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Guest Opinion: The US fails to protect asylum seekers

by Anna Lijphart

Supporters of Oasis Legal Services at Oakland Pride. Photo: Courtesy Oasis Legal Services
Supporters of Oasis Legal Services at Oakland Pride. Photo: Courtesy Oasis Legal Services  

The Asylum Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose stated mission is to provide immigration, protection, and humanitarian services for people who are fleeing oppression, persecution, or torture, recently announced a bizarre and unjust approach to dealing with the backlog of their pending asylum applications. As of January 29, it now processes asylum applications starting with those most recently submitted, and then works its way backward: "last in, first out." This cruel and unjustified procedural change punishes asylum seekers who have already been waiting in the queue for years. Just under 300 of our clients at Oasis Legal Services, a nonprofit legal immigration services provider based in Oakland that focuses on asylum for LGBTQ refugees, find themselves in this black hole. We would like to share the story of one such client, a gay man from Mexico. For his safety, we are not able to disclose his name.

Our client's father objected to his effeminate mannerisms from the time he was very little. Dad regularly beat his son with fists, ropes, sticks, pans - whatever he could find - saying that he was going to "beat the faggot" out of his son. When our client was about 14, Dad took him to a brujo (male witch) to "make him a man." The brujo and his assistant forcibly held our client down and took turns raping him. They told him that's how he would learn to stop being a "faggot." Our client was bullied and abused for his entire life in Mexico. He was so depressed that, several times, he contemplated suicide. He came to think that being gay was a bad thing. He wanted to change and struggled to accept himself.

Finally, our client fled to the United States and applied for asylum here in 2015. He qualifies for asylum in the U.S. because he was persecuted in his home country for his sexual orientation. His application is pending as he waits for the San Francisco Asylum Office to schedule his interview. Until this recent policy change, asylum seekers living in the San Francisco area could expect to wait for an interview for a little over two years. In Boston, the wait was almost four years. Asylum interviews are conducted by asylum officers, and there simply are not enough of them to keep up with the applications. There are now over 300,000 pending asylum applications in the U.S. While asylum seekers wait for their interviews to be scheduled, they are living here with the uncertainty of whether or not they will be able to stay. Our client has struggled to re-build his life while living in constant fear of being sent back to a country where odds are high that he would be beaten, tortured, raped or killed, just for being gay.

The logical solution to decrease the backlog of applications is to hire more asylum officers. Faced with an inability to obtain the necessary funding to do so, the asylum office blames an increase in "frivolous and non-meritorious" asylum applications for the backlog and justifies the new system by saying they will be able to weed out those undeserving of asylum sooner rather than later. Officials themselves admit that their plan is not based on hard numbers. And given the fact that the 10 asylum offices in the U.S. consistently cannot keep up with incoming applications, it is doubtful that the currently pending cases will ever be heard.

The new asylum office policy is contrary to the basic rules of fairness that we learn in kindergarten. Simply put, you can't have a rule that allows every new person to cut to the front of the line. And applying this policy to some of the most vulnerable members of our community is cruel and inhumane. Until this new policy was announced, our client and almost 300 LGBTQ refugees like him represented by Oasis Legal Services, and over 300,000 asylum applicants nationwide, thought the wait for their interview was almost over. They could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now that light has gone dark.

Anna Lijphart is executive director of Oasis Legal Services (https://www.oasislegalservices.org), a nonprofit legal immigration services provider based in Oakland that focuses on asylum for LGBTQIA+ refugees. Oasis is one of the largest affirmative asylum service providers in the country. Lijphart is a Department of Justice fully accredited representative and has represented over 175 asylum seekers at their asylum interviews.

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