By Greg Hernandez
The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Legal Services is currently representing immigration and asylum clients from more than 70 countries—almost all of whom will be killed or arrested for being LGBTQ if they go back to their home countries, according to Tess Feldman, staff attorney and Immigration Law Project Manager (pictured above).
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for these legal services has only grown.
“We have a record number of clients because people have not slowed down coming to us for help and the immigration courts are open,” Feldman tells LGBT News Now. “We are proceeding on cases, we are going forward, we are business as usual.”
On International Migrants Day (December 18), it should be noted that the Center is currently representing more than 120 immigration or asylum clients and has a waiting list that is growing each week.
“These aren’t people who are cheating the system to try and make money,” Feldman says. “All the damage the Trump administration has done with anti-immigrant language, campaigns, and propaganda has been effective, and we are left with an anti-immigrant country. Our clients do not fit those stereotypes.”
The Center this month joined LGBT and immigrant’s rights and legal aid organizations across the country in condemning the implementation of a new federal rule that targets women and LGBTQ asylum seekers.
The rule, published jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, limits the ability to claim asylum based on their gender which eliminates nearly all LGBTQ asylum claims.
The rule is set to go into effect in January 2021 and also eliminates asylum for survivors of gender-based persecution such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), forced marriage, rape, domestic violence, femicide, and human trafficking.
“It’s horrible,” Feldman says of the rule. “This is the biggest attack on asylum which the field of immigration has ever seen. It goes against everything that the United Nations Human Rights Committee worked to do to build asylum programs around the world, to get countries to provide for safety when other countries aren’t safe anymore.”
The Center and the other organizations are strongly urging President-elect Joe Biden to immediately take action to stop this rule once his administration takes office in late January.
“We’re hopeful that the Biden administration will take swift action to propose a new regulation that undoes all these harmful changes big and small,” says Feldman. “We’re very hopeful that this can be undone.”
A Success Story
While there have been setbacks during the Trump administration, hard and persistent work has also resulted in some notable successes for Center clients.
Human rights activist Raiza Aparicio received her green card in the mail earlier this month, three years after being physically assaulted by four police officers in her home in Guatemala. Like many other LGBT asylum seekers who are victims of sexual or gender-based violence, Aparicio is transgender.
She made it through Guatemala and Mexico by crossing rivers and hitching a ride on what has been called the “train of death,” a network of cargo trains that hundreds of thousands of migrants risk their lives each year by riding on top.
The harrowing journey was worth it as she was able to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Then with the help of the Center’s Legal Services team, she requested asylum at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego.
“We got her out of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody, won her asylum, won her court case, and she received her green card,” Feldman shares. “That was the end of a big journey. We helped her through to the end while we are catching other clients at the beginning of their problems.”
Among the current cases is a non-binary college student who showed up at the Center’s Youth Services in June after being outed and disowned by their family. The student, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when they were three years old, now found themselves with nowhere to go.
“This is a young person from Mexico who is afraid to go back,” Feldman explains. “They are studying fashion and film in college and are on their way to doing great things. The bottom just fell out for them.”
They now have an asylum interview scheduled due to, what Feldman describes as, “pushing the system as hard as we can and getting creative.”
“In the middle of the pandemic, their life got turned upside down, and their safety net has been the Center,” she says. “They are getting medication, they have a place to sleep, they are not homeless. Because of our connection with other programs, we got him in for an immigration appointment right away. It looks like they’ll obtain legal status and a green card possibly before he gets a vaccine. If they win, their life completely changes. ”
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