As Latin Nations Treat Gays Better, Asylum Is Elusive

As the gay rights movement progresses in Latin American countries, homosexual Mexicans struggle to prove asylum in the United States is warranted.
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SAN DIEGO -- Quietly over the past 14 years, gay men and lesbians from Mexico have sought -- and received -- political asylum in the United States based on their sexual orientation and the argument that the culture of "machismo" in their country has sometimes put homosexuals there in danger.

But as Mexico and other Latin American countries begin to liberalize laws regarding homosexuality, hold gay pride events and expand treatment for people with AIDS, it is becoming increasingly difficult to win such cases, say asylum applicants, U.S. lawyers and Latino activists.

"For a time, it seemed like it was a slam-dunk if you were gay, from Mexico and filed for asylum in the United States," said Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School. "But there's been a turning point. The gay rights movement has started to make progress in Mexico, and it's a little harder to show" that asylum is warranted, he said.

The subtle, unofficial shift in immigration policy has significant public health implications, say leaders throughout the region who view asylum as a path to better treatment of people with HIV. Though many applaud the progress on gay rights and AIDS care, they caution that it may take decades to reverse deeply ingrained attitudes toward homosexuality that are closely connected to the spread of HIV in the region.

Figures for asylum decisions are unavailable, but immigration lawyers hazard a guess that in the past, dozens were granted every year to gay Mexicans. The Department of Homeland Security does not track asylum by categories such as religious affiliation or sexual orientation. But Leonard and other experts report that applications by gay men and lesbians from throughout Latin America are encountering more hurdles.

Last fall, U.S. circuit courts rejected asylum requests by two gay Mexican men, and a recent policy requires that every asylum request from Mexico undergo a separate review by homeland security officials in Washington. Those developments have raised alarm in immigrant-heavy communities in San Diego and elsewhere.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there has been no policy change regarding asylum eligibility for gay men and lesbians. They said they have no way of knowing whether asylum officers or immigration judges have become more skeptical about requests from Latin American homosexuals because they do not track that data.

"We were winning cases left and right," said Antonio Munoz, an advocate in San Diego. "Then last year, it really tightened up."

No group in Mexico has been hit harder by AIDS than men who have sex with men -- and nothing has done more to fuel the epidemic than homophobia, said Jorge Saavedra, chief of Mexico's AIDS programs. In the nation where the International AIDS Conference convened last week, gay men are 109 times as likely to contract HIV as the general population, he said.

Across Latin America, men who engage in homosexual sex are 33 times as likely to be infected with HIV, according to a report released at the conference by the Foundation for AIDS Research, known as AmFAR.

"People think the homophobia is under control, which is not true," Saavedra said. "Homophobia in Mexico is really high."

Saavedra, who is openly gay and HIV-positive, has a unique perspective on the situation in Mexico. As a government official, he points to achievements, particularly Mexico's low overall infection rate of 0.3 percent of the population. But because the country routinely experiences medication shortages, discrimination and violence against gays, some still need asylum, he said.

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