Advocating for LGBTQIA+ Asylum Seekers

This Pride Month, I want to tell you about my story and the people I serve.  

I came into this work because of my own identity and family history. My mother was born in South Korea and orphaned at a young age in the decade after the Korean War. She was adopted by a white family as a baby at a time when racist immigration laws prevented almost any one of Asian descent from immigrating to the U.S. I’m also gay, and the U.S. is far from perfect when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights, but it’s really easy for me to imagine an alternate universe where I don’t have the privileges I have enjoyed as a gay, Korean-American, raised in a country where my rights are mostly protected. 

Because my immigrant mom barely made it into this country, I wanted to help people whose families weren’t as lucky. I jumped at the opportunity to build and pitch a legal fellowship helping detained LGBTQIA+ migrants and asylum seekers at the Florence Project, which includes representing them in court at bond hearings and asylum hearings, before the asylum office in credible fear interviews, and advocating with ICE for their release. 

In less than a year in this job, I have met people from all over the world who have come to the U.S. to escape persecution and live free as their fabulous, authentically queer selves. Some of the people I’ve worked with have come from countries where it is illegal to be gay or where the government is actively pursuing homophobic legislation, like Ghana. But other cases are more complex, such as those from Colombia and Mexico, where gay marriage is officially legal, but widespread social inclusion is far from the norm. This places the burden on my clients and me to demonstrate how law enforcement will go out of their way to target and harass LGBTQIA+ people and ultimately force them to flee. A huge part of my job is showing a judge how someone wouldn’t be safe in their home country if they were sent back. Even if a country has laws that purport to protect LGBTQIA+ rights, these laws so often aren’t enforced.  

Not only are LGBTQIA+ people fleeing life-threatening persecution when they come to the United States, but immigration detention is even more dangerous for them. A 2018 study by the Center for American Progress found that “LGBT immigration held at federal detention centers are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other(s)…Although LGBT people accounted for just 0.1 percent of ICE’s detained population in fiscal year 2017, they accounted for a staggering 12 percent of victims of sexual assaults reported in ICE detention, the data shows.” 

Everyone agrees that we need to reform our immigration system, and spending a year in this work has made me more convinced of that than ever. After fleeing life-threatening conditions at home, the people I represent face danger and persecution during their journeys to the United States, where they are often displaced in Mexico and then sent to immigration detention. If they secure release from detention, they will sometimes continue fighting their cases in court for upwards of 10 years. Not only does our immigration system punitively detain people just for seeking safety, it’s also inefficient and over-burdened. 

This Pride Month, I want people to understand that immigrants’ rights are LGBTQIA+ rights—full stop. When the federal government institutes policies such as the asylum ban or mandatory detention, it is choosing to ignore the safety of LGBTQIA+ individuals.  

Pride month is a celebratory time of love, laughter, and acceptance, but while we enjoy colorful drinks and joyful parades, let’s stand in solidarity with fellow queer people fighting for freedom and safety in the United States. 

Thank you for standing with the Florence Project and our LGBTQIA+ clients this month and all year round.  

In solidarity,  

Matt Palmquist
Equal Justice Works Fellow