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Witnessing Justice: Transgender Woman Granted Asylum in Baltimore by FOBR Liz Keyes

22 Nov

This is a guest post by FOBR Liz Keyes, who direct the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore.

Today was a beautiful day in Baltimore immigration court. A young woman from Honduras, born male but always feeling female inside, won asylum after suffering relentless torment from her earliest days until she fled at age 17. Everyone she ever knew in Honduras treated her with cruelty, from the teachers who brutally punished her, to the classmates hurling slurs, to her father who beat her viciously, and her sister who attacked with her with a machete when she saw our client wearing girl’s clothes. The brutality escalated the older she got, and after being attacked with knives and a gun by homophobic gang members, she finally fled, deeply traumatized by her experience. She knew nothing of asylum in the United States, and did not apply within one year, as the law requires. When she came to the attention of immigration authorities in New Jersey, she was placed in detention for months–and the wonderful non-profit Immigration Equality found her there, filed an initial asylum application for her, and got her out of immigration detention.

Since she had friends in Maryland, she moved here and became a client of the University of Baltimore School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. We assigned her case to a second year law student, Jose Perez, who threw himself into the case, interviewing our client many times, finding a psychologist through Physicians for Human Rights who could provide an evaluation of our client’s level of trauma, and developing an extraordinarily comprehensive set of evidence corroborating exactly how bad life was for transgendered individuals in Honduras, as well as a compelling legal brief addressing the complications of the case. Jose could have handed off his work to another student this fall, but he wanted to stay on and see it through–even knowing that his firstborn child was due three weeks before the hearing date.

Today, his work and commitment paid off.

As a clinical teacher, it is hard to let a student stand in the well of the court alone, even when you know how prepared they are. The burden feels too great, and I well remember being in the same position twice as a law student. But he had done his preparation, and as he said in a last email to me last night, “LET’S DO THIS THING.”

So he did. And it went so well that I felt bewildered. Grateful and moved, but bewildered. First, the attorney for the government let him know it was a strong case, and he only had a few reservations. Then the judge said that because the written application was so extensive and detailed, we could skip over much of our planned testimony. Jose asked a few questions about our client’s childhood experiences, eliciting some tremendous emotion, after which he simply asked her if her statement in the record was truthful and correct. She said yes, and Jose moved quickly through remaining issues, including what the client’s hopes were for her life here. This question finally elicited a small smile, as she said she hoped she could marry some day and adopt a child. She spoke of how she wanted to study and work, if the court was kind enough to grant her status here.

And when the government assured the Judge that it had no opposition to asylum, the Judge issued her opinion, welcomed our client to America, and said, “America is grateful you are here.”

The words stunned me. And perhaps I misheard. I tend to prepare for the worst, and imagine every way a case could go off track. So I was already disoriented by how well everything had gone. But this is what I heard, and these words moved me deeply. They seemed to create a perfect symmetry: this young woman who had known nothing but suffering and rejection for the first 17 years of her life, was being accorded respect and welcome by our government, by every single individual in that courtroom.

I know that life for transgender people in the United States remains dangerous and difficult. But this morning was a beautiful, inspiring measure of how far our society has moved toward tolerance and acceptance. The child who had been so unloved was finally welcomed, and not one person this morning stood in the way of that just outcome.

For our client, today meant safety, and the promise that she could start building the life she dreamed of, free from fear of returning to a country where she would likely be killed for being herself.

For my student, it was a beautiful reminder of why he had come to law school, and why he wants to be an immigration lawyer.

And for me, it was a much needed reminder of what justice can look like. It was a privilege to be in that court this morning to observe justice in action. May it always be so. La lucha sigue.

Congratulations to the National Center for Transgender Equality: Let’s Hope ENDA Does Better than CIR!

13 Nov

Our moment

Last night, Jen Cook and I went to the National Council for Transgender Equality’s  (NCTE) 10th Anniversary event.  The evening was themed “Our Moment,” reflecting the organization’s intention to build upon the successes of the gay rights movement in the past year, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Windsor decision, and the many states that have enacted gay marriage.  In fact, even as the party went on, the festivities were interrupted to announce that Hawaii became the 16th state to allow for gay marriage.  As acceptance of full rights for gays and lesbians has grown tremendously over the past few years, acceptance of the essential humanity of the transgendered has not moved as quickly.  There have been victories- the Affordable Care Act provides increased access to needed medical services to transgender individuals, transgender individuals such as Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, and Lana Wachowski have upped awareness of trans issues in our culture.  Even Chelsea Manning has forced us to confront the dilemmas facing trans people in the military and in prison.

There was palpable excitement in the room last night.  Last week the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal nationwide to fire or discriminate in employment issues against someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Employment discrimination against trans individuals is a serious problem, with 90 percent of trans individuals reporting that they suffered some form of employment discrimination in their lives.  The Senate ENDA bill is termed “trans-inclusive,” because it has expressly included discrimination protections for transgender individuals, whereas previous incarnations had sacrificed the “T” in GLBT as protections for trans individuals were just a bridge too far for some.  But this years ENDA is trans-inclusive and is now headed to the House of Representatives.   As immigration lawyers, our hearts sank as we heard people express optimism over the chances for its passage in the House.  Over the last four months, we have watched as the House has run out the clock on immigration reform.  Even after being confronted by young activists who brought their plights to him over breakfast, Speaker John Boehner made it clear today that no immigration legislation is moving this year.

 

If anyone believes that House members can be moved by hearing the personal stories of those effected by our terrible immigration laws or due to employment discrimination because of gender identity, Boehner’s cold response to these teenagers who spoke truth to power should put that notion to rest.  George Washington called the Senate the “cooling saucer” because it was meant to temper the excitable House of Representatives.  That role has changed and a group of 40 Tea Party Republicans in the House can stymie the hopes and aspirations of immigrants and trans men and women.  It is truly ironic because both pieces of legislation easily passed the Senate and would easily pass the House if the speaker would just bring it to a vote.  Yet, the Speaker cares more about the needs of his 40 Tea Party members than he does the suffering of 11 million immigrants or the need for employment discrimination protection for vulnerable minorities.

Our involvement in trans issues began when young trans women came into our office and asked us to help them apply for asylum.  Most had come from Central America and they all had stories of beatings, rapes, and rejection by their family.  They braved smugglers and human traffickers to make it to the U.S., where they found a chance to be themselves.  We have been able to obtain asylum for dozens of transgender individuals and not just from Central America.  Persecution of the non-gender-conforming is a worldwide pestilence.  To hear and know their stories and their bravery in leaving their homes under dangerous circumstances to have a chance to simply be themselves fills us with great admiration and respect for these individuals.  Their needs are far more fundamental than a job.  They come to America to be who they are.  It all starts there.  Over the years of representing trans individuals in asylum and then for green cards and, ultimately, citizenship, we have watched them grow into themselves, get stable employment, start relationships and family, and give back to their communities.  To watch a human being develop to her potential is like watching a flower bloom.  You can never grow tired of it.

The NTCE has done tremendous work to bring trans civil rights to the forefront of the political arena.  Like immigration reform, I am confident that full civil rights for trans people will occur in the future.  Last night, we heard from 33 year old Dylan Orr, a White House appointee, and 23 year old Sarah McBride, a political activist, about their professional experiences as a trans man and trans woman respectively.  They are the future and that gives us confidence and joy.