IN THE 1990s, the United States was among the first countries to start granting sanctuary to LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution stemming from their sexual orientation or gender identity in their home countries. Now the Trump administration, intent on turning back the clock on almost every major facet of immigration policy, is increasingly complicit in their mistreatment.
As administration officials have intensified their efforts to hollow out the asylum system — narrowing eligibility criteria, creating bottlenecks for would-be asylum seekers at legal ports of entry and tearing apart families as a means of deterring future applicants — LGBTQ individuals have suffered inordinately. That is particularly true in the case of those from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America where sexual and gender-based violence is pervasive.
There are no statistics to indicate that LGBTQ asylum seekers are refused admittance to the United States more (or less) frequently than other applicants, though the rate at which migrants of all sorts are granted asylum seems to be plummeting because of the administration’s policies. However, sending LGBTQ migrants back across the southwestern border to Mexico subjects them to heightened risks: According to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, two-thirds of such individuals reported that they had suffered sexual or gender-based violence in Mexico after entering that country.
In the case of those deported to their countries of origin in the Northern Triangle, their fates are often even worse. A report last year from the rights group Amnesty International said LGBTQ deportees were effectively “sent back to hell,” based on the horrific conditions from which they fled in the first place. The UNHCR reported that 88 percent of LGBTQ asylum seekers had been victims of sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin.
Police and other law enforcement authorities in Central America and Mexico are often indifferent, and frequently overtly hostile, to the fate of LGBTQ individuals. A 34-year-old transgender woman interviewed by Amnesty International said she had fled El Salvador after receiving threats from a police officer who lived near her; when she tried to report him, she said, “the response was that they were going to lock me and my partner up.” She finally fled to Mexico, where she was harassed and abused by officials before finally being granted refugee status.
Another Salvadoran transgender woman interviewed by Amnesty International said that after reaching the United States, she was detained for more than three months in a cell with men — “they never took account of my sexuality or that I was trans.” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement sometimes, but not always, detains transgender women in a dedicated facility whose capacity is 60 beds.)
To qualify for asylum in the United States, migrants must prove they are subject to persecution in their home countries based on specific criteria, including identification with a particular social group, and that the government is either complicit in their mistreatment or powerless to stop it. By any reasonable assessment, many or most LGBTQ asylum seekers meet those criteria.