Last spring, Proskauer launched a partnership with the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) – an organization focused on empowering Asian American, immigrant, and low-income communities in New York City. Continuing our partnership, we launched an “Advancing Social Justice Summer Teen Series,” where a select group of students took part in a six-week series where conversations addressed paths to law school and social justice issues.
In 2014, I had the privilege of representing two extraordinary young asylum seekers who had fled from Macedonia, where, because they are a gay couple, they had suffered extreme homophobic violence and sexual abuse at the hands of civilians and police officers. In 2021, I had the honor of helping them become U.S. citizens.
In reflecting on my clients’ seven-year journey to United States citizenship, I am reminded of how much has changed, but also how much has unfortunately remained the same and how far we have yet to go in the pursuit of LGBTQ human rights both at home and abroad.
The first of my two Macedonian clients arrived in the U.S. in 2012, and the second client joined him here in May 2013, just one month before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013). In Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), through which Congress had sought to define “marriage” and “spouse” in more than 1,000 federal laws and federal regulations in a way that excluded same-sex spouses, thereby depriving them of the benefits that would come with federal recognition of their marriages and imposing “a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter same-sex marriages.” Id. at 770. The Supreme Court found that DOMA deprived gay and lesbian married couples of equal liberty under the Fifth Amendment because it interfered with the equal dignity of marriages under State laws recognizing marriage between same-sex spouses.
On February 5, 2021, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) granted asylum to our client, a gay man who suffered horrific violence based on his sexual orientation. For their own homophobic reasons, the police in his country of origin refused to investigate the hate crimes that were committed against him. Fearing for his life, our client fled to the United States. Now that he has received asylum, he can live and work in the United States indefinitely.
The modern asylum system grew out of a reaction to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. In 1951, the United Nations defined a refugee as any individual not able to return to his or her home country because of a well-founded fear of future persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The United States later signed onto this system, and in the 1990s, officially recognized that persecution due to one’s sexual orientation can qualify as a basis for asylum.
Nearly one-third of transgender individuals experience homelessness at some point in their life, and 70% of those who have stayed in a homeless shelter have reported some form of mistreatment, including harassment and refusal of service, due to their gender identity. Transgender individuals are significantly more likely to end up homeless than the general population because they often face rejection by their family members and discrimination in employment and housing. The levels of discrimination and income inequality are even higher for transgender women of color, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the rates of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness among the transgender population.
On September 22, 2020, Proskauer pro bono attorneys filed a public comment letter on behalf of The National LGBT Bar Association and Foundation urging the withdrawal of a Proposed Rule issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that would severely harm homeless transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals by allowing federally funded homeless shelters to discriminate against them on the basis of their gender identity. The Proposed Rule would eliminate key non-discrimination protections previously afforded to transgender shelter-seekers under HUD’s 2016 Equal Access Rule and would permit single-sex shelters to turn away transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals if the shelter operator determines that the individual is not of the same “biological sex” as the other shelter residents.
According to the most recent FBI statistics, reported incidents of hate crimes increased by 17 percent in 2017, rising for the third consecutive year. The FBI determined that the primary motivators of these crimes were race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.1 When compounded with the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and recent changes in U.S. policy that negatively impact immigrants seeking asylum relief, there is an enormous, urgent need for effective pro bono legal services among LGBTQ immigrants.
Given this context, Bloomberg LP and Proskauer are proud sponsors of Lauren DesRosiers, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), who is devoted to providing holistic legal services to LGBTQ immigrant survivors of violence. According to Lauren, “this project combats the further marginalization of these communities by creating channels whereby LGBTQ immigrant survivors of violence can be paired with pro bono attorneys and other forms of representation.”