Imagine yourself having just arrived from another country to the U.S. – you are an immigrant with no status. You left your country on a visiting or student visa stating that you intended to return. Yet, you knew that you couldn’t because your life was being threatened. You are seeking asylum from persecuting forces in your country. Now, imagine that the group you are fleeing from is every single other citizen of your home country, so you cannot seek support from fellow compatriots who are living here already. That is because the status of your very existence is “illegal” in your place of birth. The reason? You’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, LGBT.
Such is the situation for countless LGBT asylum seekers in the U.S. due to persecution. Without assistance from those in their country, they need to find alternative support. As we know, even in our own stories as people of immigration, when coming to a new country, Irish stayed with other Irish families, Jewish with other Jewish, etc. The LGBT immigrant must squash their dream of freedom again as they temporarily stay with acquaintances in fear that their countrypersons will throw them out, abuse them, not feed them and let relatives back home know……if they discover that their visitor is LGBT. In Uganda if you do not report your own son or daughter if they are gay, you could be imprisoned for 14 years.
The LGBT Asylum Support Task Force was formed because LGBT persons are fleeing countries where it is illegal for them to be gay. Their families back in their country of origin may have disowned them, they could have been fired when their sexual orientation became public or was assumed. They might have become homeless or recipients of torture, imprisonment, or horror and they could have even watched friends and lovers die.
The Task Force started in 2008 when a Jamaica gay man told his lawyer, through his tears, that he was hungry, had no resources, and didn’t know where he would sleep that night. The lawyer fortunately knew a minister who had both compassion and connections. Pastor Judy Hanlon helped this young man to get a meal and an apartment and provided spiritual food through her place of worship, Hadwen Park Church in Worcester, in central Massachusetts.
In over 80 countries around the world, there are laws against homosexuality. These laws instill fear into the hearts of those who worry fervently that their secret will be spilled, lest they be persecuted. In over 70 countries, the punishment is imprisonment. In seven, the ruling is the death penalty. And, in most countries, punitive “corrective” action is taken against those considered to be “offenders.” This is usually rape and sometimes it is done by government officials.
Sadly, for lesbian asylum seekers, this is a matter of course. Moreover, most women are forced to leave their precious children back home just to survive! Often these laws are enacted without a fair trial. If the persecuted person lives, they must flee the country, if they can. Even if they had well-paying positions in their countries, their home country freezes their bank accounts and they find themselves destitute when they arrive on these shores.
Once gay or lesbian asylum seekers arrive in a country where laws protect LGBT persons, they must first find legal help as the process to file an LGBT political asylum case is daunting and difficult. The final coup de grâce, is that they must prove that they are gay to a stranger in an immigration office!
Since they have not been able to march in parades, take pictures of themselves and their partners, are too frightened to even say the word gay out loud, this is not easy. Often they come without knowing that in the USA, asylum seekers are not allowed to work! They come not realizing that they have only one year from the date they arrived to file with an attorney.
Without knowledge, they experience more cultural abuse and disorientation, including America’s own racism which is different than the hatred they experienced because it is insidious and unspoken. PTSD is common and they can fall deeply into depression as they relive horrific memories of traumatic treatment they underwent.
Being perpetually hungry, feeling unsafe, and being financially vulnerable is no way to rebuild a life. Moreover, there is tremendous sense of grief, as well as pain, for the losses they face: country, language, culture, family – everything familiar – is gone. The Task Force has provided physical, emotional, and spiritual support to nearly 80 people from over 15 countries since its inception in 2008.
Beyond food and shelter, the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force – which is staffed completely by volunteers – helps these individuals until they have filed their cases and have been granted asylum or given a work permit, which is denoted by a social security number. This basic necessity, a social security number, allows asylum seekers to work so that they can begin to become self-sufficient, and thereby take an important step towards restoring their dignity.
With no status, as an asylum seeker, they cannot receive food stamps and do not get any support from the federal government. Once asylum seekers get a work permit, the Task Force helps them secure job interviews as well as writing letters of reference after individuals have applied for positions.
Funds for LGBT asylum seekers run in the thousands per month – approximately $5000 for eight or nine people (at a time) – to keep them housed, clothed, fed, and transported. In the homes provided, persons can be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity. That is an important step toward healing. Support for the Task Force comes from donations because public assistance is not available for this group, since they are undocumented until they win their cases. The Task Force also provides events that lift the spirits of these individuals, and provides them with community that can sustain them as they establish their lives in their new home countries.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
LGBT Asylum Support Task Force
Personal communication with Pastor Judy Hanlon, LGBT Asylum Support Task Force
Guardian Liberty Voice
Guardian Liberty Voice
Human Rights Campaign, Issue: Immigration