In 1996, Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to add a one-year filing deadline for individuals seeking asylum in the United States. It was a grave mistake that has had severe consequences for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers who have sought a new life in America following unspeakable persecution in their home countries.
Today, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. introduced legislation - known as The Refugee Protection Act - to lift that deadline. Its passage would make all the difference in the world for LGBT people fleeing abuse and homophobia abroad.
Many, if not most, asylum seekers arrive in the United States with limited financial resources, rudimentary English skills and the scars of physical and mental trauma suffered at home. All of those factors, and others, also limit their access to legal counsel. As a result, countless asylum seekers are unaware that if they do not seek asylum within their first year of arriving in the U.S., that door to a new life may be closed to them forever.
For LGBT asylum seekers, especially, the idea of acknowledging their sexual orientation or gender identity to a government official can seem unthinkable. For individuals who have been vilified for being LGBT at home - and who often suffered abuse at the hands of police and other officials because of it - there is no expectation that being openly gay or transgender could actually keep them safe from future harm.
Immigration Equality's legal team screens hundreds of potential LGBT asylum seekers every year. When we do have to turn away a case, it is usually because the individual has missed the one-year filing deadline. Most of those potential asylees simply did not realize their sexual orientation or gender identity could be the basis of an asylum claim. As a result, they are faced with a nearly insurmountable legal obstacle that leaves too many otherwise qualified asylum seekers unable to secure safe haven in the United States.
At best, those who miss the filing deadline may win "withholding of removal," a status that requires an order of deportation from an immigration judge, followed by a decision not to enforce that order. Even the few who do win such a reprieve, however, will never be able to secure lawful permanent residence or citizenship in the U.S., which also bars them from bringing family members to the country and prevents foreign travel. In short, they will never truly know what it means to be "American."
For those who miss the deadline and are unable to qualify for withholding, the picture is even more grim. They are ordered deported, and returned home to the country where they faced persecution, violence and homophobia.
Leahy's bill would eliminate this unconscionable practice, and lift the one-year filing deadline once and for all. In doing so, it would also restore America's reputation as a safe haven for asylum seekers and provide much-needed relief, and hope, for those trying to escape homophobia from around the world. It is critically important legislation that our community must support and that Congress must approve before more asylum seekers are turned away and returned to a life lived in fear and despair.
Victoria Neilson is legal director of Immigration Equality, a national legal aid and advocacy organization assisting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive immigrants and their families. She received her law degree from the City University School of Law and her bachelor's degree from Harvard University.