LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles


By Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade

A gay man from Guatemala who has asked for asylum in the U.S. runs a project that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers in a Mexican border city.

Estuardo Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, at the end of July 2019 and asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he said he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation. Cifuentes on Sept. 24 during a Zoom interview told the Washington Blade he spent a few days in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody before he was sent back to Matamoros under the Trump administration’s “return to Mexico” (MPP) policy that forces asylum seekers to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico.

“I went back to Matamoros without knowing anything, without knowing anything about the process,” said Cifuentes.

Cifuentes told the Blade he met Gaby Zavala, founder of Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to migrants who live in Matamoros soon after he returned to the Mexican border city.

Cifuentes said Resource Center Matamoros and other U.S.-based organizations helped him find housing and legal assistance for his asylum case. Cifuentes told the Blade that he, Zavala and others also began to discuss ways to help LGBTQ migrants who live in a sprawling migrant camp adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros with Brownsville.

Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers was born.

“We managed to coordinate it, we set goals and we ran with the project,” said Cifuentes.

Cifuentes said some of the 14 LGBTQ migrants with whom Rainbow Bridge works live in the Matamoros camp. He told the Blade that Resource Center Matamoros, among other things, provides the migrants with whom he works access to health care providers and lawyers who can help them translate their asylum forms into English.

“Rainbow Bridge is a bridge between other organizations,” he said.

“Since the onset of the refugee encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (the Mexican state in which Matamoros is located), the need for safe spaces for asylum seekers living in the camp from the LGBTQ+ community became a top priority for Resource Center Matamoros,”

Zavala told the Blade. “After several attempts to provide that space within the encampment, it became more obvious that creating a specific program whose only focus was the LGBTQ+ members was necessary, so I put the effort in obtaining significant funding to initiate a first-of-its-kind program in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, which is now known as Rainbow Bridge.”

Zavala said she found a “private donor” who provided financial support for the project.

“Once I achieved that, we selected an inspiring asylum seeker, also a member of the LGBTQ+ community with extensive experience in program development as an owner of his own ’empresa’ or business back in his country of Guatemala to direct the program,” she said.

Guatemala gangs, police targeted Cifuentes, partner

Cifuentes, 32, and his partner of six years ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City.

He said gang members extorted money from them. Cifuentes said they closed their business after the gang members attacked them.

Cifuentes said Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes told the Blade the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him indirectly. He said the police placed him under surveillance under the incident and private cars drove past his home.

“This forced us to leave Guatemala,” said Cifuentes.

Cifuentes told the Blade he decided to ask for asylum in the U.S. because he has relatives in this country and “I can continue my life there.”

“That was the idea … I can go there with them,” he said. “I learned about the asylum process later.”

The State Department advises Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas state because of “crime and kidnapping.” The Mexico-U.S. land border remains closed to non-essential travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cifuentes’ next hearing in his asylum case is scheduled to take place on Oct. 30, but he said it “is dependent” upon coronavirus levels in Matamoros and if the immigration courts in Brownsville will be open. Cifuentes nevertheless said he will continue to help LGBTQ asylum seekers such as himself who remain in Mexico.

“I have the opportunity to understand, to know what it is like to be there, to understand what it is like to be a member of the community, to understand and know what it is like to be a migrant under MPP,” said Cifuentes. “There are many challenges and there are still more vulnerable people who have had less opportunities.”

“I have the opportunity to provide this help,” he added.

Alinson is one of the asylum seekers with whom Rainbow Bridge works.

He is a 41-year-old gay man of African descent from Colombia who has asked for asylum in the U.S. because members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attacked him because of his sexual orientation and race. The U.S. sent Alinson back to Mexico under

MPP in order to await the outcome of his case.

Alinson on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview from Matamoros that Rainbow Bridge brought him to the hospital last week for a brain scan and an electrocardiogram after he suffered a brain hemorrage. Alinson said Rainbow Bridge has also provided him with food and housing outside of the camp.

“It is supporting me,” said Alinson, referring to Rainbow Bridge.

Cifuentes has created a PayPal account that accepts donations for Rainbow Bridge. The link is here.

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by Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade

A gay man in Virginia says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested his partner last month after they pulled over his car.

Luis Valladares Cruz’s partner, Josh Ayala, told the Washington Blade last week during a telephone interview that they left their home in Woodbridge early on Aug. 13 to go to

Starbucks. Ayala said he and Valladares left their neighborhood and then saw “flashing lights behind us” once they drove onto Old Bridge Road.

“We pulled to the side (of the road),” Ayala told the Blade.

Ayala said he and Valladares assumed it was a “routine police stop.”

“I really thought they were just police,” said Ayala. “We pulled off to the side (of the road.) It happened so quick, I didn’t even see when they got out.”

Ayala said four men who did not identify themselves as ICE agents surrounded the car.

Ayala conceded to the Blade the car’s license plates had expired, but he said he explained to the agents that he had gone to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles two days earlier to renew them. Ayala told the Blade he then showed them his registration and asked why they had stopped him.

“We’re stopping you because your vehicle matches the description of a vehicle affiliated with a crime in this area,” said one of the agents, according to Ayala.

Ayala said he and Valladares then gave the agents their IDs.

“Literally in three seconds he gives back mine, but with his identification when he shows it to them, that’s when they immediately are like, get out of the vehicle. We’re here for you,” Ayala told the Blade, referring to Valladares. “We have a warrant for your arrest, and I was in shock.”

Ayala told the Blade the same agents a year earlier stopped them and identified themselves as “undercover cops.” Ayala said he asked them why they were arresting Valladares and requested to see a warrant, but they did not show him.

A portion of the arrest that Ayala recorded on his cell phone shows Valladares standing behind the car with three masked agents.

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By Nicole Narea

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, has at times proved an obstacle to the advancement of immigrant rights during her three years on the Seventh Circuit.

As an appellate court judge, Barrett helped to advance one of Trump’s key immigration policies. She sided with his administration in a case over Trump’s policy imposing a wealth test on the millions of immigrants who seek to come to the US annually. In her whopping 40-page dissent in that case, she laid out why the US has the right to block people who it deems likely to become dependent on public assistance in the future — even if they have never used public assistance in the past.

She has also repeatedly refused to review cases brought by immigrants applying for humanitarian protections and other immigration benefits who claimed they had been wrongfully denied. Some of those decisions may have negative repercussions for future such applicants; given that they set a precedent to be followed by judges in lower courts, these refusals could make it harder for immigrants to challenge an adverse decision from a consular officer on their visa application or obtain deportation relief from an immigration judge.

But her rulings haven’t always led to adverse outcomes for immigrants. In one case, she actually prevented the Trump administration from ending a policy that allows immigration judges to indefinitely close deportation cases in which the immigrant doesn’t appear to be a priority for enforcement, giving them a chance to live in the US without fear of deportation.

With Barrett’s mixed record — and only three years of experience on the federal bench — it’s difficult to predict how she would rule on immigration cases before the Supreme Court if she is confirmed, as expected.

The Supreme Court has upheld some of Trump’s signature immigration policies, including his travel ban policy. But it has also thwarted him at key moments: It has temporarily prevented him from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has allowed more than 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the US, and blocked him from putting a citizenship question on the 2020 census, which experts said would depress response rates in immigrant communities.

In those rulings against Trump, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals and cast deciding votes. It’s not clear whether Barrett would play a similar role — or if she would tip the scales in favor of conservatives on high-profile immigration cases going forward. One such case challenging Trump’s policy to exclude unauthorized immigrants from census population counts that will be used to redraw congressional districts in 2021 will likely come before the justices by the end of the year.

Here are some of the key immigration decisions Barrett has issued so far:

She sided with Trump on one of his key immigration policies: the public charge rule.

Perhaps Barrett’s most pivotal immigration ruling was her dissent in the case Cook County v. Wolf, in which the Seventh Circuit temporarily prevented the Trump administration from implementing its so-called “public charge” rule that created barriers to low-income immigrants seeking to enter the US.

Published last year by the Department of Homeland Security, the rule established a test to determine whether an immigrant applying to enter the US, extend their visa, or convert their temporary immigration status into a green card is likely to end up relying on public benefits in the future.

The rule has given immigration officials more leeway to turn away those who are “likely to be a public charge” based on an evaluation of 20 factors, ranging from the use of certain public benefits programs — including food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, and Medicaid — to English-language proficiency. It represents one of President Trump’s biggest blows to legal immigration so far.

In June, a majority of the Seventh Circuit voted to strike down the rule, arguing that it “set[s] a trap for the unwary by penalizing people for accepting benefits Congress made available to them.”

In her 40-page dissent, Barrett said she would have upheld the rule, arguing that those challenging it had set forth an exceedingly narrow definition of what it means to be a “public charge” that isn’t consistent with federal law. She also argued that the court should adopt the administration’s definition of “public charge” under the doctrine of Chevron deference, which mandates that judges defer to government agencies’ interpretation of federal law.

“Congress’s willingness to authorize funds to help immigrants who encounter unexpected trouble is perfectly consistent with its reluctance to admit immigrants whose need for help is predictable upon arrival,” she wrote in her dissent.

The rule went into effect again earlier this month following another federal court ruling. It has affected immigrants applying for green cards nationwide and at consulates abroad, as well as those applying for temporary visas overseas such as tourists, business travelers, students, and skilled workers.

The administration hasn’t released detailed data on how many people have been affected by the rule. But Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, told Vox that 69 percent of the roughly 5.5 million people who were granted green cards over the past five years would have had at least one negative factor under the rule — which officials could have used as justification to reject their applications for immigration benefits.

She thwarted Trump’s attempt to end a key tool to grant relief to immigrants facing deportation

Former US Attorney Jeff Sessions had tried to revoke a little-known, but key tool that allows immigration judges to make determinations about which immigrants should be prioritized for deportation.

That tool, known as “administrative closure,” allows judges to put deportation proceedings on hold indefinitely for people who already applied for immigration benefits with another government agency. For example, it might apply to a noncitizen who overstayed their visa but is married to a US citizen who applied for a green card with US Citizenship Immigration Services on their behalf.

Sessions had tried to severely limit the circumstances under which immigration judges can administratively close a case, which had the effect of preventing people in deportation proceedings from getting the immigration benefits to which they were entitled.

But in June, Barrett argued in the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in the case Meza Morales v. Barrthat Sessions’ decision to do so violated federal regulations that allow immigration judges to “take any action... that is appropriate and necessary” to complete their cases.

“[A]n immigration judge might sometimes conclude, in exercising the discretion granted by [federal regulation], that it is appropriate and necessary to dispose of a case through administrative closure,” she wrote. “Moreover, cases must be disposed of fairly, and granting a noncitizen the opportunity to pursue relief to which she is entitled may be appropriate and necessary for a fair disposition.”

She dismissed a man’s claim for humanitarian protections

In August 2018, Barrett refused to review a Salvadoran citizen’s petition for humanitarian protection in the US, which had been dismissed by immigration judges who didn’t find him to be a credible witness.

Gerson Alvarenga-Flores had testified that he fled El Salvador after witnessing his friend’s murder at the hands of criminal gang members, who consequently threatened him. After he was apprehended at the border and detained, he claimed that he feared returning to his home country and applied for several forms of humanitarian protection, including asylum and protections under the Convention Against Torture.

The immigration judge in his case found inconsistencies in Alvarenga’s testimony describing two separate incidents: He claimed that he had been attacked by gang members while in a taxi and, on another occasion, said he was approached by them on a bus. Alvarenga explained that he gave the testimony in English, even though he does not speak English, which could have led to the confusion.

But the judge nevertheless concluded that his account of being targeted by gangs wasn’t credible, without even considering whether he would have deserved humanitarian protection.

Writing an opinion on behalf of a panel of Seventh Circuit judges, Barrett deferred to the immigration judge, agreeing that Alvarenga was unable to provide an adequate explanation for the discrepancies in his account.

“These two encounters with gang members were crucial to Alvarenga’s claim that gang members were likely to torture him if he returned to El Salvador, yet he could not keep the facts straight with respect to either one,” she wrote.

She ruled against a US citizen challenging his wife’s visa denial

In January 2019, Barrett refused to reconsider a case brought by a naturalized US citizen, Moshin Yafai, whose wife, Zahoor Ahmed, a citizen of Yemen, was twice denied a green card. The consular officer had denied Ahmed’s green card on the grounds that she allegedly tried to smuggle her two children across the border, even though Ahmed and her husband had provided documentation to the embassy that their children had died in a drowning accident.

Writing the Seventh Circuit’s majority opinion, Barrett found that the consular officer nevertheless did not appear to act in bad faith and even asked for more information, “suggest[ing] a desire to get it right.” That meant her court couldn’t review the consular officer’s decision, she said.

The ruling could make it harder for visa applicants to challenge arbitrary denials down the line.

Generally, courts can’t review the decisions of consular officers, who interview applicants for immigration benefits and decide whether or not to approve their visas or green cards. There is a narrow exception in the law that allows a US citizen to challenge a consular officer’s decision if it infringes on one of their constitutional rights. But it’s not clear whether one of those constitutional rights is to live with one’s spouse in the US, as Yafai had argued, she said.

“The status of this right is uncertain,” she wrote in the opinion. “Even if the denial of Ahmed’s visa application implicated a constitutional right of Yafai’s, his claim fails because the consular officer’s decision was facially legitimate and bona fide.”

She voted to deport a man who maintained lawful permanent residency for 30 years

In June 2019, Barrett cast the deciding vote in a Seventh Circuit case resulting in the immediate deportation of a Mexican immigrant who had been a lawful permanent resident of the US for three decades and first arrived in the US at age 10. He had been convicted for drug crimes resulting in a more than 10-year prison sentence, but because his mother was a US citizen, he believed he had a right to remain in the US.

The immigrant, Ruben Lopez Ramos, was not given the chance to argue that his deportation violated his rights under the Constitution’s equal protection clause. A short, one-paragraph order sealed his fate, claiming that his argument was “irrational” and had “little chance of succeeding.”

One of Barrett’s colleagues, dissenting, argued that Ramos should have been given his day in court, noting that, due to a now-repealed law, he would have derived US citizenship from his mother had she lived in the US prior to his birth and he could not have been deported. Ramos argued that he was subjected to differential treatment under that law in violation of his equal protection rights.

“He might be right,” US Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote. Ultimately, however, due to Barrett’s vote, the Seventh Circuit never considered the issue.

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Queer Asylum Accompaniment Team is proud to support LGBTQIA asylum seekers who need sponsors. Sponsoring will allow asylum seekers to spend the months waiting for their asylum claims living in the community after leaving detention centers where they are vulnerable to abuse. 

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