Pride 2017: Gay attorney realizes dream of helping refugees
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People seeking asylum in the United States usually face a difficult process, and it can be even more complicated for LGBTs trying to flee hostile homelands.
Immigration attorney Okan Sengun is working to change that with the Center for Immigrant Protection and its LGBT Asylum Project, which he co-founded in 2015 to offer pro-bono legal representation to vulnerable immigrants escaping violence and persecution.
Between 75 and 80 nations have anti-LGBT laws and at least 10 countries currently have the death penalty for homosexuality. As a gay Turkish immigrant himself, Sengun knew something like the immigrant protection program was urgently needed.
Attorney Brooke Westling, 33, a straight ally, co-founded the LGBT Asylum Project with Sengun. While the organization is technically known as CIP, it's commonly referred to as the LGBT Asylum Project, board member Adam Sandel said.
The LGBT Asylum Project is the only Bay Area nonprofit entity dedicated to offering pro-bono assistance to vulnerable LGBT immigrants fleeing persecution abroad and seeking protection in the United States.
Its first client was a man from Nigeria who was working for a closeted LGBTQ nonprofit, which is the only way an LGBT organization can operate in the African nation. Sengun said that the man had attended a gay conference in the U.S., and when word of that conference got around after his return, he received death threats from close relatives and had to flee from his home. Like many LGBTQ refugees, he arrived in the U.S. without any financial support from his family.
Sengun's own exit from Turkey was much less traumatic. He was born and raised in Ankara, a large and cosmopolitan city, and lived there for the first 24 years of his life. And he might be there today except, as he explained, "Growing up gay in a homophobic country is not easy."
Though he received a law degree in Turkey, Sengun attended a school with American-style grading and classes conducted in English. After moving to the U.S. in 2007, he studied at UCLA and at UC Hastings College of the Law before starting preparation to take the bar exam, which he passed in August 2010.
After that hurdle, Sengun, 33, started volunteering to help LGBTQ refugees from the Middle East and quickly became more familiar with U.S. refugee and asylum laws.
"It immediately hit me that those areas were something I wanted to learn more about," he said.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. At the time, Sengun was working for an immigration law firm. That's when "the light bulb went on," he recalled.
"I always wanted to practice LGBT immigration law and suddenly it became possible. So I quit the law firm and started my own practice in the summer of 2013," he explained.
But there was another, more personal aspect to his decision. Coming out to his father had not been easy, though his father eventually understood and accepted Sengun's sexuality.
"My father is not very religious and that helped," Sengun pointed out. "It was different with my mother, who is a little more religious." He said that her lack of acceptance pushed him even more toward LGBT asylum work.
There are two parts to his current legal work: the LGBT Asylum Project and his private practice.
"In my private practice I also handle same-sex marriage-based green card cases, which first became possible after the strike-down of DOMA. Some people arrive with more resources and are able to pursue asylum without relying on pro-bono legal assistance," he said.
For those who do need assistance, CIP estimates the cost of completing an asylum case is $4,000 minimum. Asylum project clients often arrive in the United States with limited resources and asylum seekers are not authorized to work for at least six months after applying. Legal representation is essential as the project's website notes that only 13 percent of unrepresented asylum applicants win their cases, versus about a 75 percent success rate for those who have legal help.
The LGBT Asylum Project screens clients to verify their eligibility before submitting their applications and has achieved an amazing 100 percent success rate so far. Sengun said asylum cases usually take about two years but revealed that CIP has won two asylum approvals just since last January.
In order to qualify for asylum an applicant must show that they face persecution or fear of future persecution due to membership in a group defined by race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Sexuality, gender, and gender identity are not identified specifically in current law but the U.S. government now recognizes that LGBTQ status qualifies because it falls under the category of "particular social group," according to the LGBT Asylum Project.
Once approved, asylees are granted permission to stay indefinitely in the U.S. and one year later can apply for permanent residency, which allows them to work legally.
Sengun reflected on the early days of the project and said, "We started with a focus on Nigeria since LGBTQ people often arrive extremely traumatized due to severe persecution in their home country. Some cannot even hold a job due to psychological issues."
The LGBT Asylum Project welcomes donations, volunteers, and legal interns, Sengun said.
"We rely mostly on fundraising to fund the LGBT Asylum Project," he added. He described how the project has raised money with a series of community-based fundraisers, often with the help of San Francisco activist and drag queen Juanita More!
In fact, the LGBT Asylum Project is one of the beneficiaries for More!'s Pride party Sunday, June 25. Tickets are available at http://www.juanitamore.com/event-details.
The organization is made up of volunteers who help with multiple tasks. Sandel, for example, serves on the board and also directs fundraising and events.
Sandel told the Bay Area Reporter that he decided to get involved after being approached by Sengun and Westling. At the time, he had just finished up his volunteer leadership activities with GLAAD, the national LGBT media accountability organization.
"I jumped at the chance," Sandel said. "It's something important."
He added that since the project's official launch about a year ago, interest has "spread like wildfire."
"Particularly since the election and since January," Sandel said, referring to Donald Trump's taking office and announcing his first travel ban, which caused massive confusion at airports around the country until it was blocked by a federal judge.
"There's a sense of urgency," Sandel said.
Another board member is Desmond Adebayo, who's director of client relations and a Nigerian immigrant himself. He helps clients with practical information such as how to get a Social Security number and driver's license, Sengun explained.
Sengun spoke about changes under the Trump administration and said that the asylum process itself is still mostly the same. But it has become very difficult to get visas, especially for people in the countries on Trump's second proposed travel ban (currently blocked by federal courts), where LGBTQ people are often treated badly.
"We cannot help people until they are physically in the U.S., so people are stuck in extremely homophobic countries," Sengun said.
On the positive side, among the eight asylum offices in the U.S., Sengun believes the San Francisco office could be the best and observed that it has officers who understand issues that LGBT asylees face.
Looking ahead, Sengun's biggest goal is to obtain office space in the Castro within the next five years.
"LGBT individuals have only one year after their arrival to apply for asylum," he said, "and most people don't know that LGBT status can be the basis of asylum. It can be intimidating to come to the Financial District but many tourists go to the Castro. If we had a walk-in office in the Castro, we could put up a sign like, 'If you are afraid to return to your home country because you are LGBT, we can help you.'"
For more information, visit www.cipsf.org.