Out in the World: LGBTQ asylum and refugee organizations get a boost

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday December 28, 2022
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Executive Directors Okan Sengun, left, of The LGBT Asylum Project and Aaron Morris of Immigration Equality are launching new programs to benefit queer and gender-nonconforming asylum seekers and refugees. Photos: Courtesy of Facebook and Immigration Equality<br>
Executive Directors Okan Sengun, left, of The LGBT Asylum Project and Aaron Morris of Immigration Equality are launching new programs to benefit queer and gender-nonconforming asylum seekers and refugees. Photos: Courtesy of Facebook and Immigration Equality

LGBTQ asylum and refugee organizations have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to launch new initiatives to increase efforts to help queer and gender-nonconforming asylum seekers and refugees.

San Francisco's The LGBT Asylum Project and El/La Para TransLatinas received a two-year $125,000 grant from the city and county of San Francisco, according to a December 15 news release. It is the organizations' first joint initiative they have launched although the agencies have had ties since 2021, Okan Sengun, executive director and co-founder of the asylum project, wrote in an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

New York's Immigration Equality received a five-year $500,000 grant as seed money for a new program, Build Out, to aid the resettlement of LGBTQ refugees, according to a December 14 news release from the organization.

The timing couldn't be more imperative. Migrants continue to flood the U.S.-Mexico border more than ever, nearly five years after the migrant caravan crisis in 2018. This year saw a historic wave of Cuban emigration to the U.S. by boat to Florida and at the U.S.-Mexico border. Afghans continue to escape the Taliban more than a year after the U.S. and NATO's withdrawal from the South-Central Asian country. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians fled Russia's invasion of the Eastern European country.

The impending closures of the world's two largest refugee camps, Kakuma and Dadaab, in Kenya will only add to the list of displaced people around the world. Certainly, among those millions of people searching for safety and rebuilding their lives, queer people are among them.

"There's going to be real pain felt around the world," said Ranesh Ramanathan, 50, who provided the seed grant for Immigration Equality's new Build Out program with his husband, U.S. Swedish Ambassador Erik Douglas Ramanathan.

The couple formerly served on the nonprofit's board.

"I think we're actually going to see immigration — legal, refugee, asylee, and undocumented — all of it's going to go up just as people try to find safer places to be," said Ranesh Ramanathan.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 67 countries criminalize homosexuality. At least seven countries impose the death penalty. Additionally, at least nine countries criminalize gender identity and expression.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. was a beacon of hope and a safe harbor for refugees. The fall of Afghanistan demonstrated how much former President Donald Trump's administration annihilated the refugee system and decimated the asylum system. From 2016 to 2020, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. dropped by 86%, according to American Progress. The U.S. resettled only 18,000 (2020) and 15,000 (2021) refugees, a historic low from former President Barack Obama's goal to resettle 110,000 refugees.

Biden boosted the U.S.'s refugee resettlement commitment back up to 125,000 for 2023 with a commitment to resettle an additional 100,000 for Ukrainians.

Biden's administration experienced a delay in relief for asylum seekers December 19 when the Supreme Court announced it was temporarily blocking the rolling back of Title 42, which has forced thousands of people to wait on the Mexico side of the border for their cases to be heard. The Trump-era policy automatically deported migrants from the U.S. and didn't allow migrants a chance to claim asylum once they crossed the border into the country.

The policy was set to expire this month, but a divided 5-4 Supreme Court ruled December 27 that Title 42 would remain in effect for now. Immigration Equality and The LGBT Asylum Project have both called for the Biden administration to do away with it.

"This awful Trump-era policy blocks countless people, including trans people, from getting the basic human right of applying for asylum," Sengun told the B.A.R.

"Every day LGBTQ asylum seekers at the border are denied their day in court puts them in mortal danger," added Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, in an email responding to the B.A.R. "Refugees forced to languish at the Mexican-American border are in grave danger, and none more so than LGBTQ people."

Helping trans Latinx asylees

The LGBT Asylum Project and El/La Para TransLatinas received their city-funded grant in the city's fiscal year budget that began July 1. The organizations will use it towards providing free legal services for transgender, gender-nonconforming, and intersex (TGNCI) asylum seekers, many of whom have few resources to challenge their cases in court.

El/La Para TransLatinas will refer the organization's clients to the project for direct legal services. Nicole Santamaria, the nonprofit's executive director, was unavailable for comment by press time.

The asylum project is providing the legal services for free. Sengun, 38, a gay man who emigrated from Turkey, told the B.A.R. that "it's absolutely critical to provide life-saving services" to the asylum seekers it is trying to help.

"It's a terrible fact that in many cases, their own families and communities are the ones who want to harm them," wrote Sengun. "It disgusts me to think of how many times I have heard of family members of TGNCI immigrants threaten to kill them."

According to the agency's release, "it is almost impossible" for transgender asylum seekers, especially Latinx transgender immigrants, "to obtain a U.S. visa." When such individuals cross the border into the U.S. without a visa and claim asylum, they are placed on a different legal track.

It results in their facing removal proceedings and their application being placed in a court that makes their asylum process a defensive case, rather than an affirmative case. Defensive cases are very complicated and complex legal systems. Compounding the issue is that migrants who already applied for asylum, but are in deportation proceedings, aren't offered government-supported legal representation.

San Francisco's grant allows The LGBT Asylum Project and El/La Para TransLatinas to work pro bono on their clients' defensive cases, including those that are in deportation proceedings. In many cases, the people are in danger of being deported to their home countries where their safety would be compromised due to gendered violence, according to the release.

Sengun wrote that since July, the agencies' new two-member legal staff dedicated to defensive cases have worked on seven active cases, with an additional four cases in the pipeline. Staff at the asylum project have also conducted 17 consultations.

In total, the organization has worked on 12 defensive cases, five of which were transgender, gender nonconforming, and intersex people, according to Sengun.

"We sincerely hope to have 80 consultations and 30 full defensive cases in this two-year grant cycle," Sengun wrote. "We feel the need is there and now, thanks to this grant, we have the staff necessary to make this happen."

The project, which had a budget in 2022 of $700,000, typically carries around 140 to 160 affirmative cases annually, including pending cases, according to Sengun. This past year it took on 74 new affirmative cases. The organization currently has 152 active affirmative cases overall. It also currently has 13 active transgender, gender nonconforming, and intersex cases, 11 of which are new this year.

Rich Whipple, acting director of the city's Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, noted in a response to the B.A.R. that his office has partnered with The LGBT Asylum Project for several years and is excited to expand its work through the joint project with El/La Para TransLatinas.

"As a city that values diversity, inclusion and belonging, San Francisco has long been a welcoming, sanctuary city for all immigrants and also a refuge for LGBTQ+ communities seeking acceptance, safety and community," stated Whipple. "We're proud to build on these traditions by partnering with The LGBT Asylum Project, especially at this time when transgender and LGBTQ+ rights are under attack, and immigrants continue to be dehumanized and criminalized. Trans and GNC immigrants are significantly impacted at this intersection and are more likely to suffer mistreatment by immigration authorities and negative immigration outcomes."

He added, "This life changing grant will provide critical support to trans and GNC asylum seekers and ensure they receive proper representation in their immigration proceedings."

Entering the refugee arena

Founded in 1994, Immigration Equality has successfully fought for LGBTQ asylum and immigration rights for decades. Now the $2.4 million organization is entering the complex world of LGBTQ refugee resettlement with its new program, Build Out.

Immigration Equality receives an additional $30 million in donated legal services from America's top law firms annually that work with its 17 staff members, including six attorneys. The organization helped 859 individuals within the past 12 months, according to Morris.

The 42-year-old gay lawyer wants the organization to be ready for when the Biden administration has a fix in place for the broken refugee system.

"I really want Immigration Equality to be ready to go and just start resettling as many refugees as possible as soon as possible," he said, noting that Afghanistan gave the organization a good testing ground to pilot resettling LGBTQ refugees in Canada working with partners in the U.S. State Department and Canadian government.

Morris said the organization successfully resettled 29 queer Afghan refugees. They are currently working on resettling 30 more LGBTQ Afghans in Canada.

Immigration Equality worked with the State Department and U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI Persons Jessica Stern. Morris credited Stern as being instrumental at the bilateral level and working with other queer human rights and refugee organizations to create a pathway to safety for some LGBTQ Afghans and the speed of rolling out programs.

"We're working more on the nine-month timeline with the hope to speed that up even better," Morris said about the refugee process, which at best can be a two-year process to resettle refugees.

The Biden administration has also recognized the need to protect LGBTQ refugees, naming the community as a prioritized protected group in the White House's 2023 proposal to Congress for refugee admissions that was submitted on September 8.

LGBTQ refugees face multiple challenges getting resettled, much of it due to safety issues forcing them to go deep into the closet. It can make it especially challenging to identify queer and gender nonconforming refugees, and it requires a high competency in LGBTQ cultural sensitivity to identify community members, Morris said.

"Which is what we do really well," he said.

"We're also aware that LGBTQ people are often left out of that system, even when it's working really well," Morris added. "We want to make sure that LGBTQ people are included in high numbers."

Build Out, the organization's new refugee program, aims to help LGBTQ refugees fleeing persecution find safety in the U.S., Canada, and other queer-friendly countries. Global law firm Akin Gump has demonstrated consistent support for Immigration Equality, with more than $4.2 million worth of pro bono hours donated to the organization in addition to financial contributions, according to the release.

Akin Gump has more than 900 lawyers in offices throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Ranesh Ramanathan co-leads the firm's integrated special situations and private credit practice.

He and his husband, who have been together for 32 years, are familiar with the legal and refugee systems. Ramanathan spent six years stateless when Singapore revoked his citizenship while he was in college in the U.S. In 1998, he became one of the first 10 people granted political asylum based on sexual orientation in the U.S., he said.

"The uncertainty that that brought with everything has really shaped our lives for the last 30 years," Ramanathan said.

He recognized the couple was privileged. They were educated, legal professionals, living in the U.S., and they had the support of family and friends. Not every queer person or couple has what they have, noted Ramanathan.

"We wanted to find a way to help LGBTQ+ people," in refugee camps or countries where they can't be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity "to find safety," Ramanathan said.

Immigration Equality had a proven track record that the Ramanathans felt confident would allow it to create Build Out. The organization is in the process of hiring a refugee resettlement coordinator to oversee the project.

"It's not a simple thing, but somebody has to do it," said Ranesh Ramanathan.

Anyone who needs assistance with their asylum or refugee case can complete The LGBT Asylum Project's form online. Additional information from Immigration Equality can be found here.

Donations to The LGBT Asylum Project can be made online here, to El/La Para TransLatinas here, and to Immigration Equality here.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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