New LGBT asylum project launches in SF

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday February 3, 2016
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Immigration attorney Okan Sengun is on a mission, one that is personal and one that started with his first LGBT asylum case helping a gay Russian man in 2013.

Since then, Sengun, 31, a gay Turkish man and an immigrant himself, has been helping asylum seekers on a pro bono and paid basis. However, during the past three years he's realized the demand for assistance with LGBT asylum cases, particularly from Russia and Turkey, has dramatically increased.

"I receive 10 to 15 calls a day asking about the asylum process," Sengun told the Bay Area Reporter during a "friend-raiser" beer bust for the new Center for Immigrant Protection's LGBT Asylum Project in the Castro January 31.

Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 80 countries around the world and in 10 of those countries same-sex love is punishable by death. Discrimination and prejudice are rampant against LGBT people in many of these countries, making life challenging for queer people.

Because of his personal story and experience LGBT clients feel free to open up to him about their experiences of discrimination, sexual abuse, and other horrors of their lives in their native country, he said.

"I can easily put myself in their shoes and understand the conditions that they come from because of my personal experiences," said Sengun, "and how being in the United States has changed my life. That's what I want to do for other LGBT people as well."

Sengun and Brooke Westling, who co-founded CIP, are currently working on four pro bono asylum cases: a gay man and a lesbian from Nigeria; and a transgender man and a gay man from Mexico.

Right now it's just the two of them working on cases out of Sengun's downtown San Francisco law office, but they plan to eventually have an office in the Castro, hire some immigration attorneys, and work with volunteers and other legal organizations as their agency grows, said Sengun.

Sengun serves as president of CIP and Westling is vice president. They are currently working with their board on a projected budget that wasn't available by press time.

Westling, a 32-year-old straight ally, interned for Sengun while earning her master's of law at Golden Gate University, where she focused on human rights and gender and sexuality law, she said. She's since graduated and has assisted Sengun with a number of asylum cases. She received her law degree from Capital University Law School in Ohio and passed the California Bar.

"[I] just really loved the work that he was doing and wanted to stick around and keep doing the cases," continued Westling, who wanted to "find a way that we could keep offering these services without having to put the financial burden on the clients, who typically just don't have that kind of money.

"It's been really powerful for me to see the changes that it makes in their lives," said Westling, talking about the joy she receives when she hands someone a card telling them that they are allowed to stay in the U.S. "Relief just washes over."


The state of asylum

Sengun and Westling plan to target several communities to provide direct pro bono legal assistance and network with organizations to provide other direct assistance to new asylum seekers in the U.S., they said.

Currently, asylum seekers have one year to claim asylum once they arrive in the U.S., said Sengun. From that moment forward it can take two years for an asylum seeker to gain asylum in the U.S. Those two years include six months where they can't legally work. They must also search for housing, employment, and other services and need to get acquainted with an entirely new culture and language. Add on top of that the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is an important destination for LGBT asylum seekers, and attorney fees that can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000, said Sengun. The process can be expensive and overwhelming, he pointed out.

Unlike other types of cases, asylum seekers don't automatically receive legal representation. This often leaves them on long waitlists or they defend themselves, Andrea Ruth Bird, an attorney who served as pro bono counsel on a landmark 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving a Mexican transgender woman, told the B.A.R. last year.

Sengun agreed, pointing out that statistics show that only 13 percent of self-representing asylum seekers' cases are successful, compared to a success rate of 75 percent for cases where asylum seekers have legal representation. Sengun and Westling currently have a 100 percent success rate for their asylum clients, according to a fact sheet provided about CIP.

Even so, the demand for asylum cases in general is overwhelming for the organizations and programs that currently exist, Sengun said.

"There's a huge need for all of the asylum cases, but our experience is with LGBT people," said Sengun.

Sengun and Westling want to alleviate the dearth of services for asylum seekers throughout the U.S., starting first in the Bay Area and with LGBT asylum seekers. The Organization of Refuge and Asylum and Migration, which re-opened its San Francisco office last year, focuses most of its energy on refugees. Immigration Equality, which is located in New York, doesn't have a San Francisco office, said Sengun, who formerly worked at ORAM and is inspired by Immigration Equality's work.


Friends of asylum seekers come out in support

Last Sunday's party drew a couple hundred people throughout the evening to Q Bar, including an angel investor who matched the donations that evening, raising a total of $2,500 for the soft launch of the CIP's LGBT Asylum Project.

"The rest of the world isn't where we are and I think that's why creating an LGBT Asylum Project – it's not only critically important – but its life changing and lifesaving," said Kate Maeder, 28, who is the president and co-founder of Women Get It Done, a woman's organization. Maeder declined to disclose her sexual orientation.

Anthony Chong, a 27-year-old straight man whose family immigrated to the U.S., said that he appreciated the sense of community and groundswell Sengun and Westling are creating around the asylum issue.

"I think that if you believe in the message of what they are doing you can't help but support something like this," said Chong, who works for a data analyst startup. "It's exactly what you've got to put your energy behind."

Sengun and Westling said they have pulled together experts from business, finance, immigration, law, and LGBT advocacy to serve on CIP's board of directors. The seven-member body includes: Ozkan Boyar, Jason Hall, Timothy McQuillan, Dodi Gomez Paloma, Adam Sandel, Nienke Schouten, and Kelly Walsh. (Sandel is a freelance arts writer for the B.A.R.)

The LGBT Asylum Project is only the beginning. Sengun and Westling have an eye on expanding the organization to aid other vulnerable asylum populations, such as women who are victims of abuse and human trafficking, they said.

"I would like to expand out to other people who have the same types of issues but a different demographic," said Westling, whose passion is helping women.

For the moment Sengun and Westling are working on their current cases and getting the word out about their new organization through fundraising and speaking engagements, networking, social media, and other avenues, they said.

"We are already off to a better start than we allowed ourselves to hope for," said Westling.

They are currently searching for donors and volunteers to assist the young organization.

Another fundraiser is being planned for the spring. For more information, contact [email protected].


Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or mailto:.