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Student groups seek solutions for institutionalized LGBTI immigration discrimination

Amy Tozer |
Seeking solutions
Some of the panelists pose with student organizers. Front L-R: Edison Lin 17L, Lauren Ulrich 16L, Professor Polly Price, Erin Gomez 16L, Tracie Klinke Back L-R: KC Covington 17L, Kerry McGrath, Shana Tabak, Michael Turton, Jean Rhodes 16L

In mid-March, the Emory International Law Review, the Immigration Law Practice Society, and Emory OUTLaw hosted a conference to address the persecution and protection of LGBTI immigrants (people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex). Introduced by Erin Gomez, president of ILPS, Lauren Ulrich, 2015-2016 editor-in-chief of EILR, and KC Covington, president of OUTLaw, this two-panel scholarly conversation highlighted the struggles LGBTI immigrants face abroad, while coming to the U.S., and once they arrive in the U.S.

The first panel addressed LGBTI country of origin persecution and its effects on immigration with panelists Shana Tabak, professor, Georgia State University College of Law, and Michael Turton, partner, Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton.

Tabak and Turton explored the discrimination faced by LGBTI people in other countries, including institutionalized discrimination and violence that are often carried out by the police. LGBTI individuals face housing and employment discrimination, electroshock therapy to “convert” people, inaction by the police when violence occurs, “corrective rape” used on a lesbian woman to “correct” her sexuality and, in some cases, the death penalty for same-sex relationships.

Once here, how people are held and what services are available in detention centers add to their burden. The special health care needs of members of this community are not adequately met. Many people do not have attorneys who can help them navigate the detention process so they are sent back to their home countries. For people who have faced persecution around their sexual identity since childhood, hiding their identity becomes a defense mechanism.

When asked what could improve the situation for LGBTI immigrants, Tabak and Turton had suggestions that would improve things for all asylum seekers: ensure access to well-trained lawyers, ensure access to someone who can speak their language, and only detain refugees if they pose a national security concern. In addition, detention centers, located far from cities, are in desperate need of attorneys.

The second panel examined avenues of protection in the U.S. for LGBTI immigrants. Panelists included Kerry McGrath, attorney with the law office of Kerry E. McGrath; Tracie Klinke, attorney with Klinke Immigration; and Polly Price, professor, Emory University School of Law.

Panelists suggested that U.S. immigration law can protect the LGBTI community through asylum law. Asylum is a form of statutory relief for anyone who meets the definition of a refugee. Non-citizens must prove they are unable to return to their home country on account of race, religion, political affiliation, or membership in a particular social group, which includes LGBTI identity or HIV status. Still, LGBTI asylum-seekers face challenges. Persecution in detention centers for LGBTI immigrants can be so bad that they may opt to return home rather than remain in detention.

The panel had several ideas to improve the process for asylum seekers:

  • End automatic detention for asylum seekers.
  • Repeal the arbitrary filing deadline.
  • Increase the number of asylum officers to handle the asylum backlog.
  • Create an automatic presumption of fear of returning to one’s home country if the person is LGBTI.
  • Remove language that makes asylum more difficult from unrelated laws.
  • Provide sensitivity training for judges.

Emory Law’s Professor Timothy Holbrook closed the conference by praising the three student groups for working together to bring this conversation to Emory Law. He also stressed the importance of public service and pro bono work for our students. In the 1990s, Holbrook did pro bono work in immigration for people with AIDS. He described it as a very bleak time. While we still have a long way to go, the conference held at Emory Law on immigration and the LGBTI community highlights the progress and achievements that have been made.