On May 7, 2018, the United States implemented the “zero tolerance” family separation policy, directing immigration authorities to systematically separate children from their parents at the border, a practice that had been ongoing as early as November 2017.  The stated purpose of this policy was to deter future migrants from attempting to cross the border, including migrants seeking asylum in the United States fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries.  Although the government formally ended the policy in June 2018 following widespread public outcry, many hundreds of children remain separated from their parents.  To address this problem, on February 2, 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order in an effort to reunite children separated from their families at the United States-Mexico border.  Numerous nonprofit agencies and law firms, including Proskauer, have stepped forward to help victims of family separation obtain humanitarian parole and become reunited with their families.

News sources have widely reported that beginning in 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began expelling from the United States immigrant women who recently gave birth, as well as their U.S. citizen infants.  These actions were part of the former administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which, among other things, intentionally separated thousands of families at the border.  Regardless of any right to asylum, these women were expelled from the country days after giving birth.  Even though their U.S-born children would have been U.S. citizens, many mothers were not even given birth certificates for their children.  Making matters worse, these women were often forced into dangerous conditions, having to sleep in shelters or on the streets in Mexico with their newborns.

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.

An anxious mother, detained in a separate facility from her son, is informed that authorities had lost track of him.  A devastated father is deported without his child.  A crying child is ripped from his father’s arms and put into a cage-like metal cell.  These Proskauer clients – all escaping violence in Central America – suffered those horrors not in their home countries but in the country where they sought asylum, in the United States.

Beginning in 2017 as a pilot project, the U.S. government began splitting thousands of families in an effort to deter immigration across the southern border.  The practice became official in 2018 through the government’s “zero tolerance” policy which called for the detention and prosecution of all individuals – including those seeking asylum – who crossed the border anywhere other than an official port of entry.

While national outrage prompted an official end to the policy, the government did not stop, and to this day continues to separate families.  In total, over 5,500 children have been separated from their parents since 2017, at least 1,100 of whom were separated after the policy officially ended.  Tragically, the parents of 666 separated children still have not been found.

On October 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking governing the “Affidavit of Support” requirements under section 213A of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Certain immigrants seeking to come to the United States are required to submit an Affidavit of Support signed by a sponsor who agrees to provide financial support to the sponsored immigrant. The Proposed Rule would impose onerous requirements on petitioning sponsors and joint sponsors, thereby making it more difficult for many noncitizens to immigrate to or remain in the United States, which can in turn have the negative effect of separating, or prolonging the separation of, immigrant families.

Among other sweeping changes, the Proposed Rule would impose the following burdens on potential financial sponsors and joint sponsors:

  • The sponsor must find a joint sponsor if (i) he or she used any amount of means-tested public benefits during the three years prior to submitting the Affidavit of Support, or (ii) the petitioning sponsor had a judgment entered against him or her at any time for failing to meet any prior sponsorship or household member obligation.
  • An individual cannot be a joint sponsor if (i) he or she has received means-tested public benefits during the previous three years, or (ii) had a judgment entered against him or her for failure to meet sponsor or household member obligations.
  • Sponsors must comply with burdensome and intrusive requests for sensitive personal information, including three years of bank account and tax documentation.
  • Significant limitations will be placed on the class of people who can be considered “household members” for purposes of adding their incomes to the sponsor’s income. For example, to combine the intending immigrant’s income with the sponsor’s, the immigrant and the sponsor must plan to live in the same household.

On October 30, 2020, Proskauer filed an amicus brief on behalf of 25 leading colleges and universities in support of a preliminary injunction sought by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the Northern District of California against Interim Final Rules issued by the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Labor. The new Rules substantially restrict eligibility for the H-1B, H-1B1, E-3, EB-2, and EB-3 visa programs relied upon by academic institutions to employ thousands of highly skilled international workers. In doing so, the new Rules will negatively impact workers who, through the universities and academic medical centers that employ them, provide critical contributions to the research that drives our nation’s scientific progress, public health, and economic vitality.

The amicus brief gives voice to academic institutions that were previously unable to make their concerns known because DHS and DOL issued the Interim Final Rules on October 8, 2020 without providing the required notice-and-comment period under the Administrative Procedure Act. The DOL Rule went into effect immediately and the DHS Rule is effective on December 7, 2020.  Had there been an opportunity for these institutions to provide comments regarding the Rules, the agencies would have been required to consider the irreparable harm that the Rules will cause to international workers, who are educating our nation’s students and performing research on COVID-19, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other key areas in science and medicine.

Pervasive anti-LGBTQ violence around the world causes many individuals to flee their countries of origin in search of safety. The past few years have been tremendously difficult for immigrants of all walks of life, but especially so for LGBTQ and HIV-affected asylum applicants who have fled to the United States