A Review of the LGBT-Faith and Asylum Network Retreat
January 8-January 10, 2014
The trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., daunting as it may seem for a first-timer, is quite easy and comfortable. As a native New Yorker, born and raised, I had never embarked on a trip to D.C. via public transportation, but after learning about this retreat, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss despite my New York state of mind.
After being brought on board the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) as an intern this past September, I have been charged with exploring the needs of LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees to the United States. It had become apparent to the Director, a retired Foreign Service Officer, that the needs of this group are not currently being met. Given the two-fold mission of the UU-UNO to engage in the work of the UN to promote a peaceful, just, sustainable, and pluralistic world, as well as to inspire Unitarian Universalists and others to support such work, it became clear that the UU-UNO should join forces in meeting this unfulfilled need. (www.uua.org/un)
LGBT Faith Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN) is a newly assembled group made up of faith leaders, asylum-seekers, asylees, activists, LGBT community center staff, policy experts, and refugee resettlement workers dedicated to helping people who flee to North America because of persecution in their home country based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. More information about LGBT-FAN can be found at the website, www.lgbt-fan.org.
For some readers, this may raise questions, maybe even for most. It’s fairly complex, but in its simplest form- at least 76 countries of the world currently criminalize same-sex relations. Meaning, it is a punishable crime to be gay or to engage in homosexual acts. An accused person may be arrested (or in some cases illegally seized) and tortured. Among these countries are Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, and more recently Russia and Ukraine, just to name a few, and in some countries, even face the death penalty (www.ilga.org) The 1951 Refugee Convention states that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” In order to become a refugee, a person must have a national identity outside of the United States and receive a referral from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP.) This is especially complicated considering that one’s safety depends on their ability to remain secretive. For this reason, among others, such individuals are forced to flee their country and begin the process of seeking asylum when they are at the United States border. This person, unlike a refugee who comes to the United States through a refugee resettlement process, is considered an “asylum seeker” and there are few services currently available for such a person. As a result, they are often detained in less than humane conditions for extended periods of time, face abuse in detention centers, and ultimately may be deported back to their country of origin. Individuals who are not deported and allowed to stay are not allowed to work. This begs the question: How can one survive in a foreign country where they may not speak the language, have no family, and do not qualify to receive services or find work?
How can we as a nation and its members at all levels of awareness of this issue begin to take steps to end the perpetuation of abuse of human rights within our borders? In an effort to share the tremendous wealth of information on this issue I obtained while at the LGBT-FAN Retreat with dedicated professionals from all over the United States and Canada (which as a nation has already adopted progressive policies on this matter), I present this retreat review.
I traveled with the Director of the UU-UNO, Bruce Knotts, as well as Elizabeth Cormier of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. Our first stop after arriving in D.C. was Senator Feinstein’s office to speak with Counsel Emily Hyams. She was very open to hearing what we had to say and seemed interested in the issues surrounding the LGBTQI refugee and asylum seeking communities, particularly because Senator Feinstein has a reputation of being a supporter of LGBTQI rights. The trouble we ran into was around answering her questions about exactly what happens when an asylum seeker comes to the US. The truth is it depends. There is no formal network for asylees until after they have been given asylum status. This deficit is exactly what LGBT-FAN and the collaborative member retreat aimed to address.
Wednesday afternoon, before the Retreat began, at Capitol Hill was a briefing on “Asylum as LGBT Persecution Escalates.” The briefing sought to provide information on the needs of LGBTQI asylum seekers, specifically three major focuses for policy change. Among them are the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications, alternatives to immigration detention, and the “bed quota” which requires that 34,000 detention facility beds be filled each night.
Professionals spoke with passion and conviction to a crowded room of people about how the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications does not meet the needs of the applicants. Panelists mentioned considerations such as the mental health obstacles after facing trauma and the journey toward self-identification. Research done by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) identified a high rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the asylum and refugee sexual minority community. This report, “Invisible in the City” can be read at: http://www.hias.org/uploaded/file/Invisible-in-the-City_full-report.pdf. A one year deadline does not respect the process of “coming out,” especially for someone without a support system and who has likely spent a significant portion of their life hiding this part of themselves. In the event that the individual is comfortable coming out, how will they feel about their need to prove their sexual identity to the U.S. Government when their very reason for fleeing to the U.S. is to escape an intolerant government in their country of origin? Furthermore, how will they prove this without access to paperwork, legal documents, photos, and “witnesses” from back home? The representative from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society drew a parallel between LGBTQI asylum seekers to Soviet Jews, who had to hide their Jewish heritage for decades in the Soviet Union and then when they came to America, had to demonstrate persecution based on their religion. Similarly, LGBTQI asylum seekers strive to hide their sexual orientation and/or gender identity to survive, only to be required to effectively articulate their identity upon arrival to the U.S. Like the Soviet Jews, peeling back the layers to find one’s true self while effectively describing the oppression one has spent a lifetime trying to escape may take more than the required year to happen.
Issues around detention facilities were also discussed. Detainees have limited access to communicative methods, thus they have little chance of accessing an attorney, forcing them to figure things out for themselves. If an individual is identified as LGBTQI, they are placed in solitary confinement. Though this is for “protective” purposes, solitary confinement is a form of punishment used in prisons. Sexual abuse is also happening in detention centers and allegations of abuse are not adequately investigated. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a recent report on this matter. The note can be viewed at http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b32d4.html. Panelists also discussed the immigration bed quota that requires ICE to fill 34,000 detention facility beds nightly. Surely, panelists argue, we can come up with a more humane way of addressing immigration control concerns.
Other obstacles that the refugee and asylum seeking community face were also discussed. The process of seeking asylum “takes a long time and is very difficult”, one asylum-seeking panelist who wishes to remain anonymous pointed out. Having no health insurance, money, food, shelter, clothing, or social and emotional support is aggravated by language barriers, heavy accents, and a general lack of awareness of United States laws and culture. This gap in foundational support has been addressed by some faith based organizations in the United States, including the members of LGBT-FAN.
Rochelle Fortier-Nwadibia, an attorney on the panel who has worked on asylum cases, eloquently stated that, “This country serves as a beacon of hope for many being persecuted.” If we continue to criminalize, convict and isolate, how are we any different here than they are there? A briefing attendee stated that, “In order for change to happen, there has to be support, a constituency, and political pressure.” One can sign a petition to members of Congress on these issues at: http://www.change.org/petitions/honor-the-human-rights-of-lgbt-asylum-seekers-in-the-u-s. An appropriation bill is rapidly approaching, remind Congress to keep these issues in mind!
The issues previously mentioned would permeate the conversations of the entire retreat and will become fruitful in ways not immediately evident, even to participants. LGBT-FAN members from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, San Francisco, Worcester, MA, New York City, Toronto and New Orleans convened to discuss the group’s role in doing this work including motivation, coordination, strengths and opportunities, leadership, mission, governance, and service gaps that service providers and those newly informed could take on.
After a full day of careful debate and decision, LGBT-FAN hosted a reception at the DC Center for the LGBT Community where attendees were able to hear from LGBTQI asylum leaders and asylum seekers from all over the U.S. and Toronto on their thoughts and experiences. Max Niedzwiecki, LGBT-FAN Coordinator, opened with a discussion on the difference between an asylum seeker, a refugee, and an asylee. A worksheet put out by LGBT-FAN defines each term and can be seen at http://www.lgbt-fan.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LGBT-FAN-Definitions-Jan-2-2014.pdf. Others gave input on obstacles and service deficits. The panel was live streamed and can be viewed at http://m.ustream.tv/recorded/42580175?utm_campaign=www.lgbt-fan.org&utm_source=ustre-am&utm_medium=social&rmalang=en_US.
The final day’s activities consisted of debriefing, implications, and reflection. I left the retreat with an enormous respect for the people who have dedicated so much of themselves to others, especially when no one else will; for that is the true definition of activism. I left the retreat with a renewed awe for the courage of the individuals who have endured such a terrible pain of the world- hate perpetrated by others, and have survived and thrived despite the seemingly endless forces working against them. I left the retreat with a new state of mind. I no longer feel like the disconnected lone pioneer I once did, but a part of network, a team bound together by an unrelenting passion for human rights and social justice.