What Next? The Election, Asylum & LGBT Rights
BY KATE OPALEWSKI
Originally printed 12/22/2016 (Issue 2451 - Between The Lines News)
As shock dissipates a month after the election, social justice organizations and civil rights groups are beginning to have more focused conversations about a variety of issues, such as what happens next for LGBT asylum seekers, as well as immigrants and people of color?
A conference call on Nov. 29 hosted by the LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network addressed what community members can expect in terms of action by the government, implications for individuals who are seeking sanctuary in the U.S., and priorities for activism.
On Jan. 20, the White House, Senate and House of Representatives will be in the hands of the Republican Party. President-elect Trump has made headlines with statements about deporting undocumented immigrants, excluding Muslims from immigration to the country, and building a wall along the Mexican border. He and his cabinet members of choice have angered LGBT people and allies by supporting "conversion therapy," opposing same-sex marriage, and opposing transgender rights.
To be clear, the president has the authority to set the number of refugees accepted annually by the U.S. President Barack Obama has raised it from 70,000 in 2015 to 85,000 in 2016 to 110,000 for 2017. Trump could reduce that number for future years.
This call, facilitated by LGBT FAN committee member Siobhan McGuirk, outlined some of the information people need to know if they are an LGBT asylum seeker or if they work or volunteer with them.
Speaker Sharita Gruberg, Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for American Progress opened the conversation with positive news.
In the days following the election, CAP worked together with a polling company to get a better sense of what happened and what voters' priorities really were.
"Surprisingly, the majority of votes were in favor of ending family detention and also still in favor of comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship," said Gruberg, pointing to the 85 percent of people polled who supported this.
"It isn't just a left/right issue and the majority of voters still believe it's the right thing to do."
When asked about favorability of updating anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, Gruberg said 93 percent of Clinton voters and 75 percent of Trump voters support this.
"What happened feels like an attack and it feels like the country doesn't value LGBT people or immigrants, but there's still - even among people who voted for Trump - still this support for these populations. It's important going forward to focus on that and lift that message up," she said. "Americans still want to do the right thing. These are values we still hold dear. It does not mean it won't be a tough road ahead."
If Trump Stays the Course
Gruberg explained that "we don't know exactly what's going to happen, but we have some indication."
For example, Trump vowed to deport 3 million 'criminal' undocumented immigrants. (Note: It is not illegal to enter the U.S. without documentation.)
"There are not that many in this country. So we fear if this is the target number, who are they planning on going after? We're worried about who gets caught up in that," she said, pointing to Kris Kobach, the conservative Kansas secretary of state who advised Trump on immigration policy during the campaign.
Kobach is responsible for Arizona's anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, which requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is "reasonable suspicion" they are in the U.S. without documentation.
"This is one of the most racist immigration laws we've ever seen. We are worried what an immigration policy under him would look like," said Gruberg.
The Trump administration told CNN in November that there will be a database similar to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which disproportionately targeted Arabs and Muslims during the Bush era. During the campaign, Trump said he planned to suspend the Syrian refugee program and threatened to deport those already here, but his actual proposals for a comprehensive refugee resettlement program are still unknown.
"With what's happening in Syria, the U.S.'s role as a beacon of protection is more important than ever. We really can't allow for the advances we've gotten under the last administration to be scaled back," said Gruberg.
This includes resources for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services where adjudicating asylum cases has become a major problem with a backlog in the federal immigration court system of more than 500,000 cases.
"Congress appropriates money for how many immigration judges we have and judges have been stagnant for years. USCIS is working on increasing the number of officers for the screening process but can't keep up with the demand. We worry that the next administration won't prioritize the number of people processing claims and will slow things down even further. This is a big problem," she said.
The Associated Press reported in July 2016 that 18 judges have been added since the beginning of the year and there are now 277 judges hearing cases. Approximately 100 other judge candidates were in the process of being hired at that time. A pending budget proposal would allow the court to have as many as 399 judges on staff.
Another concern, said Gruberg, is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This American immigration policy allows certain undocumented immigrants to the U.S. who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.
"It's popular. Over 700,000 young people have benefited from this. They can go to school now, they can get jobs and cars. They have been in the U.S. for such a long time and are contributing to the economy as citizens in every aspect but legal status. If he just yanks away all of that from such a large number of people who are so integrated into their communities, there would be a backlash, but it's still too soon to say what that looks like," she said.
For now, Gruberg said, "It's up to everyone to really support immigrants. Draw a line in the sand that we won't stand for allowing raids or targeting or profiling people and the types of enormous deportation machines that Trump seems to be envisioning with Kobach."
Ways to Help on the Ground
While everyone has due process rights and there are legal systems in place to protect asylum seekers and refugees, the question remains: how do we continue to best serve these groups of people while they await permanent residence status?
One word of advice offered by McGuirk was for asylum seekers and their advocates to try and stay informed of any changes to the system, which are often made with little warning or publicity. Claimants should make sure to use the correct forms obtained from government websites, fill them out with as much detail as possible, and triple check that they are being sent to the correct location. This may help to avoid important documents from getting lost or misplaced in the system. As efforts to criminalize and police people of color and immigrant populations are likely to increase, McGuirk also encouraged people to research and know their rights, drawing on existing resources produced my immigrant rights advocacy organizations. McGuirk also stressed that issues that might not immediately seem relevant - such as the availability of affordable housing, and labor protections such as anti-discrimination laws and a suitable minimum wage - have a significant impact on LGBTQ immigrants.
"Generally speaking, safe, affordable housing is the largest unmet need for these populations. While we need to pressure HUD at the federal level, most decisions about where housing resources and funds go are made at the local level, specifically as the local continuum of care. Ours here in Detroit, which we are a part of, is the Detroit Continuum of Care," said TJ Rogers, program manager at Freedom House in Detroit, a temporary home for indigent survivors of persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and Canada.
"Otherwise, the Office of Refugee Resettlement needs to offer additional funding for extended services," he said. "Funding is appropriated by Congress. While some municipalities are threatening to reject ORR funding, it is more important than ever that elected officials be contacted and urged to continue to support ORR funding and the efforts to help new arrivals become stable and self-sufficient for the long-term. The providers work miracles out of shoestring budgets, but funding is not sufficient, and they only work with what they are given."
Throughout the call, coalition building was mentioned frequently by Beni DeDieu Luzau of the LGBTI Caucus of the Refugee Congress, which McGuirk agreed is a way to "share available resources and remain united in our efforts."
Luzau said "the reality now in this work in LGBT movements and refugee and asylum is that everybody does not have the same chance in terms of resources. Last time we were at the Congress I just heard from an activist telling me that 'I'm not going to do this thing anymore because of poverty.' ... I am asking myself where are the resources, refugees have a lot of resources. It is good to have people go and advocate for increasing funding for refugee resettlement, but where is that funding [going]? The activists on the ground are not [receiving] this funding, and the realities between the office and the ground are totally different. I'm an activist on the street, I'm talking about what I know. Last time we had, when we were at the Refugee Congress, the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Bob Kerry, giving an explanation about how they are working with the Department of Labor to assist LGBT refugees to access the jobs. But the reality is [that if] you go to San Diego [you will] see how many transgender people have been rescued from human trafficking, who do not have jobs. And the big people are sitting in their offices looking at it through the windows, which is not the reality on the ground...," he said.
"How are we going to go together to push for the change when we don't have the same chances in terms of resources. I have to attend meetings for LGBT, I have to do this for the LGBT movement, spending out of my own pocket. But we are people who arrived as refugees, we don't have enough resources... And how are you going to have this movement growing when the refugees and asylum seekers [can]not advocate for themselves because of poverty?"
Some positive movements have already started in cities like Chicago, Seattle, New York and Los Angeles where people are stepping up to reaffirm their commitment to supporting immigrants within their communities.
"If your city doesn't already have pro-immigrant policies in place, push for them," said McGuirk.
There is also a sanctuary campus movement - endorsed last month by the American Association of University Professors - gaining momentum. Dozens of universities are already committing to support undocumented immigrants enrolled or seeking education in their programs. Adopting sanctuary campus status would mean that a university administration would strive to protect such students in the event that Trump's actions threaten those currently enrolled.
McGuirk stressed that commitments to protect and defend undocumented people sent a reaffirming message "that they belong and we will look out for them no matter what happens."
Stronger Together: A Guide to Supporting LGBT Asylum Seekers is the first ever guidance for providing services to LGBT asylum seekers produced by LGBT FAN in partnership with The National LGBTQ Task Force and The Human Rights Campaign.LGBT FAN has compiled a list of resources provided by several regional organizations for reference. Log onto www.lgbt-fan.org/ for more information or connect on Facebook.
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