Friday, March 23, 2012

The Way to be in a PSG: Obama's new Guidelines on LGBTI Asylum

As promised, I wanted to highlight some of the guidelines offered by USCIS in their new training module on handling asylum claims of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Intersex persons. I've discussed LBQT (but not Intersex) asylum claims on this blog before, and one of the big themes encountered was the phenom of being"not gay enough for the USA"- individuals being turned down for asylum claims because their outward behavior did not match preconceived notions of what gay people act like. (For example, a lesbian with a child from a previous marriage, a man not "out" to his friends or family.) Let's check out how the new training addresses these and other important issues.

Defining LGBTI
Towards the beginning of the guidelines there is a set of definitions which does an excellent job of dispelling certain myths and the LGBTI community. For example, the section differentiates between sexual orientation, sex, and gender identity, and defines intersex and transgender deftly as well, being sure to not lump all categories into one.
 "Transgender is a gender identity, not a sexual orientation. Thus, like any other man or woman, a transgender person may have a heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual sexual orientation." (at 13)
Additionally, the module lumps in HIV and AIDs issues- both because persons with AIDs are sometimes persecuted for being gay (even when they are not) and persons who are gay are sometimes persecuted for having AIDs (even when they do not.) 

Havana Social Club- Does being gay put you in a "particular social group?"
As you may recall, to qualify as a refugee under the 1951 convention you must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in your home country on the basis of your race, national origin, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. LGBTI asylum claims have long been handled under the "membership in a particular social group" (PSG) portion of 1951, and the case that is most relied on is Matter of Acosta. (I previously reviewed Acosta here.)

The guidelines make a point of adding to Acosta a newer precedent relevant in making immigration decisions for the LGBTI crowd: Matter of Toboso Alfonso (1990), a case involving a Cuban national claiming persecution for being gay. In Cuba, the government would force him to appear for forced exams where he was probed about his sex life, detain him on occasion, and tolerate harassment and violence against him and other gays, culminating in being chased out of Cuba by what amounted to an angry mob. In the case, TA had been convicted of several crimes making him ineligible for asylum, but the judge granted "leave from deportation" (which has similar criteria) on the basis of his past persecution in Cuba, where he was overtly targeted as a homosexual. The INS appealed, stating (rather heartlessly, even for back then),"socially deviant behavior, ie, homosexual activity is not a basis for finding a social group within the contemplation of the act." They went on to explain that such a decision would pave the way for people to be awarded protection for deviant, even illegal behavior in their home country. Are we going to start granting asylum to people that broke their country's law and don't want to go to jail?

The BIA disagreed, finding that TA was targeted not so much due to his illegal or deviant behavior, but because of his status as a homosexual, an "immutable characteristic" that he could not, and should not be required to change. Thus we have it: a game-changing BIA decision filing "gay" as a potential particular social group under the refugee convention as well as the US's own laws.

Now, this was a specific case with a man whose story left very little room for doubt that he was being persecuted on the basis of his "status" as a gay man. However, the guidelines now set out to make it crystal clear that this decision was not just about gay male Cubans. PSGs might be also be comprised of transgendered persons (gay or straight), "closeted" gays and lesbians, HIV+ persons, persons viewed by society as not fitting gender roles (eg, being an effeminate male) AND (in case you aren't getting it) people who are NOT EVEN from Cuba. (at 15.) The point is, the kind of neanderthals that want to beat up sexual minorities are not going to care if you're not actually a sexual minority. And that doesn't mean you shouldn't get protection.

So it covers people that might look or act gay (through the persecutor's eyes) but aren't. But it also effectively states that you don't have to "look or act gay"to fit into the precedents of TA or Matter of Acosta.
When analyzing the PSG issue, you must not only make a finding regarding immutability or fundamentality, you must also determine social visibility or social distinction, i.e., whether the actual or imputed characteristic is "easily recognizable and understood by others to constitute a social group." Some adjudicators mistakenly believe that social visibility or distinction requires that the applicant “look gay or act gay.”  In this context, social visibility or distinction does not mean visible to the eye. Rather, this means that the society in question distinguishes individuals who share this trait from individuals who do not. (at 16.)
 In other words, the Obama administration is promulgating as US law an important, and possibly life-saving principle: when it comes to the LGBTI community, one's membership in a PSG is all in the eyes of the persecutor.

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