Monthly Archives: August 2013

For some gay immigrants, going home is not an option

By Georgia Garvey


John Ademola knows there is no asylum from hatred, no refuge from ignorance.

But after decades of battling his own identity as a gay man in Nigeria, afraid for his life and safety, the former Catholic priest who now lives in the Chicago area knows a new reality.”If any crazy person decides to kill me simply because I’m gay, here [in the U.S.], the community will still ask, ‘Why did you do it?’ ” he says. In America, he says, “there’s not a government after me.”

Ademola applied for–and was granted–asylum in the U.S. in 2009 based on his homosexuality and fear of what he might face if he returned to Nigeria. He now holds a green card that puts him on the track to U.S. citizenship.

The Riverdale resident, 50, is one member of a seemingly growing but hard-to-track group of Chicago-based immigrants who’ve successfully applied for asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such asylum applications have been possible for the past 16 years, after then-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno declared an LGBT asylum case precedent.

Experts say there likely are many more immigrants who could apply for asylum based on their LGBT status. But many don’t know they can or fear the repercussions of doing so.

Those who find their way to attorneys or learn about LGBT asylum generally get clued-in by word of mouth, experts say, or they are looking into other kinds of asylum or immigration options. Applying for asylum–a procedure that can include judges, affidavits and administrative appearances–can be complicated.

Those applying for asylum have one year from their arrival in the U.S. to do so­–unless they can prove they’ve been in extraordinary or changed circumstances. Even then, potential asylees have to apply within six months of those circumstances. Many LGBT asylees struggle with coming out of the closet, experts say.

“If you’re not openly gay, unfortunately, the system doesn’t wait for you to come out,” said Uzoamaka Nzelibe, a clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University and staff attorney at Bluhm Legal Clinic who deals with asylum and refugee cases.

One recent asylee, who asked that his name not be used, came to the U.S. five years ago with family members. In his African home nation, he’d suffered abuse for being perceived as effeminate–even though he was not out.

RedEye is withholding information about the man–including identifying details–because he fears how his family members will react should they find out he’s gay.

The Chicago resident, now in his 20s, initially met with a staff member from the human rights advocacy group Heartland Alliance to explore his options for immigration. When the staff member mentioned applying based on LGBT status, he said he delayed even though he knew that was the basis he should use.

“I was not sure who I am as a person. I was living with my sister. I was 17. I was scared that she would find out I’m gay,” he said. “I assumed they would be sending mail to my house.”

Though his assumptions were incorrect–organizations don’t have to send mail to applicants’ homes–this asylee encountered some common barriers for LGBT people applying for asylum, said Eric Berndt, an attorney at the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, which provides legal aid to low-income immigrants seeking asylum or refuge in the U.S.

“I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had where it’s a 19-year-old kid living with a family and he doesn’t have his own phone, there’s no way to [easily] communicate with him, he can’t tell his parents why he’s applying for asylum,” Berndt said. “A lot of times, it’s only once they’ve become dislocated that they come forward.”

There were about 27,000 new applications for asylum last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, but the federal government doesn’t track the reason for asylum or the area in which the person applies.

Berndt deals with about 20 cases annually of people seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and he says the numbers of those looking to apply for LGBT asylum seem to be increasing.

Those who work with LGBT asylees and refugees say increasing numbers reflect both changing attitudes in the U.S. and the traumatic persecution gay and lesbian asylees and refugees have suffered in home countries.

Neil Grungras, the executive director of the Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration, based in San Francisco, said 85 countries criminalize homosexuality and seven apply the death penalty to those caught having homosexual sex. The countries that treat it as a capital crime are Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In Nigeria, the death penalty applies only in portions of the country.

For the fortunate such as Ademola, life in the U.S. can be life-saving. He’s become an out-and-proud member of the LGBT community in Chicago, even performing in the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus.

He proudly carries a combination U.S. and gay pride flag in the annual Chicago parade.
“If God gives you freedom,” Ademola says, one should sing about it. Since receiving asylum, he’s “been singing my freedom since.”



There are two kinds of asylum applications: affirmative (where the immigrant takes the initiative to seek asylum) and defensive (when the government is already seeking to remove the person from the U.S.).

The procedure greatly varies between the two processes, but affirmative asylum is much quicker. A defensive process can result in an appearance before an immigration judge; an affirmative process can be decided by an asylum officer after an interview. In both cases, the potential asylee will have to prove that he or she is either “unable or unwilling to return to” the home country and has been persecuted or has a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

LGBT asylees have proved their sexual orientation or gender identity with supporting documents such as witness affidavits, statements from psychologists or psychiatrists and interviews. Often, the would-be asylee also will submit expert statements about the environment for LGBT people in the immigrant’s home country.

Affirmative asylum applications generally are processed in about two months, according to Uzoamaka Nzelibe, a law professor and attorney who deals with asylum and refugee cases. An asylee can apply for a green card one year later. Those applications take about four to six months to process. The asylee needs to hold a green card for five years before applying for citizenship. Start to finish, it can take up to seven years for an asylee to become a citizen.

Even in states where gay marriage is legal, same-sex spouses cannot sponsor their partners for the purposes of immigration.

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