Advocates Fear Disaster for LGBTQ Immigrants Under Trump

They worry his approach to immigration will worsen the discrimination and violence LGBTQ migrants already face.

by Peter Moskowitz
22 December 2016, 5:00am

Photo via Flickr user ep_jhu

The official position of our president-elect remains vague on many issues, but there's one on which Trump is painstakingly clear: for nearly the length of his presidential campaign, the president-elect has said that he plans to deport millions of people as soon as he takes office. While the exact number has changed—he originally said he'd deport up to 11 million undocumented people living in the US, a dizzying figure that he recently reduced to 2 to 3 million who have committed crimes—the sentiment has not.

That effort would bring a devastating blow to millions of families who have built lives here in the US, and would mean the ramping up of America's notoriously brutal privatized immigrant detention centers. What's less known is how Trump's plans will directly affect the tens of thousands of asylum seekers or undocumented immigrants who are LGBTQ. Groups that work with those communities, however, fear the worst.

"To give you a one-word answer: disaster," said Polly Laurelchild-Hertig, executive director of the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, which connects asylum seekers with housing, medical and legal support. "He's anti-LGBT. He's anti-immigrant. He's anti-Muslim, which means you have less of a chance of getting here if you're LGBT and coming from a Muslim country. LGBT immigrants are already treated abysmally. It's very, very bad for their prospects."

It remains unclear exactly what Trump's asylum policies will be, though given his caustic remarks about Muslim immigrants and plans to institute an "extreme vetting" process for refugees from places like Syria, it's all but likely they will be stricter than Obama's, and standards for who is granted asylum may tighten. It's even harder to know how LGBTQ asylum seekers will fare, given that scant data exists outside limited independent reporting projects to track their sexuality. But according to several immigration experts I spoke to, for LGBTQ people, those standards are already too stringent: Proving that someone has fled a country because they're gay or trans is hard when immigrants often hide their gender and sexual identities in their home countries because they fear persecution.

"It's really about preparing for a heavy battle," said Aaron Morris, the director of Immigration Equality.

"There's a lack of understanding, both with asylum cases and marriage cases," said Jessica Stern, the head of Stern Law, an immigration defense law firm in Atlanta. "Immigration officers don't get why gay people, for example, might have dated someone of the opposite sex before."

The Obama administration has made preliminary steps toward addressing this gap, through training asylum officers to better understand LGBTQ asylum claims and expanding its definition of what an "immigrant family" can mean. For example, it used to be that separated families could only be reunited in the US if they were married in their home country, but most immigrants seeking asylum because of their LGBTQ identity did not meet those requirements, as only 22 countries recognize same-sex marriage.

Still, asylum cases are often left to the purview of individual immigration officers and judges, meaning there's a lot of leeway in application approval based on their opinion. That discretion could actually be good news for LGBTQ asylum seekers, as Trump may not have as direct an effect on their applications as he's been made out to possess. On the other hand, some worry his administration could tighten the standard of proof for being fearful of persecution. "That will affect LGBT people especially, because if you're LGBT in another country, you often hide it," said Sharita Gruberg, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive public policy think tank.

A larger area of concern for immigration rights advocates lies in immigrant detention, where changes to federal policy made by Trump are likely to have wide-ranging consequences for those who end up detained. There are approximately 267,000 undocumented LGBTQ immigrants living in the US, according to 2014 data from The Williams Institute, an LGBTQ law research group at UCLA. If deportations were to increase under Trump, thousands of them would end up in the detention and deportation system run by the Department of Homeland Security, where they would face more risk of violence than the general population.

"We're detaining so many people we don't need to detain, and I'm worried that's going to continue or get worse," said Gruberg. "For LGBT people, we're especially worried what that means, because of the extreme risk they face of assault, inadequate health care—especially trans people who need hormones—and abuse at every level."

In 2014, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson released guidelines on how to deal with particularly vulnerable detainee populations. Because LGBTQ people often face more violence when in detention facilities, the guidelines suggested that they (along with other groups with "special vulnerabilities") be released and remain under community supervision until deportation hearings. But a report by CAP found that the opposite happened: in 2015, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained a higher percentage of LGBTQ immigrants than in 2014. ICE agents actually overrode the agency's automated risk assessment system to keep LGBTQ people in detention at twice the rate as the general population, according to CAP. That's particularly troubling for asylum seekers, who end up facing an average of 102 days of detention because their cases take longer to process.

LGBTQ people who end up in detention are at much greater risk for violence, as well. According to one CAP report, LGBTQ detainees are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population, much more likely to be put in solitary confinement, more likely to face abuse by guards, and more likely to have nowhere to turn to—no friends or family, no legal support—when something goes wrong. Trans women are particularly at risk, according to Human Rights Watch, as they're often housed with members of the sex they were assigned at birth, or put in solitary confinement to keep them separate from the general population.

Of course, all of this was already a problem under President Obama's watch. Even as he promised to reform the US immigration system, he deported more immigrants than any other president. With an unabashedly anti-immigrant president about to take over the White House, immigration experts say these problems are bound to continue, and possibly get worse.

"We're running clinics and know-your-rights trainings, trying to get as much done as possible before January 20," said Aaron Morris, the director of Immigration Equality. "It's really about preparing for a heavy battle."

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