LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles


By Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade

Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday acknowledged violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is among the factors that prompt Guatemalans to leave their country.

“There are also longstanding issues that are often called the ‘root causes’ of immigration,” said Harris during a virtual meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. “We are looking at the issue of poverty and the lack, therefore, of economic opportunities; the issue of extreme weather conditions and the lack of climate adaptation; as well as corruption and the lack of good governance; and violence against women, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and Afro-descendants.”

The meeting took place a week after Aldo Dávila, the first openly gay man elected to the Guatemalan Congress, survived a robbery attempt in Guatemala City. Many LGBTQ Guatemalans with whom the Washington Blade has spoken say violence forced them to flee their country.

Estuardo Cifuentes in 2019 asked for asylum in the U.S. because of the anti-gay persecution he suffered in Guatemala.

Cifuentes and his partner ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City for six years, but they closed it after gang members attacked them. Cifuentes said Guatemalan police officers also targeted him after they saw him kiss his partner.

“This forced us to leave Guatemala,” Cifuentes told the Washington Blade last fall.

The Trump administration forced Cifuentes to pursue his case in Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols program.

Cifuentes — who ran Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city of Matamoros — arrived in the U.S. on March 3. Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers.

The White House has begun to reverse some of the previous administration’s hardline immigration policies. President Biden has charged Harris with the task of working with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to address the root causes of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle.

“We want to work with you to address both the acute causes as well as the root causes in a way that will bring hope to the people of Guatemala that there will be an opportunity for them if they stay at home,” Harris told Giammattei.

By Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade

Egor is a gay man who grew up in a village near Russia’s Ural Mountains.

Military service in Russia is compulsory, and Egor was studying in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in 2019 when recruiters told him to enlist. Egor, who asked the Washington Blade not to publish his last name, said officials sent him to a mental hospital after he failed a psychological exam.

“They realized I was gay because I dyed my hair, I wear makeup and stuff like that, plus I have earrings,” said Egor.

Egor told the Blade did not go to the hospital, and the military began to look for him after he fled the city. Egor flew to Guam in May 2019 and asked for asylum at the island’s Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport.

“I knew I could go here and apply for asylum at the international airport in Guam,” Egor told the Blade during a telephone interview from Guam. “That’s what I did pretty much.”

Guam is a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean that is at the southern end of the Mariana Islands.

Egor is one of the upwards of 300 Russian asylum seekers in Guam. They cannot leave the island until their cases are decided.

Russian citizens until 2020 were able to travel to Guam without a visa. Egor and other Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers with whom the Blade has spoken took advantage of this visa-free travel to flee their homeland.

Marina, who also asked the Blade not to publish her last name, and her then-girlfriend, Julia Mavrodieva, arrived in Guam on Nov. 21, 2015, with their child.

Marina on March 24 told the Blade during a telephone interview that harassment and threats prompted her and Mavrodieva to leave their home in Ufa near the Ural Mountains. Marina said she and Mavrodieva decided to flee the country over concerns that officials would take their child away from them because they are lesbians.

“LGBT is not good there and also it’s the law in Russia that I cannot show my daughter our relationship,” said Marina. “If the government knows that I have an LGBT family, like two women and a child, they can take my daughter away.”

Marina fled Russia with her child and now ex-wife in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

Mavrodieva echoed Marina in a separate telephone interview.

“That’s when we thought if we’re not going to leave now, they’re just going to take the child away for sure,” said Mavrodieva. “It’s just a matter of time when they decide to do this.”

Mavrodieva and Marina applied for asylum as a family after they legally married in Guam on Dec. 4, 2015.

The women worked with a Russian-speaking paralegal in California who helped them with their Form I-589, a formal application for asylum. Mavrodieva said they did not speak with him for seven months, but he told them in July 2016 that U.S. Customs and Immigration Services had accepted and processed it.

The women divorced in July 2019. Marina and her child had their asylum interview a month later, but Mavrodieva is still awaiting hers because she had to file her own asylum application after the divorce.

Julia Mavrodieva (Photo courtesy of Julia Mavrodieva)

Sergey and Ivan are a gay couple from Yakutsk in Siberia.

Ivan told the Blade on March 23 during a telephone interview that Sergey was attacked in 2011 “because he had earrings.” Ivan said he and Sergey decided to move to St. Petersburg “because we thought it was a different place, but it turned out to be pretty much the same experience.”

Ivan said a friend was beaten at a subway station after they attended an event at a gay nightclub. Sergey told the Blade he was harassed at work after he and Ivan moved to Moscow.

“They kind of made me come out as gay,” he said, speaking through a friend who interpreted for him and Ivan. “It wasn’t voluntary.”

The couple arrived in Guam in April 2017.

Ivan and Sergey said Immigration Equality told them to apply for asylum in the U.S. by mail, and they did so 45 days after they arrived in Guam. The couple married on the island in December 2017, and soon began to receive threats because Russian media reported on their wedding.

“People in Russia basically learned about this,” said Ivan. “It got public and I started getting threats and stuff. It wasn’t very nice.”

Ivan and Sergey said a USCIS asylum officer in California interviewed them in August 2019.

“Our status is still pending,” said Ivan. “We haven’t received the decision of our application.”

From left: Sergey and Ivan in Guam (Courtesy photo)

Victoria Palmer, a USCIS spokesperson, in an email to the Blade on March 30 declined to comment on specific asylum cases in Guam “due to privacy restrictions.”

Palmer noted “USCIS asylum officers have been unable to travel to Guam to conduct interviews of those who have applied for affirmative asylum” because of “pandemic-related travel restrictions.”

“USCIS asylum officers also conduct credible fear screenings for individuals subject to an expedited removal order who wish to apply for asylum, fear persecution or torture or fear returning to their home country,” Palmer told the Blade. “Because credible fear interviews may be conducted by telephone, the Los Angeles Asylum Office has forged an arrangement with the USCIS Guam Field Office to assist asylum officers conduct credible fear interviews telephonically. As currently planned, this effort is fairly close to being completed. Individuals found to have a credible fear of persecution then go before an immigration judge who has the authority to grant them any form of protection for which they qualify.”

Palmer referred the Blade to U.S. Customs and Border Protection in response to questions about travel restrictions for asylum seekers in Guam. The agency has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Joshua Tenorio, Guam’s openly gay lieutenant governor, noted to the Blade during a March 9 telephone interview that travelers must clear CBP on the island before they can fly to Hawaii, South Korea or Japan in order to travel to the mainland U.S.

“What they’re saying is had they been in any of the states, they would be able to file their asylum papers and be able to travel within the United States,” Tenorio told the Blade. “But because they did it in Guam, they are not being able to do that because they couldn’t clear the immigration check, even though you’re not clearing immigration.”

“It’s a strange reality for us because we are a territory,” he added.

Guam Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

‘You’re in limbo’

Egor is the only asylum seeker with whom the Blade spoke who was detained upon arrival in Guam.

He said he spent five days in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody before his release on a $5,000 bond. Egor said a prisoner at the facility where he was held assaulted him.

Egor received his work authorization in June 2020. The other asylum seekers with whom the Blade has spoken say they are also able to legally work in Guam as they await the outcome of their cases.

Mavrodieva owns a construction company where Marina currently works. Ivan and Sergey have begun a woodworking and pet care business.

“I like Guam and stuff, but the thing is you’re in limbo,” Mavrodieva told the Blade. “It’s been years.”

Some of the Russian asylum seekers in Guam earlier this year staged a hunger strike in front of the official seat of the island’s government to highlight their plight.

Tenorio on March 12 met with Mavrodieva, Marina, Egor, Ivan, Sergey and other Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers. Melissa Taitano, board chair of Equality Guam, an LGBTQ rights group on the island, also attended the meeting.

“It was painful to hear why they left Russia and the kind of injustices and indignities and beatings, really, physical beatings, that they underwent and then to find out that they were in Guam and they were a part of community, even as refugees,” Tatiano told the Blade on April 6 during a telephone interview.

“Our reaction was to want to help,” she added.

Marina works for her ex-wife’s construction company in Guam. (Courtesy photo)

Tatiano — a professor at the University of Guam who has a background in archival studies, indigenous issues and cultural memory — said she decided to document the asylum seekers’ stories in a short film that is slated for release in early June. Tenorio’s office is also working to provide them with legal assistance in an attempt to expedite their cases.

“After I met with them, I really, really have just been thinking so much about them,” Tenorio told the Blade. “I’m just putting myself in their shoes and think to myself, gosh, how can you just abruptly leave, start all over.”

‘We need to travel somewhere’

Ivan, Sergey, Mavrodieva and Marina all told the Blade they would consider staying in Guam if they were to win their asylum cases.

“Guam is a good island,” said Marina. “I have a job and I have an apartment and everything. I already know Guam. I know everything here, but I want to travel of course.”

Marina and Mavrodieva said their child has come out as transgender and has begun to transition. Marina told the Blade one of the reasons she wants to be able to leave Guam is because there is no doctor on the island who performs sex-reassignment surgery.

“We need to travel somewhere: The U.S., Thailand or somewhere,” she said.

Ivan told the Blade that “life here is safer than in Russia, but there is trouble in terms that we cannot plan anything, like a job or anything at all.” Ivan said he and Sergey would like to visit LGBTQ-friendly cities in the mainland U.S. once they are able.

“We just want to be free and to have this ability to move freely within the United States,” said Ivan.

Egor admitted he doesn’t know what he will do if the U.S. grants him asylum.

“I can’t really think about that,” he said. “It’s been so long for me.”

Egor told the Blade he suffers from depression. He also said he is “afraid to go back to Russia.”

“This immigration is just like hanging over my head just like an axe,” said Egor. “I don’t know … if I get rejected for asylum I’ll probably commit suicide at this point. I don’t really know, but I’m really hopeful that the judge will understand my situation better and I hope America is the right place that I went to, right, in terms of seeking help.”

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By Nicole Narea

As unaccompanied children from Central America arrive in increasing numbers on the US-Mexico border, the Biden administration has been caught unprepared and underresourced, struggling to fulfill its commitment to treating migrants humanely as the number of children held in US Customs and Border Protection custody hits a record high.

Administration officials have urged patience as they review the dysfunctional system under which migrants are currently processed at the border, and as they seek to dismantle former President Donald Trump’s complex web of policies that put asylum and other humanitarian protections out of reach for most people. For now, that means that the vast majority of migrants are still being turned away.

Though the White House has declined so far to call it a “crisis,” the situation is increasingly dire: As of Wednesday, more than 3,700 children were reportedly being detained in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) temporary holding facilities designed for adults for longer than legally permitted — a record high. These are the same facilities that generated widespread outrage under the Trump administration, where children slept with nothing but mylar blankets to keep them warm at night on concrete floors.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Saturday that a CBP facility is “no place for a child,” but that border agents are “working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care.”

CBP officials are struggling to quickly transfer them to state-licensed shelters for migrant children, which have had to drastically slash their capacity amid the pandemic, and where beds are now full. That has forced the administration to reopen temporary tent facilities in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which are costly and not subject to the same level of oversight as permanent shelters.

On Saturday, the administration also announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would help “receive, shelter and transfer” unaccompanied children over the next 90 days. The agency is now working to expand the capacity of shelters designed to administer care to children.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same crisis has been playing out cyclically since at least 2014, when the US saw a dramatic shift in the kinds of migrants who were arriving at the southern border, from primarily single-adult Mexicans to families and children from Central America’s “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

In the years since, the federal government has failed to adapt to ensure that children and families are treated humanely. That burden is now on Biden.

“This isn’t a new flow that we’re just seeing because Biden is coming into office,” Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said. “The US government still hasn’t figured out exactly how to manage this flow of families and children. And throughout the Trump administration, the government neglected to find a way to adjust US border enforcement mechanisms in a way that protects their rights, but also exerts control over the system.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration is continuing to prioritize “humanity” in processing unaccompanied children, but is still “working on putting in place policies that can address what we’re seeing.”

The Biden administration is struggling to accommodate rising numbers of unaccompanied children

While most migrants are still being turned away at the border, the Biden administration began accepting unaccompanied childrenin February in a reversal of Trump-era policy. Most of them have been stranded in Mexico for a year under that policy, despite their right to seek protection under federal law, and are now seeking to reunify with family in the US.

Since 2014, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border has remained above 40,000 annually, peaking at more than 72,000 in 2019 under Trump.

Though CBP has publicly refused to share the number of unaccompanied children currently in its custody, claiming that it is “law enforcement sensitive,” CNN reported that over the last three weeks, the agency had encountered an average of 435 children daily — an increase from the previous average of about 340 children. They are spending an average of 107 hours in CBP custody, exceeding the 72-hour legal limit before they are supposed to be transferred to Department of Health and Human Services shelters, according to the Washington Post.

At least 8,500 children are currently in those shelters awaiting release to sponsors, who are typically family members, but can also include foster families. That includes the temporary influx facility in Carrizo Springs, which, unlike a permanent shelter, is not licensed by the state, raising concerns that the up to 700 teenagers who can be housed in the facility could be subject to inhumane treatment and prolonged confinement.

“KIND will be monitoring the treatment of these children to ensure that they are not held in these facilities longer than absolutely necessary,” said Megan McKenna, a spokesperson for the legal aid group Kids in Need of Defense, which has long represented unaccompanied children. “Key will be finding ways to release the children to vetted sponsors as quickly as possible without taking any shortcuts that would undermine their safety.”

One potential solution is co-locating US Department of Health and Human Services staff in CBP facilities to speed up screening of migrant children and swiftly release them to sponsors. Some of this coordination and information sharing can be done from Mexico, before the child enters the United States, McKenna said.

The administration also announced Wednesday that, in an effort to reduce the pressure on resources at the border, it is restarting the Central American Minors program, which allows children in danger to apply to come to the US from their home countries instead of having to come to the US-Mexico border to do so. Trump had ended the program after taking office, leaving around 3,000 children stranded who had already been approved for travel.

KIND has called on the administration to expand eligibility for the program beyond children with parents in the US who have legal status, McKenna said.

Psaki said Wednesday that the administration is also looking to increase the number of available HHS shelters and “safely” expand bed space in existing facilities while complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on Covid-19.

On Friday, the administration took another step to more swiftly release children in custody to sponsors. The Department of Homeland Security announced that it was terminating a 2018 agreement with HHS under which sponsors were subject to more stringent vetting, which involved getting their fingerprints taken and additional paperwork. That information was shared with child welfare and immigration authorities, leaving the sponsors potentially vulnerable to deportation if they did not have legal status.

The Biden administration has signed a new memorandum in its place, but it’s not immediately clear what that entails.

Biden is still turning away the vast majority of migrants

Biden has kept in place a Trump-era policy that has allowed the US to expel nearly all migrants arriving on the southern border with no due process on the grounds of curbing the spread of Covid-19.

The Trump administration began expelling migrants to Mexico in March under Title 42, a section of the Public Health Service Act, that allows the US government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the US “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.”

At least 13,000 such children were expelled under the policy, often with little, if any, notice to their parents or legal counsel and even if they showed no symptoms of the virus. Others were held in hotels along the border for extended periods of time under the program.

Since he took office, Biden has created narrow exceptions to the policy for unaccompanied children and asylum seekers who were sent back to Mexico to await their day in court in the US under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols. Last month, Mexico also stopped accepting some families with children under the age of 12 due to a change in its laws concerning the detention of children, so they have been released into the US instead.

But the vast majority of migrants still can’t enter the US under the policy. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has recently argued that the US is “obligated, in service of public health” to keep the restrictions in place.

But it’s not clear that there is a public health rationale for keeping the policy in place. Given that the level of community transmission of the coronavirus inside the US is already so high, immigrant advocates have argued that the US can safely continue to give protection to vulnerable immigrants.

Trump’s restrictive border policies created pent-up demand

US immigration authorities reported more than 100,000 migrant encounters over the course of four weeks ending on March 3 — the most recorded over the same period in five years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the US is currently witnessing a “surge” in new migration.

That number includes thousands of single adultswho, after being turned away at the border under the pandemic-related Title 42 restrictions, are often caught trying to cross again. Before the pandemic, they might have been dissuaded from trying again for fear of facing criminal prosecution for illegal entry and disqualifying themselves from legal migration pathways, such as asylum. But under the Title 42 process, they are merely fingerprinted, processed, and dropped off in Mexico without consequence.

Erika Pinheiro — the Tijuana-based litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to migrants — said that many of the migrants her organization encounters have been waiting in Mexico for a chance to cross the border for a year or more.

The border has effectively been closed since last March, but before that, Trump had put in place a complex network of policies that made it next to impossible for migrants to apply for asylum or other protections.

Over 9,000 asylum seekers were on a waiting list to be processed at ports of entry as of last March, before the Title 42 restrictions went into effect.

More than 71,000 asylum seekers were also stranded in Mexico under Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols over the lifetime of the program. While the Biden administration has sought to end the program and started processing the 28,000 people with active cases, many people whose cases were closed are also still waiting in Mexico in the hope that they will eventually be processed. (Biden administration officials have signaled that they eventually intend to identify those people and admit them to the US for a chance to seek protection.)

Pinheiro said that, compared to those who have been waiting in Mexico long-term, the number of new arrivals is relatively low. (NBC reported that new arrivals accounted for less than 10 percent of migrants in Tijuana, which is across the border from San Diego, California.) But their presence has become more noticeable after some 1,500 set up a campin Tijuana. Under normal circumstances, CBP could process them and empty out the camp within two weeks, but that’s not happening.

“This isn’t a ‘surge,’” Pinheiro said. “I think the problem is that processing is completely closed so the migrants who are arriving are very visible.”

The Biden administration has told migrants not to come — but many of them are desperate

For now, the Biden administration’s message to migrants is, “The border is not open,” and “Do not come in an irregular fashion.” But there is hope among migrant communities in Mexico that the new administration will eventually offer them protection given that Biden has sought to pursue more immigrant-friendly policies than his predecessor.

“There was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of pent-up demand,” Roberta Jacobson, the former ambassador to Mexico and chief White House coordinator for the southern border, said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Smugglers have also been spreading misinformation about the Biden administration’s plans to process asylum seekers in an effort to profit from it. Pinheiro said she has heard rumors spreading that migrants staying in certain camps will be processed or that the borders would open at midnight.

But that’s not to say that favorable policies from the Biden administration are primarily what’s driving people to migrate. Pandemic-related economic deterioration and hurricanes that devastated Central America late last year, as well as more longstanding issues such as gang violence, government corruption, and crop failures due to climate change in the region are among the factors pushing people out of their home countries to make the perilous journey north.

“If people are already struggling with crop failures or their house has been destroyed by a hurricane or they’re being extorted, and then they hear that there’s a new administration coming in that’s going to treat migrants better, that could be kind of the tipping point where they say, ‘Now is the right time to migrate.’ But it wouldn’t come out of the blue,” Bolter, of the Migration Policy Institute, said.

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