As millions waited this week for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, dozens of LGBT immigrants sat in American detention centers after fleeing what they say is persecution in their homelands because of their sexual orientation.
Now, a coalition of attorneys, lawmakers and immigrant rights groups are calling on the federal government to release some of the asylum-seekers, arguing they remain at risk for violence while they are locked up. The groups also want the government to collect better data that would shed more light on how many people are fleeing because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Opponents of releasing asylum-seekers from detention centers say such immigrants would be unlikely to show up for hearings.
The issue hit close to home for many LGBT Texans when earlier this month, Sulma Franco, a lesbian from Guatemala, sought sanctuary in a Central Austin church after being denied asylum.
Immigration Equality, a New York-based group that advocates and provides legal services for LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants across the country, recorded more than 500 cases involving LGBT asylum-seekers from 2010 to 2014. But that number is only a fraction of the bigger picture, said Sharita Gruberg, a policy analyst with the Center for American Progress.
Though immigration agents question asylum-seekers about their concerns, the federal government does not track the number of people seeking asylum specifically because they are LGBT.
"We've been advocating for the government to collect data on this," she said. "We don't get a good picture of who's seeking protection."
LGBT asylum-seekers who are released from detention are likely to show up for their hearings because their cases have merit, said Vanessa Allyn, a managing attorney at Human Rights First, an advocacy group whose Houston office has secured two asylum claims for LGBT people in the past year and has five more pending.
“The real question is: Why are we detaining these individuals in the first instance? If they can articulate a credible claim of fear on recognized grounds for protection, then they are going to show up for their hearings,” she said. “There is no reason for them to disappear into the ether of the United States. They are definitely going to come and they are going to articulate their claim and they are probably going to be granted relief.”
Her confidence stems from a 1994 decision in which a gay Cuban man was granted asylum due to his sexual orientation. In that case, known as the Toboso-Alfonso case, then-Attorney General Janet Reno ruled that the man could seek protection due to persecution in his homeland.
“That was precedential in 1994, so this [protection] has been around for actually quite a while,” she said. “It’s binding within all the asylum courts within the United States."
But the ruling also prompted concerns that asylum-seekers could lie and claim LGBT status in order to gain legal residency in the United States. That concern persists today.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that seeks to limit immigration to the United States, said LGBT people, like any asylum-seekers, should be vetted thoroughly to weed out fraud.
“That’s an ongoing concern across the board,” he said. “It’s not new news; we’ve been watching fraud in the asylum process for a long time.”
Mehlman cited as proof the system is being gamed a report by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that says the majority of asylum-seekers do not show up for their hearings.
Advocates have an army of Congressional Democrats on their side, however.
In a letter dated June 23, a group of 35 Congressional Democrats wrote to Department of Homeland of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson urging him to change current detention policies for LGBT people. Included on the correspondence were the signatures of U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth and Al Green, D-Houston.
“Detention should almost never be used for vulnerable groups such as LGBT immigrants facing immigration proceedings," the letter said. "Recent surveys of jails and prisons by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that non-heterosexual detainees experience sexual assault at up to ten times the rate of heterosexual men. The situation is starker for transgender detainees.”
Mehlman said he agrees that all detainees, regardless of their claims, should be treated humanely. But he argues there is a reason to keep them in detention.
“Bottom line is there is a very valid reason,” he said. “They are not going anywhere. Whether they are LGBTQ or anyone else.”