When Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in early June, she urged migrants seeking asylum not to make the journey: “Do not come … I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.” Her words provoked anger, concern, and a growing feeling that the Biden administration may not be all that different from the last on immigration policy. Because immigrant people can only seek asylum at ports of entry or once they are in the United States, LGBTQ people and others in vulnerable situations received her words as discouragement from seeking asylum. During Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month, it’s important to examine the consequences.
Like refugees, asylum-seekers flee from their country due to persecution or fear of persecution for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, including their sexual or gender identity. Unlike refugees, who apply for protected status from outside the United States in a country they have fled to, asylum seekers must either be in the U.S. or present themselves at a U.S. port of entry to file for this protection.
The persecution of people because of their gender or sexual identity is not new; what is new is the growing number of asylum claims filed by LGBTQ people who have fled to the United States because they fear persecution due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to data compiled by Human Rights Watch, homosexuality is a crime in 69 countries and seven countries maintain the death penalty for same-sex conduct. A recent study from the UCLA School of Law estimated that between 2012 and 2017, 11,400 asylum petitions were filed in the U.S. on the basis of LGBTQ status, with more than half of those petitions filed in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Fifty-one percent of those asylum-seekers came from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, in many countries, LGBTQ people, whether they are open about their sexual or gender identity, can experience serious human rights abuses and other forms of persecution and violence. It is widely documented that they are the targets of killings; draconian laws making their consensual sexual relations a crime; torture; gender-based violence and rape; discrimination in education, health, housing, and employment; physical attacks; unlawful detention; denial of the right to assemble; and accusations of immorality or deviancy. Authorities are often unable or unwilling to protect LGBTQ people from persecution, so they are left without recourse when they suffer abuse.
After Harris’ comments two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Luz, a woman seeking asylum in the United States. In her native Honduras, Luz was harassed at school and repeatedly raped by gang members after she came out as a lesbian. To this day, Luz fears persecution and retaliation from the gang she escaped and refuses to be identified by her full name. While Luz’s story is unique to her, the fear and pain LGBTQ immigrants endure before and during their migration is widespread.
From my own experience working with migrant people, I know the experiences of LGBTQ people vary greatly, but they include persecution in their own countries, in camps or on long journeys, and even once they find a safe haven in the United States, particularly if they are transgender and/or want to live in ethnic enclaves with people from their own country or region.
In my work with immigrants, I met a man who sought asylum on the basis of his sexual identity when visiting a family member in the United States. No one in his family knew he was gay. He married a woman and had three children due to societal and family pressure and fear of persecution in his home country.
But because no one in his family or country knew his sexual identity, he could not prove a credible fear of persecution — a fundamental element in an asylum petition. Even if he risked everything by coming out to his family and friends, there would be no guarantees. The granting of asylee status is unpredictable and inconsistent. In 2019, 69 percent of asylum applications were denied, and asylum-seekers waited an average of three years for their cases to be decided. The man I encountered during my work decided not to pursue the petition and returned to his home country.
For many Christians in the United States, the rights of LGBTQ people are part of the culture wars between differing political sides. Seldom do we take note of the fact that our own culture wars have been exported to other countries, capitalizing on homophobic and transphobic beliefs in order to win a culture war lost in the U.S. The consequences for our vulnerable LGTBQ neighbors are dire — they are persecuted and even killed because of who they are. As people who follow Jesus, the well-being of LGBTQ people should matter greatly to us, especially if the support we give to our churches is being used, in part, to harm our queer siblings. Jesus’ teachings centered on caring for those on the margins of society, those who were poor, and those who were oppressed. For those who follow Jesus, the call to care for and advocate for LGBTQ people is clear.
The world is still more safe and welcoming for native-born, cisgender straight people. As we observe both Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month, it is worth noting the vulnerability of LGBTQ migrants and supporting their right under U.S. law to seek asylum. Everyone has the right to live free from fear.