LGBT Immigration and Asylum Today

In a world where conflict is spreading, more and more people are being forced to flee their homes. Worldwide, we are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II with 60 million people forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations.

In these situations everyone suffers and is vulnerable, with some groups facing greater risks.

On Thursday evening, Jan. 28, OutRight’s Kevin Schumacher participated in a panel discussion for OUTLaw at New York University, on the topic of LGBTIQ immigration and political asylum. Kevin spoke alongside Palmer Lawrence, an immigration attorney; Tri Cheim, a lawyer with Skadden Arps; and Ivan Espinosa of the Boston -based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. Scott Skinner-Thompson, an NYU law professor, was the moderator.

Among the issues discussed was the question of LGBT individuals being held in detention centers and their resulting suffering, particularly in relation to trans individuals seeking refuge or asylum in the United States. Lawrence outlined the procedure for those seeking refuge and asylum who arrive undocumented.

As with other refugees and asylum seekers who arrive without documentation or those who claim asylum upon arrival, trans people are kept in detention centers. This is not the only way individuals are detained in these centers, anyone who comes into contact with law enforcement and is undocumented may also be detained in a detention center until they are approved for a hearing or deportation. Violence, both sexual and physical, has been documented towards trans people while in detention, with one in five sexual assaults directed at trans individuals.

As a result, for their protection, trans individuals are sometimes separated from the general population in these centers, and placed in LGBT “pods.” The result can be quite negative as this is essentially solitary confinement, with LGBT individuals spending up to 23 hours per day completely alone if there are no other LGBT people in that detention center. It was pointed out that LGBT individuals and particularly trans refugees and asylum seekers, should simply be released as long as they do not pose a risk to society or are not considered a flight risk.

OutRight’s Schumacher noted that based on UNHCR statistics, “only one in every 500 refugees are resettled” after years of waiting through the UN refugee agency, the process once someone enters the United States should not become even more cumbersome.

One major challenge LGBT individuals face when seeking refuge or asylum in the United States is related to placement with people from their home country, who may not feel comfortable discussing or embracing their sexual orientation or gender identity. During the resettlement process, being placed with people whose attitudes about them are negative creates additional stress and discomfort, and sometimes put LGBT individuals at risk of physical harm.

Along with this obstacle, refugees are usually housed in extremely remote areas of the country. This makes it difficult for them to find communities to embrace their sexual or gender identity. Schumacher described interviewing one refugee who claimed they would have preferred to stay in Syria rather than to be relocated to a rural town in Texas. It may seem unimaginable that anyone would truly believe they were better off in Syria than in the United States. However considering the lack of cultural competency coupled with homophobia and transphobia in some parts of the country, it becomes clear that the situation for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers is far from perfect and improvements must be made. There are a number of ways in which the government can improve this situation including releasing those who are not considered a flight risk, particularly those who are most vulnerable in the detention centers, and by expediting work permits for those who are waiting for their case to be processed. In addition, the government should refrain from the assumption that all single men, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are high risk individuals because of potential links to terrorism. 

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