In Limbo

The Painful, Endless Wait for LGBT Asylum Seekers

LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries are now enmeshed in the nightmare of the U.S. immigration system, with no assurance or clarity about their future.

Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty

“Every time I talk about my kids,” she says, “my heart cries.”

She is “A,” a lesbian asylum seeker from Jamaica who goes by her first initial because her legal representatives at the New York City Anti-Violence Project are worried she could be targeted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for speaking to press.

“A” came to the United States from Jamaica in October 2015, fleeing a pervasive culture of homophobia in the Caribbean nation—“They don’t accept us as gay or lesbian in Jamaica,” she notes—and had filed for asylum here by March 2016.

Every day, I have to give my sons stories: ‘You’ll soon be okay, you’ll soon be okay.’ Which I don’t know deep within. I’m still waiting. I don’t know what to tell them anymore.

“A” now lives with her wife and daughter in a homeless shelter. But her two sons are still in Jamaica, and they can’t join her until she is granted asylum. She has no idea when—or if—that will happen. She has been waiting for an asylum interview for two years.

“Every day, I have to give [my sons] stories: ‘You’ll soon be okay, you’ll soon be okay,’” she tells The Daily Beast. “Which I don’t know deep within. I’m still waiting. I don’t know what to tell them anymore.”

“A” is not alone in her predicament. She is just one of the hundreds—and likely thousands—of LGBT asylum seekers in the United States who are stuck in a large backlog of applications that has grown to unmanageable levels under the Trump administration.

As The Daily Beast previously reported, the Trump administration instituted a change to the asylum process earlier this year that has frustrated immigration attorneys: As of January 29, the Asylum Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “give[s] priority to the most recently filed affirmative asylum applications when scheduling asylum interviews,” as the USCIS website notes, rather than processing them in the order in which they were received.

In other words, USCIS now processes asylum applicants from the back of the line first. That means asylum seekers like “A,” who have already spent years waiting for their interviews, have no idea when they can expect to have their cases considered.

“The people who have been waiting for two or three years for their scheduled interview are now even further back in the backlog, waiting to get an interview to see if they’ll be granted asylum,” Virginia Goggin, director of legal services for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, explains to The Daily Beast.

AVP represents “A” along with other clients in a similar position: AVP told The Daily Beast that a younger client of theirs who goes by the initial “M” fled from El Salvador after his offices were raided by “homophobic thugs.” He is now caught in the backlog.

“U,” a lesbian activist from Sri Lanka, fled from persecution there, and has been separated from her partner for three years while waiting in the backlog.

Clients in positions like these are caught in a sort of legal purgatory: They can receive a work authorization permit six months after applying for asylum, but they are generally not eligible for public benefits like SNAP, Medicaid, or public housing.

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Someone fleeing anti-LGBT violence or sentiment abroad might be able to scrape by in the U.S. for a few months without such benefits, but going years without them is almost impossible.

“Their life is essentially put on hold after experiencing major trauma,” says Goggin.

“A” would love to be reunited with her entire family in a place of their own, calling that prospect a “dream come true.” But due to the limitations of being in the asylum application backlog, she can’t find anywhere else to live besides the shelter.

“Everybody is asking for credit score and all these things,” she tells The Daily Beast. “We have to be in a certain position to have that stuff—to even rent an apartment. The only option for us is to stay there and work and save up some money.”

No one’s trying to deport you but you can’t really establish roots, you can’t get the education you need, and you can’t get the health care you need. It’s a real barrier to having a livable life.

During this period of “never-ending limbo,” as Immigration Equality executive director Aaron C. Morris calls it, LGBT asylum seekers often struggle to secure a foothold.

“No one’s trying to deport you but you can’t really establish roots, you can’t get the education you need, and you can’t get the health care you need,” Morris tells The Daily Beast. “It’s a real barrier to having a livable life.”

Immigration Equality, a national LGBT immigrant rights organization, currently has upwards of 500 clients stuck in the asylum application backlog, according to Morris’ rough estimate.

Morris remembers a time about eight years ago when there was virtually no backlog—and indeed, USCIS data shows that the number of pending asylum cases started to increase dramatically after 2012 to what the agency in late January called a “crisis-level” high of a staggering 311,000 cases.

Add a constant influx of new applications on top of that enormous backlog, and it’s easy to see why the older asylum cases are “languishing, potentially forever,” as Morris puts it, under the Trump policy.

“It’s a pretty strong detriment to them to have to wait for forever, to have no end in sight,” said Morris. “It’s demoralizing. It’s not a way that you can structure your life in a sensible manner, and it’s separating families, some of whom are stuck abroad in nations where the kids are in danger because they have queer parents.”

I have to go into it with a positive attitude and tell myself it’s going to be soon. It’s coming soon. Something’s gonna happen. I just have to keep a positive thing going.

Goggin told The Daily Beast that AVP’s clients in the backlog are “experiencing post-traumatic stress, depression, [and] anxiety”—and that the “added stress” of waiting so long for an interview is only exacerbating those problems. “A,” for example, says that she thinks about finally getting her asylum interview on a “daily basis.”

“I have to go into it with a positive attitude and tell myself it’s going to be soon,” she tells The Daily Beast. “It’s coming soon. Something’s gonna happen. I just have to keep a positive thing going.”

But just as “A” struggles to comfort both herself and her sons back in Jamaica, attorneys who assist LGBT asylum seekers find themselves at a similar loss: In years past, the wait for an interview could be long but at least, Goggin explains, “it was a known factor” and attorneys could manage clients’ expectations about their place in the slow-moving line.

As it stands now, Goggin says, “It’s hard to settle folks because we don’t know either, so it puts us in an awkward position as well.”

When USCIS announced the change to the asylum interview scheduling process in late January, the agency claimed that its “aim” was “to deter individuals from using asylum backlogs solely to obtain employment authorization by filing frivolous, fraudulent or otherwise non-meritorious asylum applications.”

In response to questions from The Daily Beast about the backlog, USCIS referred to a January 31 press release which says that the asylum system is “increasingly vulnerable to fraud and abuse” and claims that the return to a “last in, first out” system “will allow USCIS to identify frivolous, fraudulent or otherwise non-meritorious asylum claims earlier and place those individuals into removal proceedings.”

In short, USCIS claims that drawing from the back of the line first will somehow discourage fake applications.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” says Goggin, when asked about that reasoning. “I think they’re overwhelming their own asylum offices.”

Indeed, immigration rights advocates see something more sinister at play: A systematic attack on asylum seekers by the Trump administration.

University of the District of Columbia law professor Lindsay Harris and Immigrant Justice Corps legal director Victoria Neilson argued in a February op-ed for The Hill that the administration has refused to admit that the recent increase in asylum seekers is “not due to a spike in fraudulent applications, but instead reflects the humanitarian crises south of our border … and refugee crises around the world.”

Harris and Neilson cite President Trump’s pointed reference to “loopholes” in his State of the Union address—and to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unsubstantiated claim that fake applications are on the rise—as evidence that the administration is willfully turning its back on people who see the U.S. as a place where they can find “freedom from fear.”

The result of this administration’s stance has been confusion for those trying to navigate an already-complex immigration system. Now, Goggin says, new asylum applicants sometimes get granted an interview so quickly that the Anti-Violence Project has to be “all hands on deck” to prepare the case, while longer-term clients like “A” sit on the sidelines.

“Throughout this administration’s time in office, obviously there’s a lot of fear for immigrants generally, and with major rule changes like this, it just creates chaos,” says Goggin. “Advocates are not 100 percent clear what’s going on. We just find out through the grapevine of advocates and attorneys what changes are happening.”

The backlog obviously affects more than just LGBT asylum seekers. As Morris points out, the processing time is “a human rights problem that affects a lot of populations.”

But with LGBT people facing severe human rights crises around the globe in countries like Chechnya, it remains vital to understand the struggles of asylum seekers who see the U.S. as a place where they can potentially be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A 2015 report from the Human Rights Campaign estimated that about five percent of asylum seekers who come to the U.S. make claims “based [on] persecution of sexual orientation or gender identity”—and that approximation may be the most accurate figure available because Homeland Security, as the HRC report noted, only records “the broadest categories of persecution” in their records. 

Still, it provides a rough sense of the potential magnitude of the LGBT-related piece of this backlog problem: Five percent of the 311,000 asylum applications that were pending as of January 20 would be 15,550 cases.

Neither Goggin nor Morris know what, exactly, can be done to help those in the backlog.

“I don’t know that there’s a policy solution here,” says Morris. “We are in contact with USCIS and with the asylum offices. This is clearly a top-down order and so, as a law and policy group, when it’s clear that there’s not a policy solution, our only avenue is litigation, but we’re not there yet.”

In the meantime, asylum seekers like “A” who came to here hoping to live a happy, openly LGBT life are coping with stress and often dealing with painful familial separation.

We’re not demanding that people be granted asylum. We’re only demanding that they have their opportunity to be heard—and then the government can make whatever decision it’s going to make.

“I love my kids,” she tells The Daily Beast. “I never leave them for so long, and no matter how old they get, they’re always going to be my babies. I’m not going to say they don’t believe in me, but it’s the same thing I’ve been telling them over and over.”

For their clients who have been waiting years for an interview, Goggin and Morris want one simple thing: clarity. Being stuck in the backlog this long, they say, is no way to live.

“We’re not demanding that people be granted asylum,” says Morris. “We’re only demanding that they have their opportunity to be heard—and then the government can make whatever decision it’s going to make.”

“What the government can’t do,” he adds, “is fail to do its job.”