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If you drove past the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s headquarters last Wednesday, you might have noticed a few rainbow flags, hand-lettered signs, and a colorful cadre of protesters. With only a glimpse to digest it, the various slogans for transgender rights, queer detainees, and immigration equality might have looked incongruous, even disorganized. That’s the trouble with intersectional politics—they don’t boil down, they just overlap.
That also explains why several local organizations banded together for #BreakTheCage, a protest to demand the end of detention for undocumented LGBTQ individuals. Leaders from groups like United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project, Trans Women of Color Collective, and Casa Ruby share a larger goal: humane treatment of LGBTQ immigrants by the state, regardless of immigration status.
Achieving that end is complicated. Immigration laws are set at a federal level, but local communities feel their impact. “It all depends on your level of access [to resources],” says Lourdes Ashley Hunter, TWOCC’s national director and the DC Center’s chief communications officer. “Many asylum seekers come with little to no money and have limited access to housing or healthcare.” If asylum seekers don’t speak English, that puts another barrier between them and the few resources available.
Take 28-year-old Eckington resident Dmitrii Chizhevsky. “The DC Center helps me not starve,” he says. He’s gratefully taken advantage of the nonprofit’s monthly Center Global meetings for immigrants and the free gift cards to Trader Joe’s they offer. The Center also helped in his search to find an immigration lawyer.
In November of 2013, the young activist was shot in the eye and beaten while attending a weekly LGBTQ social called the Rainbow Tea Party at LaSky community center in St. Petersburg, Russia. It wasn’t a political rally, just a friendly gathering. In response to his internationally publicized attack and an increasingly anti-gay Russia, he founded the organization Stop Hate in January of 2014. The group went to gay clubs in St. Petersburg and surveyed hundreds of patrons about their feelings toward activism; they found a majority were interested in doing something for LGBTQ rights but just didn’t know where to start.
Despite Chizhevsky’s initial desire to stay and work for justice, it quickly became clear that the police wouldn’t seriously investigate his attack, and “the men who attacked me were still out on the streets.” With too high of a profile to avoid further danger, Chizhevsky resigned from the leadership of Stop Hate and made his way to America in late 2014, arriving in New York and traveling down to D.C. He still keeps in contact with Russian activists over Skype, but for now, he’s focusing on establishing his life in the District.
Other asylum seekers face further complications. If they are transgender—especially a woman of color—they are particularly vulnerable. Even in an increasingly welcoming D.C., four out of five transgender residents have been verbally or physically assaulted, according to a 2012 study by the DC Trans Coalition. Nearly half of trans individuals in D.C. have been denied or fired from jobs they were qualified for, about a quarter have experienced homelessness, and nearly three quarters have at some point turned to sex work for income (about half of those felt it was their only option). For transgender asylum seekers without a work permit, the numbers are even higher.
“Without resources, people are forced to resort to survival tactics,” says Hunter. “If they stay in a shelter or on a park bench, transwomen of color may end up trying to defend themselves against acts of violence. They’re often placed in the wrong gender housing facility, where they’re even more vulnerable to rape or violence.” Violence makes police contact more likely, and if an asylum seeker is accused of a crime, even for self-defense or survival, she may end up in a detention center, where the situation for LGBTQ immigrants quickly gets worse.
Organizations like Casa Ruby, a bilingual nonprofit that provides housing and access to legal counsel for gender nonconforming youth and adults, and the DC Center’s asylee-focused Center Global program aim to prevent that. As an employee of the DC Center and a Casa Ruby volunteer, Hunter knows the triumphs and limitations of both. For LGBTQ immigrants, Center Global provides “limited financial assistance, food assistance, Metro cards, access to pro bono lawyers, advocates to minimize language barriers, volunteer housing on a temporary basis, and access to government services,” says Hunter. It’s a pivotal resource for many new arrivals in D.C.
In January of this year, Chizhevsky officially filed for asylum, noting that if he’d stayed in Russia, “I would probably have been attacked again.” After filing, the wait begins. One-hundred-eighty days of waiting, in fact, before an applicant is allowed a work visa. “You give up everything to start a new life, and then you just have to wait,” Chizhevsky says.
“I think the government has a hard time justifying 180 days for humanitarian refugees to remain without a work permit,” says Catalina Velasquez, who has worked as a policy analyst and communications consultant for several local organizations, including the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs, QUIP, and TWOCC. Velasquez believes the USCIS, which handles what’s known as the 180-day Asylum Employment Authorization Document Clock, wants to discourage asylum claims based on economic hardship. Of course, the policy applies equally to victims of serious humanitarian abuse, who often leave everything behind when fleeing their country—a dilemma the USCIS compounds with its EAD Clock but doesn’t appear to address otherwise.
How does anyone live for half a year in one of America’s most expensive cities without working—especially when police contact could lead to detention or deportation?
“In Canada and Australia… asylees are given time to learn the language of the country, they’re given resources, housing, and food, but in the United States that’s not the case,” says Velasquez, an immigrant from Colombia. “We’re left to fend for ourselves. When you’re an immigrant with no safety net, and on top of that you’re told that for 180 days you’re not allowed to work, it’s definitely counterintuitive.” Without a work permit, says Velasquez, asylees may turn to “survival sex work or criminal activities, or they die.”
NGOs offer some relief, but the burden also falls on local government. Though its actions have been far from sufficient, D.C. has taken a few steps to meet these needs. The OLA, for example, offers grants to healthcare organizations that have historically served Latino residents, offers access to language-learning classes, works with Casa Ruby to provide contraception and food for homeless and undocumented LGBTQ people in D.C., and helps immigrants find low-cost legal services or payment plans. It’s more than many states offer.
In April, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the “Cities United for Immigration Action” brief, urging immediate implementation of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which would include deportation relief for certain immigrants with long-standing ties to America.
Unlike those in many states, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t ask for immigration status when providing drivers’ licenses. Obtaining a form of ID and access to transportation is a huge concern for job seekers. However, resources for non-English speakers are only available on a branch-by-branch basis at the DMV; “monolingual, culturally ignorant employees” may tell applicants to “put a request in for a meeting a year from now,” Velasquez says, “because no one can talk to you.”
For LGBTQ immigrants, the situation is made more difficult by having to officially come out to the U.S. government in order to seek asylum, “despite being persecuted by the government in their home countries,” Velasquez says. “It can be traumatic to come out again.” If the immigrant takes too long to come out in America, or if he can’t learn English or find an advocate to speak for him fast enough, and it takes longer than a year to complete all the necessary paperwork to file for asylum, he is no longer eligible to become an asylee.
Chizhevsky is currently engaged to marry his American boyfriend this summer. That may make his LGBTQ persecution claim stronger or strengthen his case, but a wedding won’t be easy to fund, considering he isn’t eligible for a work permit until July. The DC Center has helped by hosting a fundraiser and will provide some of the food for the event.
Of course, the DC Center can’t grant asylum—which can take anywhere from a few months to several years and is never guaranteed—so Chizhevsky is left hoping his case will prevail while living with the constant possibility of deportation. Until his work authorization materializes, he’ll have to live hand-to-mouth, often relying on the generosity of others and community resources like DC Center.
Hunter says local governments need to provide asylees with “unfettered access to healthcare, food, and shelter” while their cases are being resolved, especially while they wait for a work permit. “They need to understand the needs of children to be with family, and they need to put pressure on the federal government,” she says.
America doesn’t legally recognize LGBTQ asylum seekers’ family bonds unless those relationships are recognized in the country of origin. Spouses and children (who may or may not be adopted) aren’t given any preferential treatment in the immigration process if the country they’re fleeing never legally acknowledged them.
Without healthcare access (the ACA doesn’t cover undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers), rape survivors have no access to abortion. Trans people have no access to hormone therapy. Survivors of violent hate crimes—like Chizhevsky, who had several eye surgeries in St. Petersburg—have no access to physical or psychological follow-up treatments.
Local governments are one possible bridge for potential asylees. Amid D.C.’s constantly rising cost of living, the city could allocate more funds for healthcare that doesn’t discriminate based on immigration status, temporary housing opportunities (also a serious need for low-income citizens), and easy access to food. Providing for basic needs while asylum seekers adjust to a new country, navigate convoluted immigration bureaucracy, wait for work permits, and learn a new language would not only better the lives of the many immigrants already living here, but also reduce survival-motivated crime overall and potentially put a dent in the homelessness problem that currently plagues the city’s residents.
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.