“Julia,” a non-binary asylum seeker, is one of the bravest people I have met. They are from Guatemala. The first assault they survived based on their gender occurred when four neighbors told them they should behave like a girl and play with girls. Each of the men then raped Julia “to teach a lesson.” When Julia’s first sweetheart in school was a girl, classmates beat them and used slurs and hate speech. Julia was sexually assaulted from age 7 to 22 by private citizens because of their gender identity and expression. Because the police routinely hurt and kill LGBTQ people in Guatemala, Julia never dared to file a police report.
In 2018, Julia fled Guatemala for their life and traveled on foot to the United States. They were repeatedly assaulted throughout Mexico on their way to the U.S. border because of their LGBTQ identity. Upon reaching the border, they applied for asylum based on persecution due to gender identity and expression.
On June 15, the Trump administration proposed a new asylum rule designed to cut as many people as possible out of the asylum process. It proposes to keep out anyone who must travel through another country to reach safety. Most of our clients who flee their anti-LGBTQ countries are forced to travel through other anti-LGBTQ countries during their escape. This rule also proposes to narrow the definition of “persecution” to limit the types of asylum seekers who can apply. It effectively eliminates gender-based violence as a basis for asylum. And, while making it harder to get a work permit, the unprecedented rule simultaneously requires income taxes to be a central part of a humanitarian application.
Implementing this regulation will end asylum protections for all LGBTQ people who survive harm based on their gender identity, gender expression, imputed gender identity and sexual orientation as it relates to their gender, and for asylum seekers who escape by traversing other countries. Julia wouldn’t have made it to step one of their cases if this regulation were in place.
Julia hasn’t endured this alone. Far too many LGBTQ people have escaped torture and persecution in their countries of origin and fled for survival. For over six years, we have represented asylum seekers who rely on us to provide a fair chance to make their case and receive protection from persecution. As manager of the Center’s Immigration Law Project, I know firsthand what it takes to win a case. I am Julia’s immigration attorney.
At least 70 countries criminalize same-sex relations. At least nine criminalize gender nonconformity. LGBTQ refugees win their asylum claims for one primary reason: they are allowed to apply — their odds of winning increase five times if counsel represents them. Protection based on persecution on account of gender has been a central tenet of immigration law in this country for decades. Immigration judges and Asylum Officers have affirmed that nearly 100 percent of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s clients have been harmed based on their gender. They deserve protection as intended by the Refugee Act of 1980 and by our treasured American values of due process, liberty, and justice.
There is no valid basis for the proposed rule change. It violates the due process rights of our clients. It makes it nearly impossible for any LGBTQ clients to receive asylum in this country. It would prevent our clients from even filling out the Form I-589 to start their asylum case. These asylum seekers are people making a difference in our communities: a transgender woman from Mexico who maintains bikes at her Los Angeles shop; a bisexual woman from Zambia who is a biomedical technologist; a gay young man from Mexico who is making our schools more inclusive as the president of his school’s Gay Student Alliance; a lesbian from Nicaragua who, as a security guard, is protecting us; a lesbian from Uganda who is creating the future of technology with the Girls Who Code program.
All of these clients won their cases under existing asylum law and are thriving as Angelenos. Every single one of them would have been barred from applying for asylum under the new rule, which is rooted in a xenophobic, misogynist, anti-immigrant policy that has grown over the last four years through travel bans, border camps, proposed walls, family separation, and ICE detention. This targeted attack by the Trump administration against LGBTQ asylum seekers could impact more than 800,000 pending asylum applicants and disqualify the most marginalized people who have already fled to the United States for safety. These dynamic people are our clients, our friends, our neighbors.
We cannot allow hate to drive U.S. immigration policy. We refuse to slam our doors to those who are asking to survive. We must reject this rule in its entirety.
Tess Feldman is the staff attorney and manager of the Immigration Law Project at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.