Columns / Discourse / May 8, 2019

Immigrant rights are LGBTQ rights

Last week, President Trump issued a memo to restrict asylum claims at the US-Mexican border. This includes charging fees, preventing applicants who crossed illegally from obtaining work permits and resolving all ongoing cases within 180 days.

This move already concerns asylum activists, but this is also an opportunity for the LGBTQ community to protect its own.

Asylum is a process offered to refugees, those who fled their home country due to having a “well-founded fear of persecution.” This includes sexual orientation and gender identity when their home country have laws that would lead them to be arrested, harmed or killed. LGBTQ rights organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign already advocate for these issues. However, the larger conversation about Trump’s immigration policy has ignored how these changes result in more LGBTQ refugees being denied asylum. Not every American who supports LGBTQ rights think the U.S. should accept refugees. Yet, any American who supports the rights and liberties of the LGBTQ community should also be alarmed at how their administration is destroying the asylum system.

Even as I defend the asylum process, I must point out how it fails many LGBTQ refugees. During my studies in Denmark in the DIS Copenhagen program, one of my courses invited to class Fernanda Milan, a Guatemalan-born activist. In 2013, she was the first refugee in Denmark to be granted asylum based on her transgender status. This saved her life because her homeland’s government had targeted her because of her gender and activism. But as she described to my class, Denmark only granted her asylum after a long appeal process and national media attention. Danish authorities had wrongfully classified her as a man, housing her in a men’s dormitory where she was repeatedly raped.

Denmark is not alone in these problems. The literature in refugee studies describe failures of LGBTQ asylum in English-speaking countries, including the U.S., in how their systems operate on wrongful assumptions of LGBTQ identity and place unreasonable burden of proof on refugees. While these papers describe legitimate problems and reforms, they cannot help if President Trump guts the system. Unless the people intervene.

While immigration advocates already consider this an extension of Trump’s xenophobia, I emphasize that it’s an extension of heterosexism. If you care about the rights of LGBTQ people, you must also care about asylum seekers, because many are LGBTQ too. This emphasizes the importance of intersectionality, as both the experience of being a refugee and LGBTQ multiply the oppression based in both. Any LGBTQ rights supporter who approves of Trump’s anti-refugee policy must consider this.

LGBTQ rights supporters can take action by calling their representatives, as Congress legislates asylum law and can reject Trump’s anti-asylum proposals. LGBTQ and immigration rights organizations can strengthen their coalition by banding together for mass direct action. Voters should remember this moment during next year’s elections and consider whether they want to elect anti-asylum officials.

But any defense of asylum-seeking refugees should not stop with reform. Be willing to think of ways to replace the asylum system that don’t involve abandoning the practice of asylum.

Milan told our class that the Danish asylum system, even today, is trained to catch the refugee lying and to accept as few refugees as possible. Recent Danish policy vindicates Milan as it treats refugees more as temporary guests than potential permanent citizens. The U.S. is doing this too. While we are willing to let a hundred guilty Americans go free rather than to imprison one innocent American, this mindset reverses the moment we consider foreigners. While we might consider this a necessary evil now, we should imagine what other worlds we can move toward. I leave these alternatives for future discussion that I hope you will explore.

Whether you do or not, remember that immigrant rights are LGBTQ rights. While this intersection compounds problems, it’s also a call for justice.


Teddy Turner

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