Gay Rights: Why Don't People Discuss Asylum Reform For LGBT Immigrants?


The marriage equality movement seems to have overpowered all other queer priorities and this deeply bothers me. While I could write an entire article on that, I’ll stick to one issue near and dear to my heart: sexuality-based asylum. When we speak about immigration reform, we don’t talk about asylum reform. One argument I hear cited repeatedly is that Obama’s immigration reform plan is superior to that of the Senate coalition because it would allow citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for visas. Everywhere I turn, it seems LGBT activists are claiming that this would be a huge victory for the LGBT community. Well, as a queer youth who has worked for years in an immigration center, I strongly disagree.

The immigration system is flawed, and it is especially flawed for LGBT émigrés. Even if the president’s proposal were to pass, it does not go far enough. It irks me when my straight friends herald Obama as a crusader for the LGBT cause. But he repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and mentioned Stonewall in his inaugural speech!

I do not deny that this immigration reform add-on would be a small step in the right direction. But frankly, I expect more. Am I the only gay American who thinks the LGBT movement has sold out? Obama puts in one line about helping keep gay immigrant families stay together and we all wet ourselves with excitement. To truly help LGBT immigrants there needs to be widespread reform of asylum policy.

Thousands of gay émigrés come to this country because they are either fleeing persecution or the threat it poses. For them the path to citizenship is often through sexuality-based asylum claims. Being gay is an act punishable by death or life imprisonment in many countries around the world. Every year gay refugees flee their home countries seeking asylum from the threat of violence. Currently only twelve countries in the world grant asylum based on sexuality and we are one of them.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all people have the right to claim asylum if they can prove they fit the definition of a refugee. Translation? LGBT people fleeing countries like Iran or Uganda have to show they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for their membership in the LGBT community. That seems straightforward enough, right? Wrong. As it turns out, when applying for sexuality-based asylum, asylum seekers bear the burden of proving not only their homosexuality, but also that if returned to their home country they would suffer persecution. While this seems simple in theory, the devil is in the details.

Proving you are gay in an immigration court is exceedingly challenging mainly for this reason: immigration officials use a rubric based on out-of-the-closet queer identity common in America. In countless case studies researchers have found that the fact that an asylum seeker does not “dress gay” or did not frequent LGBT clubs in their country of origin is used as evidence that the immigrant in question is lying. Essentially, if you don’t resemble Kurt Hummel, evidence has shown that the likelihood of being granted asylum is extremely rare. Furthermore, persecution that LGBT members face comes more often from their families or local communities rather than their governments. A young girl that is almost beaten to death by her father for being a lesbian has a hard time proving in court that her life would be jeopardized if deported. Since the government has not thrown her in jail or tortured her, there is no physical documentation of her suffering, and thus she can’t accurately demonstrate a "well-founded" fear of persecution.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to flaws in the system. The point is that granting a visa to a married gay couple is like giving a band-aid to someone with a severed artery. It addresses a symptom rather than the cure. The fact remains that queers are systematically persecuted all over the world, and systematically refused refugee status. Why should they be treated any differently than those fleeing war or genocide? For once I would like an administration to tackle an issue that deeply affects the queer community instead of focusing on the single-issue agenda of the marriage equality movement. That’s not to say that Obama’s proposal won’t help binational LGBT couples seeking visas. I merely want to emphasize that if immigration reform stops at gay marriage, it will be another thirty years before sexuality-based asylum seekers are addressed.