Gay Asylum Petitions Grow
Chelsea Now April 6-12, 2007
One day Fabiola Lemos was walking out of a bakery in Mariana, the oldest city in Brazil’s Minas Gerais region, when she heard a guy say: “Here goes the dyke again. She thinks she can just walk up and down.”
Lemos felt a punch in the back, then was thrown to the ground and beaten. She remembers covering her face and praying, “I don’t want to die like this.”
A petite, muscular woman with curly black hair, Lemos, now 33, moved to Rio de Janeiro, hoping to find safety from persecution. But one day, heading for the supermarket, she heard guys making jokes about her, and calling her a man.
“I totally panicked. I ran like crazy,” she said. She found a policeman.
“Lucky you, they didn’t beat you up,” the officer sneered. “That’s what you deserve. Keep going, otherwise I may decide to do [to you] what they didn’t do.”
Lemos, a dental assistant, eventually moved to New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, where she lives with her mother. She’s one of many immigrants seeking asylum in the United States on fairly new grounds: persecution due to her sexual orientation. Then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno 13 years ago established that this was grounds for asylum in the United States. Now such asylum applications are growing.
There are no official stats on gay refugees: the U.S. government still classifies them simply as persecution cases. “Sexual orientation is not grounds for asylum,” said Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, which oversees immigration cases under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. Since sexual orientation is not a separate legal category, the agency evaluates each person’s claim based on the facts at hand, Saucier said. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has recorded 785 successful U.S. claims since 1994. But Dusty Aráujo, documentation program coordinator for the group’s San Francisco office, said that tally is probably incomplete.
Gay asylees are nonetheless a new and emerging community.
“Sexual orientation is the next big issue in terms of ‘will the whole world agree on that’?” said Nikki Dryden, staff attorney at Immigration Equality, a New York-based organization working to improve immigration rights for gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive people. The United Nations is just starting to grapple with the issue, Dryden said.
The number of gay asylees skyrocketed in the 1990s, said Andrés Duque, who directs the Latino Commission on AIDS’ program Mano a Mano, in New York.
“When the first group of people started getting granted asylum, a lot of immigrants thought that it was really easy, so a lot of people started applying en masse,” Duque said.
Weihaur Lau, 28, an HIV prevention educator in San Francisco, was granted asylum in 2003 after coming to the U.S. from Malaysia in 1997 to study. A gay Malaysian politician had been persecuted in 1998, and since his case had been prominently featured in the news, many Malaysians were granted asylum around that time, Lau said.
It’s harder to win a case today. And when Congress passed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which required individuals to file for asylum within one year of arriving in the United States, the number of gay asylees dwindled: often immigrants missed the deadline, advocates said.
Lemos almost did, too — but managed to file in April 2006, days before her year was up.
Saucier said his agency doesn’t consider the deadline a problem. “As soon as you land in the U.S., it’s reasonable to expect that you would make an asylum claim,” he said.
But gay immigrants often find it excruciating to testify about their sexual experiences in courtrooms before strangers. Lau, who grew up in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, is from a conservative Chinese background where, he said, homosexuality was not discussed.
“They don’t know how to talk about it,” he said. “They just have no concept of it.”
Asylees also suffer the extra stress of being obliged to wait much longer for green cards than immigrants who apply for work reasons. Lau said asylees must wait in line for as long as five to eight years, and cannot leave the country without forfeiting their status. So Lau could not return to Malaysia when his father died in May 2006.
“It was just a very huge regret in my heart that I couldn’t go back,” he said. “We feel imprisoned here too.”
Jesús Moreno, 28, fled Mexico City after the police demanded bribes in exchange for not telling his parents he was gay. Moreno, now an HIV testing coordinator in Oakland, Calif., said he endured an exhausting two hours of close questioning by an asylum officer about his persecution in Mexico. “Those are things that really hurt,” he said. “It was difficult to bring them to the present because you want to forget almost everything.”
But he was granted asylum, in June 2000. He now feels safe to walk the streets as an openly gay man. Even if he were harassed, he feels reassured that he could go to the police for help.
“That is the peace of mind that I have now,” he said.
Lemos has traveled between New York and Brazil for 10 years. But in Brazil, she still feels she must hide who she is – while in New York she is open about her sexual orientation. “For the first time, I really see a gay community,” she said. “Gay people walking, holding hands, all over. I was like, ‘This is amazing.’”