For international gays and lesbians who have come to the U.S. to seek asylum from oppression in their countries, many of them undocumented, the threat of deportation is terrifying. To return to their countries of origin is often a death sentence. In their native countries they after often beaten, stoned, robbed, set on fire, and left for dead. If detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they are often kept in detention centers for months to years without friends and family knowing where they are, and without information about their fate or any help. Moreover, they are subject to all manner of abuse by inmates.
April 5, is National Day of Action for Deportation Relief across the United States. The day is set aside to rally against the two million deportations that have taken place within the Obama administration alone. And, since 2003, the number of asylum cases that are specifically LGBT, has more than tripled. To raise awareness about the issue, a hashtag campaign, #2million2many is being promoted. In addition, an LGBT-specific Twitter hashtag is #Deported2Death.
Asylum applications are context-dependent, varying according to the specific facts of the case. It cannot be assumed that success for one applicant from a particular country will lead to success for another from the same country. Similarly, a lost case does not mean that another case from the same country will be lost. However, if a country does not have laws that criminalize homosexuality, an individual cannot win an asylum case in the U.S.
Last week one college student in the Boston area, from Ethiopia, got a lucky break. He had been held for three months in a detention center due to losing his student visa due (reportedly) to low grades. He had no criminal record. Because the law in Ethiopia recently became more rigid, thus giving proof to U.S. immigration officials that, if deported, his life would be endangered, he was freed without bail two weeks after news was released of his perilous situation.
It was unclear if immigration officials knew that the man was gay. However, because he had told friends about his sexual orientation, and had posted it online, he had reason to fear for his life should he be deported back to Ethiopia where being gay carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. The new Ethiopian law states that homosexuality is an offense that cannot be pardoned. The law allows gay-haters to justify violence against homosexuals – professed or supposed.
In the U.S., those facing international deportation are not eligible for public defense, and without funds to pay for a private attorney, are left struggling to represent themselves, often without English language communication skills. During his court hearing, the Ethiopian college student did not seek asylum. Fortunately, one of the people he told about his situation was a gay Republican candidate for state Senate in Worcester, Todd Williams. Now that he is out of detention, the young man will get help from Mr. Williams and nonprofit organizations. They are seeking asylum, as well as housing and counseling, for him.
Only an attorney can get someone out of detention. The former college student has two lawyers, Susan Church and Kira Gagarin, who are working pro bono to provide the man with legal counsel and to get him mental health services. Meanwhile, the college student is required to wear an electronic ankle tracking device. His deportation was sought a short time after Uganda enacted a harsh new antigay law, which was criticized by President Obama.
One attorney advocacy group, Immigration Equality, represents international gays and lesbians in detention and those seeking asylum for fair treatment, safety, and freedom. The group’s mission is to help those who are fleeing persecution, abuse, and violence due to gender identity, sexual orientation, or HIV status. The challenge is not only the legal status of their clients, but also the fact that they are LGBT. Still, the success rate of Immigration Equality experts for attaining asylum is more than 500 cases.
By Fern Remedi-Brown