By Greg Hernandez
His family brought him illegally into the United States from Mexico at the age of three only to kick him out of the house last summer after he came out as transgender.
The undocumented youth, now 20, turned to the Los Angeles LGBT Center to help him find a way to legally remain in the only country he’s ever known and to attend college.
He is among the more than 180 LGBTQ asylum and immigration clients from over 50 countries currently receiving direct legal services from the Center’s Immigration Law Project.
The stakes can be life and death for these clients, many who risk being killed or arrested for being LGBTQ if they go back to their home countries.
“A lot of their stories are just heartbreaking,” said staff attorney Katherine Franco (pictured). “People shouldn’t have to go through so much heartache and so much pain, and then have to fight to stay in this country.”
The transgender youth is being housed through the Center’s Transitional Youth Program as attorneys work to gain him legal status through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).
DACA is a way for young people who came to the U.S. as children to legally remain in the country to work and attend school while SIJS can be a way for immigrants under 21 to apply for and obtain legal permanent residence if they have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents.
The client is also receiving help from attorneys with getting his name and gender changed on his official documents.
The project has grown in recent years to include three full-time attorneys and two senior paralegals but the workload remains immense.
“We get referrals from all over the country,” explained Franco.
“Most of our transgender clients right now are coming from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other countries in Central America. They are fleeing their country because they are being targeted. They are constantly harassed by the police or by civilians because of the way they look when they are just walking down the street.”
The legal work takes patience and persistence. For example, the program was able to finally obtain a green card for a gay man from Mexico last July after three years of legal filings.
The man had initially come to the U.S. on a college swimming scholarship and wound up getting married to a man who became abusive. When he fled the situation, he was left homeless.
“Now he’s free of his abuser and he has full legal status in the United States,” Franco shared. “He can work and support himself, is in school now for cosmetology and he’s thriving. He’s so thankful. It really was a team that helped him get out of the situation at first and also gain legal status. When they get their green card, it’s a reminder of why we do what we do.”
Processing the Trauma
So many of the project’s clients are in traumatic situations and Franco said one of the hardest parts of the job is having to “retraumatize” them by having them retell their story. That’s why the project has teamed up with the Center’s Health Services to make a mental health clinician a part-time member of the team.
Franco described this addition as “a game changer.”
“Our clients are so vulnerable just being in these legal battles,” she said. “Some have never been inside a courtroom and that alone is daunting. A lot of times, they are telling their story for the first time and it’s to an attorney.”
Some clients need up to four sessions with the therapist just to get the full story of the persecution they suffered in their home country and how that still affects them today.
“After they’ve seen the therapist, they are able to articulate what happened to them without completely breaking down because that’s usually what happens when you’re the first person that they ever tell anything to,” Franco said.
For those clients who are HIV-positive, they can get their medication through one of the Center’s Health Services clinics.
“A lot of my clients, most of them, have a really hard time accessing their medication in their home country,” Franco said. “They face discrimination by the doctors and nurses who don’t want to see them. A lot of our clients are fleeing not only because they’re being harassed physically, they are being discriminated against at work and in the medical field. They have it from all sides.”
The Center’s Immigration Law Project and Legal Services department provide legal consultations; full-scope representation to LGBT immigrants before the Executive Office of Immigration Review Immigration Courts; full-scope representation on affirmative cases before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service; and holistic support from advocates—ranging from housing to legal advocacy and the provision of health services—to protect members of the LGBTQ immigrant community. For more information about Legal Services, visit lalgbtcenter.org/legal_services