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June 20, 2013

LGBT Asylum Seekers Harmed by Filing Deadline

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Under a 1996 law, refugees are required to apply for political asylum within one year of arriving in the United States. It’s an inefficient, wasteful, arbitrary rule that undermines the country’s commitment to refugees, preventing many with a well-founded fear of persecution from receiving protection.

The deadline harms a range of refugees, who often have good reasons for not applying for asylum within a year. But it’s especially harmful to refugees who face extra barriers. LGBT refugees, for instance, often fall victim to the deadline.

Some refugees who have been persecuted due to their sexual orientation or gender identify are suffering the effects of this persecution, making it difficult for them to discuss their experiences with U.S. authorities. And they often face considerable social stigma or risks of harm.  When they first arrive in the United States, they often must seek shelter and support from extended family or other community members from their home countries. Fearing the loss of this critical lifeline, and the loss of community more broadly, refugees may fear disclosing their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. And some aren’t even aware that persecution for sexual orientation or gender identity can be a basis for asylum.

Others may not fear return to their home country initially, but  when situations later become dangerous in their home countries, they may believe they are unable to seek asylum in the United States if they have missed the filing deadline. That is, the deadline deters people who need asylum from applying for it.

We recently sat down with CJ, a  gay man who had been persecuted due to his sexual orientation in Peru. After CJ came to the United States, he didn’t know about asylum. He was diagnosed with HIV and became even more  afraid of what could happen to him if he were forced to  return home. He fell into depression and spoke to a mental health specialist who told him about asylum—but the filing deadline was already long past.

Thankfully, CJ’s pro bono attorney, working with us, was able to help him navigate the confusing process, and he was finally granted asylum. But many asylum seekers don’t have representation, and the inefficiencies and delays caused by the filing deadline deter some  attorneys from taking asylum cases on a pro bono basis.

As the Senate begins floor debate on its comprehensive immigration bill, S. 744, Human Rights First urges lawmakers to live up to America’s commitment to refugees by eliminating the deadline.