Being LGBTQ is enough of a challenge in the current political climate, but being LGBTQ and an immigrant brings even more tribulations. Within a presidential administration that promises persecution — and prosecution — of immigrants, those in the LGBTQ community who fight for immigrants’ rights have an uphill battle ahead.
In North Carolina, the battle is fierce. Our state has the third-highest rate in the U.S. of deportation, with 67.6 percent of those arrested being deported, according to Syracuse University’s Immigration Tracker. The national average in 2016 was 43.3 percent of those arrested by ICE being deported.
The risk of deportation is all too real to Gustavo “Gus” Zamudio, a gay teen immigrant whose education at Charlotte, N.C.’s Northwest School of the Arts was put on hold when he was arrested and threatened with deportation.
Zamudio, who immigrated from Mexico at age five, was charged with embezzling from his job at Harris Teeter. Though a legal immigrant, Zamudio’s criminal charges put him at risk for deportation. This might not have been the case before the Trump administration issued executive orders amending the nation’s immigration laws, according to Jackie Yodashkin, the public affairs director of Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit that aims to help LGBTQ and HIV-positive immigrants
“Two orders made some pretty drastic changes about who was a priority in enforcement, and in some ways dismantled the previous enforcement priorities from the Obama administration, making almost everyone a priority for removal,” Yodashkin told qnotes.
For Zamudio, these changes meant that his deportation could be initiated the moment he was charged with a crime — charged, not convicted. Devyn Bauer, a 17-year-old friend of Zamudio, traveled to Georgia for his bond hearing.
“The first thing that happened when we walked in is Gus said my name and it was extremely hard not for me to break down right there,” Bauer told WBTV.
But Zamudio’s case is not unique. “Removal orders” may include deportation or exclusion and prevent individuals from returning to the U.S., sometimes permanently. North Carolina has the 10th-highest percentage of removal orders, with 894 individual removals so far in 2017. Syracuse’s tracker notes that the new presidential administration is ramping up its pursuit of immigrants.
“Court records reveal that so far, since Trump assumed office, a total of 11,040 cases have been initiated by DHS seeking removal orders,” the site reads. “The court is now seeing many more cases where the individual was detained at the time the case is filed, and fewer non-detained cases.”
So what does detainment mean for immigrants who identify as LGBTQ? Yodaskin says that being detained can be traumatic and may risk physical harm, especially for transgender women.
“Immigration detention is terrible for everyone, [but] for trans women it is really dangerous,” Yodashkin said. “Trans women are detained with men. They face brutal abuse and violence and sexual assault in immigration detention.”
Yodashkin’s organization, Immigration Equality, wants to see policy changes that will protect LGBTQ immigrants, and offers them legal help. However, the road to change is rocky, due to the understated nature of the problem.
“We’ve asked the government to track how many people seek asylum who are LGBTQ/HIV+ and the government just doesn’t do that,” she said. “Even quantifying how many people are seeking asylum because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is not possible because that data just doesn’t exist. Besides that, with undocumented folk who are living in the shadows, it’s really hard to quantify how many people might be out there.”
Though accurate numbers don’t exist, Yodashkin says that Immigration Equality receives thousands of requests for aid every year and currently has over 650 active cases in their network.
“A lot of the people who come through our doors are from one of the almost 80 countries worldwide where it’s a crime to be LGBTQ, and we know that even more are fundamentally unsafe,” she said. But the fight doesn’t end with asylum being granted to an LGBTQ immigrant. “One thing we see a lot is families being separated … The [legal] definition of family is a spouse, not a partner. But if you’re in Uganda, it’s very difficult to marry your partner.”
The problems LGBTQ folks face in immigration courts aren’t simple, either. According to one attorney at an immigration law clinic (who wished to remain nameless), even the U.S. courts may not offer relief from prejudice.
“Adjudicators might have different biases depending on their own experiences. There’s the perception that people from some countries have stronger cases or have more ‘truthful’ cases than people from other countries,” he said. “That bias [against LGBTQ people] exists in society as a whole, so it’s fair to say that it obviously impacts adjudicators.”
“Immigration judges currently to my knowledge don’t receive any kind of cultural competency training on LGBTQ rights,” Yodashkin said. “We’ve seen judges equating sexual orientation and gender identity in a way that’s really problematic…a judge had ruled that a trans woman should not receive asylum because it was legal for gay people to get married in Mexico, so therefore she would be fine in Mexico. The judge threw out the case, misgendered her, and clearly didn’t understand what it was to be a trans person.”
But once past the courts, assimilating into the culture of the U.S. isn’t easy. Assuming the immigrants somehow supported themselves through the six-month moratorium wherein they cannot legally work, finding work is a significant challenge.
“We end up with the intersection of discrimination,” Yodashkin said. “People are hesitant to hire someone who is queer or HIV positive, they may have concerns over hiring an immigrant, and so when you work with these overlapping identities, particularly if you’re a person of color or a trans person or gender nonconforming, it all makes it that much more challenging to find steady employment.”
Past all these obstacles — having completed the legal immigration process, assimilated to a new culture, and found employment — Gus Zamudio’s trials are not over yet. His lawyers advised him to plead for a lesser charge, and they hoped that his deportation can be delayed long enough for Zamudio to finish high school.
Recently, an immigration judge ruled that Zamudio, having been successful with a “prayer for justice” that isn’t a technical conviction, must voluntarily leave the country but may apply for a visa to return to the United States. Another friend who attended his bond hearing told WBTV that Zamudio seemed deeply unhappy.
“He looked at us like we were leaving him forever and that was the most painful thing that I’ll ever have to experience.”
[Ed. Note: This information was added for qnotes‘ online coverage.]
Zamudio’s high school experience included the creation of a video essay on marriage equality. His YouTube post stated that it was heavily influenced by Troye Sivan’s music video “Heaven” (feat. Betty Who).
The video is featured below: