Internet resources for what you need to know about NYC Immigrants
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
Immigrants are foreign-born people and their families who enter the United States and settle. This is a catch-all phrase that usually includes everybody from the U.S-born children of foreigners to naturalized citizens to the undocumented.
The Context
New York owes much of its growth and character to its traditional role as the point of entry and settlement for immigrants from all over the world. The city may now be experiencing the largest wave of immigration in its history, with immigrants and their children making up to as much as 60 percent of the city's population. Most of today's immigrants come from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the former Soviet Union and are, for the most part, younger and darker than immigrants from the past. While the federal government sets overall immigration policy, state and local policy directly affects immigrants on a wide range of issues, from education to health care to political representation.
The Reporter
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Immigration.

By Chaleampon Ritthichai

Political Asylum For Gay Immigrants

In order to keep their travel agency going, Camilo Alfredo Lopez and Juan Carlos Veloza Valero put up with all kinds of harassment, ranging from menacing phone calls to gay slurs. But it became too much when two men, who had been threatening them, broke into their office, then robbed and attacked Valero at gunpoint.

The couple decided to flee their native Colombia in the spring of 1999.

"I just wanted to get out of there quickly," Valero said. "And go some place safe." Afraid that they would be killed if they returned home, the couple applied for political asylum.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not keep official statistics on the number of people who have tried to seek political asylum on the basis of sexual orientation. But experts estimated the numbers are in the hundreds in New York City alone.

To get asylum based on sexual orientation is a very long and traumatic process, said Heather Betz of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force in New York City. One must prove fear of persecution, file the case no later than a year of arrival in the United States and even prove to the court that one is gay.

Traditionally, political asylum is granted to a person who has a "well founded fear of persecution" because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of particular social group. Homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned.

"Membership of particular social groups means a group of people who share a common characteristic that is so innate and fundamental to who they are," Betz said. "Initially there was a debate about whether sexual orientation falls within that definition."

The breakthrough occurred in 1990 when the Board of Immigration Appeals granted the first case base on sexual orientation, to a Cuban man. Four years later, the then Attorney General Janet Reno instructed immigrants officers and courts to use that decision as a precedent.

Since 1994 there have been at least 200 applicants granted political asylum on the basis of sexual orientation nationwide, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Committee.

In an effort to prove that Lopez and Valero had a "well-founded fear of persecution," Mikhail Iliev, one of the three attorneys who worked on the case pro bono, collected evidence of the maltreatment experienced by gays and lesbians in Colombia.

According to Amnesty International report "Crimes of Hate, Conspiracy of Silence: Torture and Ill-Treatment Based on Sexual Identity," persecutions of gays is common in many parts of the world, including Latin America.

But in the case of Lopez and Valero, there was no physical evidence of maltreatment or abuse by governments or private citizens.

"We were concerned as to whether or not the INS would buy their case based on just their words. We have had to resort to psychological grounds for granting asylum and prove that they would be physically afraid for their lives if they go back," said Herbert Ryder, another attorney who worked on the case.

If the burden of proof for gay asylum seekers is high, it is even harder for lesbians. "Many gay men experience street harassment but that is not the case for lesbians. In many countries people believe that women's sexuality simply doesn't exist," Betz said.

For gays and lesbians who choose to apply, another major obstacle is the deadline. To combat the backlog of cases, in 1998 the Immigration and Naturalization Service changed immigration law and required that applicants must file for asylum within one year of entering the United States.

That means in one year gay asylum seekers have to come out of the closet, cross the language and cultural barrier, find a lawyer and file an asylum case.

"We have so many people who come to us and have just missed the one-year deadline," Betz said. " I think it's a huge problem for this issue. People who have just arrived don't know what is involved, or where to get contact or help."

Lopez and Valero had been in the United States for nearly 11 months when their lawyers got the case. Working at a hectic pace, they were able to file by the deadline.

While meeting deadlines and proving the well-founded fear requirement are the main concerns for attorney and advocacy workers, for asylum seekers the most personal and traumatic part is when they have to publicly admit that they are gay for the first time.

"Asylum in general is a very traumatic process but when it comes to sexual orientation cases, it's even more dramatic," Betz said.

During the interview, the asylum officer asked Valero, "You don't look like a gay person. How can you prove that you are gay?" The best Valero could do was present letters from friends and family. Others have included psychiatrist evaluations, documents that show involvement in the gay community back home.

While the couple waited for the decision, which including the appeals process that can drag on for years, "I was so scared," Valero said. "But I was with my partner so that helped a lot. We also prayed."

In April, 2000, the Immigration and Naturalization Service finally granted both Lopez and Valero political asylum. They now live in Astoria.

Five Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • Immigration and Naturalization Service, the federal agency (within the United States Department of Justice) that provides services to immigrants (answering questions, processing applications for visas and for citizenship, etc.) and at the same time enforces the nation's immigration laws. INS also has a New York City district office and the New York Asylum Office
  • The New York City Mayor's Office Of Immigrant Affairs and Language Services, assists immigrants in a range of services and information. Here you can link to information about, for example, the New York Police Department New Immigrant Unit, where specially trained police officers conduct sensitivity training in the precincts and at the police academy, lecture at meetings of immigrant groups and work with the ethnic media. (212) 374-5112
  • Citizenship NYC, a city program, assists immigrant recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and federal food stamps to become citizens. (888) 374-5100
  • New York Immigration Hotline - open 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday and providing free and confidential information in 15 languages (Arabic, Bengali, French, Haitian-Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu) about everything from immigration law to employment discrimination to health referrals to a list of non-profit agencies that assist immigrants. (718) 899-4000
  • National Immigration Forum, a national pro-immigration advocacy group, with a rundown of facts about immigration, current issues, useful links.
  • Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area, published by The Jewish Genealogical Society, for those wishing to do research on their immigrant ancestors.

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