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LGBTQ+ asylum seekers search for safety in US after persecution abroad

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(NEW YORK) — Xavier Walker’s biggest fear when he was outed as gay was that he would be killed.

“In the community, going to school, I had to be very mindful,” Walker, an asylum seeker from Jamaica living in the United States, told ABC News, reflecting on his embattled childhood.

“Pretend you are straight, act straight, don’t make eye contact, don’t try to draw attention to yourself because once they figure out you’re gay, you’re going to be in trouble,” Walker said.

In Jamaica, it is illegal to be gay under the country’s Offences Against the Person Act.

Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has been growing around the world, according to the human rights research group Institute for Strategic Dialogue, as political movements rallying against gender and sexual minorities gain traction.

“I think eventually – hopefully – Jamaica will become a way where you’re more open-minded, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” said Walker. “Sometimes when I see, for example, Gay Pride happening there, I think: ‘Okay, they’re being more open.’ But then I hear on the news ‘Oh, someone just got killed because he’s gay.'”

He continued, “Every time you think they’re taking one step forward, they take 20 steps back.”

The Jamaican government has argued that it doesn’t enforce its 1864 anti-sodomy laws, however, it remains on the books despite pleas from activists for it to be repealed.

Walker said he was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of an older male relative when he was about 9 years old. He said some in his community didn’t see him as a victim, instead blaming him for the abuse, which he said incited years of anti-gay discrimination and stigma.

“Queer people suffer rampant rates of discrimination across all elements of public and private life, ranging from seeking public services and health care to education and employer discrimination,” Hester Moore, director of gender-based violence programs with HIAS, an international nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees, told ABC News.

Walker left Jamaica to seek asylum in America nine years ago around the age of 22. He has been waiting to have his application accepted ever since as a client of Immigration Equality, which provides free legal help to LGTBQ+ asylum seekers and refugees.

“The language is essentially the same,” Moore said of anti-migration sentiment toward queer asylum seekers around the world. “It weaves this global fabric of otherness, of exclusion. It’s a very specific, targeted type of violence that refugees, and particularly those with gendered experiences of harm, feel most acutely.”

For some queer migrants, the U.S. is seen as a safe haven — despite a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and hate alongside an increasingly intensified spotlight on migration policies.

“There’s a harsh reality, for folks who are seeking protection in the United States that, sure, they may not be in imminent danger once they’re able to enter the country but the dangers of being a queer person, or being a trans person or being a gay person, don’t disappear,” Derek Loh, an attorney for the Acacia Center For Justice, told ABC News.

Loh said the “bureaucracy of the immigration process” can be grueling, especially for those arguing for asylum on the basis of discrimination for being queer.

Individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. must demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” citing one of five factors: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, according to Immigration Equality, which notes that being a part of the LGBTQ+ community is classified as a particular social group.

Examples of corroborating evidence to submit an asylum claim include: proving your sexual orientation, proving you are transgender or non-binary, proving persecution in your native country, proving the conditions of intolerance in your native country or providing HIV status, if applicable, according to LGBT Immigration Law.

While there is no official public data on how many migrants seek asylum under LGBTQ+ related social groups, a 2021 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that 1.3 million adult immigrants in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+ — including 289,700 who are undocumented and 984,800 who are documented.

Loh said detailing asylum claims can be incredibly vulnerable for individuals who have spent their whole lives hiding their identities for safety.

“The immigration system is asking them to share all those very intimate details, oftentimes in settings that are not confidential or private,” Loh said, adding that these discussions are often in communal, ICE detention centers. 

“So the danger levels and the fears are all heightened,” Loh continued.

“It’s about finding the time and space to help folks tell their stories in ways that are clear and fit this relatively narrow definition of what asylum is under U.S. immigration law,” Loh said.

Seeking asylum in the U.S. could take years due to the backlog of applications and limited staffing in the immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), according to Emem Maurus, an attorney with the Transgender Law Center.

“You’re not climbing one mountain, you’re climbing like six,” Maurus told ABC News of asylum-seeking, adding that the militarization of the process acts as a “deterrence policy.”

“We have definitely had a number of people give up,” Maurus said.

President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order to turn away migrants seeking asylum along the southern border if the encounters there have exceeded 2,500 daily encounters for seven consecutive days.

“The administration is taking decisive action designed to strengthen the security of our southern border and reduce unlawful migration by suspending the entry of individuals across the southern border,” a Biden administration official said earlier this month.

The migrant’s country of origin doesn’t matter, officials said, and individuals will be removed to their country of origin in a matter of “days, if not hours,” under the new executive rule.

“I thank God that I already passed through that process, and that I’m already saved, but I’m just thinking about people that are just trying to get to the U.S. just to survive,” said Nelson García, an asylum grantee from Venezuela. “They’re just asking for help. And when you see all these barriers and walls built to not allow them to request a safe haven here, it’s really concerning.”

García waited seven years after fleeing his country due to persecution for his sexual orientation.

“Uncertainty, doubt, frustration, sadness – that was part of my day-by-day throughout those seven years,” García, who now works as an immigration paralegal manager, told ABC News.

García, a gay man, said discrimination came from “everywhere.”

“Not only from the government, but also from my classmates, from my professors, even from my own family,” he said. “It was more like a psychological abuse that I endured, at some point it got physical, but that was when I was exiting the country that I got apprehended by the police once and I was beaten.”

When he came to the U.S. at 21 years old, he said he still felt lost and alone.

“I was coming from a very traumatizing experience that I was enduring for almost my entire life there,” García said. “I was literally struggling to survive day-to-day,” until he found help from Immigration Equality, a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ people in the immigration system.

Experiencing Pride month in the U.S. as someone who faced discrimination in hostility for sexual orientation in Venezuela has been a comforting experience for García.

“I feel complete,” he told ABC News. “I made peace with myself and say: ‘You see, there was nothing that you needed to change. because you are gay, … there’s nothing that you have to be worried about who you are and what you are right now.'”

During Pride Month 2024, Maurus reflected on a quote attributed to Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender pioneer and key figure in the 1969 Stonewall riots: “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

“Pride is a month to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come,” Maurus said, “but until LGBTQ+ people are not in detention centers and being unnecessarily harmed during an arduous migration process, we still have a ways to go towards the liberation of all of us.”

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