The event, sponsored by a coalition of immigration and human rights groups, also featured introductory remarks by Rep. Mark Takano and addresses by Maggie and Dennis, two LGBT asylum-seekers from Africa, who expressed hope that the United States would "embrace a policy change that [protects] rather than [punishes] those seeking asylum from homophobic and transphobic countries."
"This country has served as a beacon of hope for many fleeing persecution abroad," said Rochelle Fortier Nwadibia, Legal Director of PCI Justice. "Unfortunately, today our arms are not open wide for the modern-day asylum-seeker. Instead, we find the creeping criminalization of asylum-seekers... not the safe harbor we'd expect."
According to Nwadibia and Royce Murray, Director of Policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center, the challenges that LGBT asylum-seekers face can be monumental.
When they arrive in the United States, LGBT asylum-seekers are traumatized by the persecution, shame, and violence that caused them to flee their home countries, which can include rejection, physical assault, forced marriage, rape, arrest, prosecution, and death threats. In fact, research by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society indicates that 44% of LGBT refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
To compound the trauma, their first bed in America is often inside a jail cell, thanks to a 2006 rule established by conservative lawmakers in Congress requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill 34,000 detention facility beds at all times. In addition to the indignity and immorality of detaining asylum-seekers, LGBT people are at heightened risk of sexual abuse in these detention centers. Within the broader refugee community, sexual minorities are "the marginalized among the marginalized, the least protected among the least protected," according to Mark Hetfield, President of HIAS.
Another major hardship LGBT asylum-seekers face is a federal requirement that they file for asylum within one year of their arrival in the United States. Murray said that it's often very difficult for people who faced government-sanctioned persecution in their home countries based on their LGBT identity to feel comfortable publicly identifying as LGBT and disclosing that information to U.S. government authorities.
The asylum process is long and incredibly complicated, but although some asylum-seekers don't initially have conversational English skills, they are not entitled to a lawyer to help them navigate the bureaucracy. Instead, they have to try and find legal representation themselves, and since some flee their countries of origin with little or nothing, they often cannot afford a lawyer unless he or she is willing to work pro bono. Many also lack the documents required to file for asylum, which can be difficult to access depending on the sociopolitical situation in their home country.
Life doesn't get much easier after the application is formally filed, either, as asylum-seekers are not allowed to apply for a work permit for five whole months (150 days). Once that waiting period ends and they're allowed to apply, it can take another month or more for their work permit to come through -- and they also have to apply for (and wait for) a Social Security number.
They are not permitted to work or receive federal aid during this time; survival is very difficult. And then -- after all that -- they have to try and find a job in this bad economy.
The hardships heaped on LGBT asylum-seekers in this land of "give me your tired, your poor" are quite simply staggering. And yet, the LGBT community -- and LGBT foundations -- are not providing support for the handful of nonprofits working to assist and resettle our persecuted LGBT siblings. "Zero," said Max Niedzwiecki, coordinator of the LGBT Faith and Asylum Network. "This [issue] is not on the agenda, this is not within the reality of the foundation world."
As Nwadibia noted, our community and our country must help at-risk LGBT people who seek refuge on our shores. We must end the one-year filing deadline that makes no allowance for the time they need to recover from the trauma they've faced. We must stop criminalizing asylees and remove the bed quota that routes many LGBT asylum-seekers into immigration detention centers. And we must open our arms and our hearts to LGBT asylum-seekers -- and our wallets to the organizations that support and assist them.
It's often said that the true measure of a community can be found in the way it treats its most vulnerable members. By that metric, we are failing. We must do better for our persecuted LGBT siblings -- because they are us.