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LGBT Refugees and Asylees Have Their Own Trump Fears

In the days following President Trump's first executive orders on immigration, LGBT activists gathered outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, an enduring symbol of gay rights. An activist from Mexico took the microphone. "Hello beautiful people!" bellowed Ishalaa Ortega. "I am a transgender woman of color from Mexico...I have to leave my country, my family, my friends behind and became an immigrant not because I want to invade this country but because my life was at risk...I lost almost everything, but not my dignity as a human being!" Ortega, a political asylee now living in Queens, told the crowd how she learned about Stonewall in a book when she was 12 years old. "That gave me the strength to come out forward for every time in my childhood another kid kicked me, punched me, humiliated me, laugh about me for who I am," she said. Long after the institutionalized discrimination that led to the violence in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, activists are rising again. They are concerned that Trump's approach to immigration could be uniquely problematic for gay and transgender people seeking refuge in America. Advocates say LGBT refugees turned away at the border face death at home or back in refugee camps. But if they make it to the U.S., life might not be much better. The Trump Administration is expected to increase the use of detention centers for would-be asylees—which is particularly problematic because of the documented history of sexual and physical abuse endured by LGBT detainees. That's what prompted Ortega to speak at the rally at the invitation of Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants. The group represented Ortega in her quest for asylum; she's now applying for a green card. Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, is concerned that LGBT protections—like asylum prioritization for gay activists or those with HIV—could be weakened under Trump. "For the LGBTQ community, the asylum system is really a life-saving safety net that we have to have," Morris said. "It's an international human rights obligation we have, and if we don't do it I think it makes it a pretty terrible standard for the rest of the world." Consider Ortega's story. She has lived on both sides of the border, though she said it was actually in America where she first became the victim of a brutal crime. Outside a club in California in 2003, Ortega said she was hit on the head with a hammer and then taken away in a truck. She was raped. Emotionally broken, she returned to Mexico and started speaking out. "I start fighting so hard for me and the people that is like me," she said. As an activist for LGBT rights in Mexico, she was one of those who successfully pushed to allow transgender women to use pictures of themselves as women on their government IDs. She and other activists also fought to limit a practice in jails in which transwomen were forced to be naked in front of groups of men. But in 2013, her activism made her a target. A gubernatorial candidate for a state in Mexico announced during a televised debate that he wouldn't ally with any political party that supported gay marriage. Ortega publicly opposed the candidate, which drew threats from his supporters. "They said that they're going to kill me if I don't stop doing what I was doing," she said. Supporters of the candidate told her she'd be killed, wrapped in a blanket and thrown in the street. Three days before the election, she walked into the United States and requested political asylum. She ended up in detention as her case was reviewed. There are few units for transgender people in the entire federal immigration detention system. She was given a choice: enter solitary confinement or bunk with the men. "There's no place for people like me," Ortega said. She stayed with the men. Once her makeup started running and her beard started growing, she was laughed at. In 2015, after bouncing around different detention facilities, her sister posted bail and Ortega won asylum. The concern that the U.S. will no longer be a safe haven for LGBT asylees has been amplified by small slights — like when Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, seemed to avoid saying "LGBT" during her confirmation hearing last month despite being pressed by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. "Specifically on the LGBT rights, will you be a champion of protecting their dignity, security and safety in the global human rights context?" Booker asked. "I will make sure that there is no one that is discriminated against for any reason whatsoever," Haley said. "And every person deserves decency and respect." Despite the political rhetoric, Aaron Morris of Immigration Equality offered what he described as "good news." "The good news is President Trump cannot overturn protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity," he said. "If you can prove it is dangerous in your nation and you make it inside America and you apply for asylum the government is still recognizing that as a fundamental human right. So far."

Students Showcase Projects at Lively History Fair

In a stately exhibition hall of the New York Historical Society, with oil paintings in large gold frames, social studies received some special treatment. A replica of The Mayflower, made of cardboard and a canvas sail, was large enough for a child to stand in. A meticulously constructed physical map the size of a dining table — carefully transported, in full, to the Historical Society — illustrating historic rail transport across the United States. Rows of tri-fold boards lined the exhibit hall with presentations on topics like early explorers, civil rights and the French Revolution. The work on display represented the first annual social studies fair for students in District 75, the group of schools serving students with disabilities severe enough to need intensive supports. "Everyone's so creative and everyone has, like, this whole vision of what they think," said Isis Chavez, 13, and a student at P23 in Queens. Isis stood next to a diorama she created depicting colonial life. Two tables down, for a project on early exploration of New York, a student dressed as Samuel de Champlain answered trivia questions on demand. Raizy Reider, director of literacy and social studies for District 75, said understanding historic events and learning about civic engagement was especially important for this population. "They need to know their history," said Reider. "They need to know everything about being in the world and coming out and functioning as independent citizens." New York City rolled out a new social studies curriculum this school year for kindergarten through eighth grade, called Passport to Social Studies. Education officials said it was developed by the city's Department of Education with teachers, historians and cultural partners. The majority of K-8 schools have adopted it, including schools in District 75.

Resettlement Group Continues Work Amid National Uncertainty

In the two weeks following a stay on President Donald Trump's ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, the Jersey City office of resettlement agency Church World Service had to find housing for two dozen refugees coming to the United States. Director Megan Johnson says in an average month, her office resettles closer to 15 people. But lately, it's been very busy. "We are mobilizing everybody, then stopping everybody," she said. "We don't know exactly what's going to happen moving forward." Johnson's office is one of many that is struggling to continue its work amid national uncertainty over immigration policy. Trump is expected to issue a new order this week, following the stay granted by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But groups like Church World Service are forging ahead, despite the uncertainty. Last week, Johnson met with a grassroots group, Greater New York City Families for Syria, to talk about how they might work together. The group started on Facebook in late December, and now has over 1,300 members. The goal is to create a network of people ready and willing to help out when help is needed. Johnson said it's help from the public, including putting pressure on public officials, that will ultimately make the difference. Her agency is currently working to find housing for its next family, scheduled to arrive from Afghanistan early next month.

Here's Why Immigrant Victims May (Still) Be Afraid to Report Crime

Immigrants without legal status are often vulnerable to crime, because they're afraid of going to law enforcement and being deported. This is why Congress authorized a special program called the U visa almost 20 years ago. It enables them to remain in the U.S. and work if they can prove they were helpful to investigators or prosecutors. "It helps create community partnerships with law enforcement and helps keep perpetrators of violence off the street," said Suzanne Tomatore, coordinator of the Immigrant Justice Project at the City Bar Justice Center. The U visa was part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. It's grown so popular that last fall there were 87,000 applications pending, nationally, because the government has a cap of 10,000 U visas each year. This means applicants now wait years for approval, and a few thousand applicants each year are denied. Now that Pres. Donald Trump is strengthening border protections and limiting travel, attorneys who deal with victims of domestic violence worry their clients will be too afraid to apply for U visas. They also describe tremendous anxiety among those who have already applied and are waiting for final approval. "They're worried that somebody's going to come to their door and pick them up and move them from the United States and separate them from their children who, many times are U.S. citizens," said Susanna Saul, managing attorney of Her Justice, a nonprofit legal service organization for low income women. "It's hard to give any assurance now." Waiting in Fear Michelle is one U visa applicant who is living with that anxiety. She would not give her real name, or even her country of origin — except to say that she is from the Caribbean — because of her immigration status. In 2014, Michelle said her husband was beating her on a regular basis. But she was too afraid to call the police. "At that point I had overstayed my visa," she explained. "He's the person who's paying the bills... I felt like there was nothing for me to do and just accept it." But when her son told his preschool teachers about the abuse, everything came out in the open. Michelle was questioned by the Administration for Children's Services. Despite her being in the U.S. unlawfully, she learned she could qualify for a U visa because she was a victim of domestic violence. Michelle eventually got an order of protection against her husband and a letter from the Administration for Children's Services stating that she had cooperated with law enforcement. But that was two years ago. She and her now seven-year-old son are still waiting for a U visa. In the meantime, they're staying at a homeless shelter near Midtown Manhattan where Michelle said they sometimes don't have heat or hot water and also don't have a kitchen. "To be honest, like, I prefer to be beaten," she said, adding that at least she would have permanent housing, clothes and the ability to cook for her child. She also worries Pres. Trump could have her deported, because her application for a U visa is now in the hands of the federal government. "I'm in a shelter. So for me it's easy for them to just come and get me," she said. "And what's going to happen to my kid? It's terrifying." Tomatore, of the City Bar Justice Center, said she's been telling women like Michelle that they should be safe from deportation if they've already filed an application for a U visa. "It will offer a defense to removal," she explained. "So it does protect the individuals who have applied." She also urged others to apply. Attorneys who represent immigrant crime victims were spooked recently when ICE agents arrested a woman in Texas who was reporting domestic abuse, though it's not known if she was seeking a U visa. The government said the woman had previous criminal convictions. Nonetheless, attorneys believe the U visa program is safe because it can't be scrapped by the president alone. Changing it would take approval from Congress. Two Republican lawmakers — Sen. Chuck Grassley and Congressman Bob Goodlatte — did send a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in December asking about the potential for fraud in the U visa program. Neither would talk to WNYC about whether this means they intend to propose any changes. Regardless of their concerns, New York Republican Congressman Dan Donovan believes the program is worthwhile. He was previously the Staten Island district attorney, and saw victims who cooperated enough to qualify for U visas. "I thought it was very worthwhile and I suspect it's hard to measure how many lives were protected, or how many people were not abused further because of the program," he said. WNYC asked the White House if Pres. Trump has any opinion on the U visa program, but we didn't hear back. Problems in Family Court Advocates for victims of domestic are also concerned about another, local issue relating to U visas. Late last year, the Fund for Modern Courts released a report finding "significant confusion" among the city's family court judges when crime victims ask them to sign certifications for U visas. "The problem that we face with some family court judges is that they think that they are making immigration decisions," said Terry Lawson, director of the family and immigration unit at Bronx Legal Services. "They don't fully understand what their role is in this process. And so I've had judges that have denied my request for reasons that really don't make sense." The certification is like a letter of recommendation, stating a victim has cooperated with law enforcement. It's a crucial part of the application, which is sent to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for final approval. Attorney Susanna Saul at Her Justice showing the steps immigrant crime victims go through to get a U Visa, which can grant them legal status (Beth Fertig/WNYC) Here in New York, certifications can be signed by district attorneys, the NYPD, the Administration for Children's Services and a few other agencies. The city has taken steps in recent years to train its agencies about the process. But family court judges are not controlled by the city, and each judge may have different interpretations of the guidelines. For example, Judge John Hunt in Queens wrote an opinion last year in which he denied a certification for a U visa because he thought the victim should have asked the NYPD, instead. The judge declined a request for an interview by WNYC. It's hard to know how often family court judges deny requests for certification, because the court system doesn't keep any records of their decisions. But WNYC found other data indicating victims may be reluctant to ask a family court judges for help with U visas. In 2016, more than 2200 requests for U visa certifications were submitted to district attorneys, and city agencies including the NYPD. But only 110 requests were made to family court judges in all five boroughs. (Clarisa Diaz, WNYC Data News Team) "I'm surprised it is as low as it is," said Lawson. She said the numbers could mean attorneys are steering clients to other agencies, when possible, because of concerns about some family court judges. And not all requests for certification are appropriate for family court, depending on the case. Lawson is a member of the Advisory Council on Immigration Issues in Family Court, which is planning to give courts additional U visa guidelines soon. That help is welcome, according to Ann Marie Jolly, Deputy Administrative Judge for New York City Family Court. She said judges already receive training on U visas but, "each judge interprets the facts and the law based on what they're presented with." She also said she would look into tracking what happens to each request for U visa certification. "We have been recognizing the need to maintain data," she said. Getting the Visa Victims who eventually receive a U visa said it can make an enormous difference in their lives. In 2011, a young Dominican immigrant who had overstayed her visa said she was routinely beaten by her boyfriend. She asked that we call her Maria because she's still afraid of him. Maria went to the police and the Bronx district attorney. But the criminal case against her abuser was taking a long time. Her attorney, Terry Lawson, encouraged her to turn to a family court judge to get her U visa certification signed because she had already gone there for an order of protection. A year later, Maria got a U visa and later she received a green card, enabling her to gain permanent legal status. She now works and attends college. "This is sort of like, life-giving me something good after going through something bad," she stated. She said her abuser eventually spent several months in jail, once the criminal case was resolved. But attorneys who work with survivors of domestic violence said many crime victims don't want to go that route. "There are a lot of undocumented immigrants, especially now, who are wary of going to NYPD, who are wary of cooperating with the district attorney," said Saul, of Her Justice. But family court is part of the civil system. Saul said this makes it a preferred choice for victims who also don't want their abusers to get a criminal conviction and wind up being deported, cutting off financial support. Given the current anxiety in immigrant communities, she said immigrant victims may need family court more than ever to help them get on the path to legal status.

A President's Day Primer on Presidential Power

This President's Day marks the one-month anniversary of President Donald Trump's inauguration. And what a month it's been. The new president is waging battles on many fronts — the US intelligence community, the federal courts, the press, individual corporations, and even members of his own party. And with a controversial travel ban winding it's way through the court system, not to mention threats to deploy the National Guard or seize the oil from Iraq, a US ally, the culmination of Trump's first month in office offered the perfect opportunity to examine the limits (or lack thereof) on presidential power. WNYC's Jami Floyd digs into what the Constitution has to say about the matter with Elie Mystal, legal Editor for WNYC Studios' Supreme Court podcast More Perfect.

New Jersey Residents Hold Town Halls Without Their Congressman

About 150 constituents of Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen showed up for a town hall in the rural northwest corner of New Jersey on Sunday. The Congressman himself, however, did not. In fact, Frelinghuysen hasn't held a town hall in nearly four years, so residents across his district are meeting without him. "NJ 11th for Change" formed after the election and has since grown into a force on Facebook, with 6,500 members. Over the last few months, the group has held weekly protests at Frelinghuysen's office in Morristown, calling on their representative to hold a town hall. So far, they haven't had much luck. With Congress in recess this week and still no town halls scheduled, the group is holding their own in each county of the district. "I really want to hear his views, to begin with, to start a dialogue," said Paul Winke, a member of NJ 11th for Change from Montclair. "We've seen how he votes, but we've got a lot of votes coming up in Congress and we want to know where he stands on the issues." Frelinghuysen is the newly minted chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which has control of the federal budget. This is a Republican part of the district, and the crowd was mostly made up of Democratic-leaning locals. Many who attended wanted to know what he'll do to save the Affordable Care Act, and protect health coverage for seniors and the poor. The crowd cheered loudly to block funding of the wall President Trump wants to build on the Mexican border. And there were more cheers and applause after someone asked if they would like to see where Frelinghuysen's campaign contributions come from. "President Trump frightens me—I don't like the direction he's taking the country," said Byrum resident Celia Hester. "I don't like the fact that Mr. Frelinghuysen is voting complete party line without looking at what is actually being done, and I don't agree with the things that have been passed since he's come into office." NJ 11th for change live-streamed the event on Facebook, and isn't stopping with this one. They're holding more empty chair town halls for Frelinghuysen throughout the week, in Morris County on Tuesday night, Passaic on Wednesday and in Essex on Thursday evening.

NY Dems Divided on Strategy for Juvenile Justice Reform

They come from neighboring districts in central Brooklyn, and they're both say they're progressive Democrats. But sitting next to each other at a panel during the annual Albany ritual known as "Caucus" — a large gathering sponsored by the New York Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators — Senators Kevin Parker and Jesse Hamilton blamed each other for failing to ease the criminal prosecution of adolescents as adults. New York and North Carolina are the only two states that routinely prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Since 2012, Assembly Democrats and Governor Cuomo have backed efforts to make age 18 the cutoff, but efforts have stalled in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority. Hamilton recently joined the Independent Democratic Conference, a now eight-member faction that boosts the GOP's otherwise one-vote majority. Parker confronted Hamilton with his frustration. "We have a bill, [and] everyone should just get behind the bill and move it forward," Parker said. "But we can't do that, because we have renegade Democrats holding up an illegitimate Republican party." Hamilton said that after years of objections, some of his GOP allies were coming around and would soon submit a bill of their own. He said regular Democrats have been unable to get the deal done. "Right now the Republicans are in control, so the only way you're going to pass a bill is if the Republicans come on board," he said. "To me, if I have to talk to a Republican to get a bill passed, and affect 23,000 kids coming out of black and brown communities, I don't have a problem with that." Assemblyman Michael Blake, who moderated the panel, pleaded with the two men to set aside political differences in order to keep the younger teenagers off of Rikers Island and out of adult prisons.

Anxiety Over New Towers Planned in the Lower East Side

Tensions are running high in the Two Bridges neighborhood of the Lower East Side where three new skyscrapers are slated for development. The plans for the three buildings are allowed within the local zoning regulations and the developers can build as of right, but they still need to go through the city's environmental review process. Residents have been protesting and even walked out in the middle of a public information session in January. They are demanding the developers slow down the process. WNYC's Richard Hake speaks with DNAinfo Reporter Allegra Hobbs about her reporting.

Review: The Quiet Power of 'Man From Nebraska'

Director David Cromer has a way of elevating the ordinary (His final, breathtaking scene in his 2009 version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" forever changed that play for me). And actor Reed Birney brings complexity to the common man — he won a Tony Award for best Featured Actor in a Play last year for his roles as the father in "The Humans." Together, they highlight the richness of Tracy Letts' drama about a Midwestern man who goes to church with his wife (Annette O'Toole), has dinner at a fast-casual sort of place, and then, that night, breaks down in tears in the bathroom, weeping alone. He no longer feels the presence of God — and so he no longer believes. And because his whole life has been built around his faith, he no longer knows who he is or what he is supposed to be doing. So after his pastor tells him to take a trip alone, he heads to London. He is searching — for something, though he's not sure what. This should feel like a cliche, but there is a startling freshness here. None of the characters are stereotypes; not his wife, who in O'Toole's hands is forthright and strong, if baffled. Not the British bartender (Nana Mensah), who reluctantly takes him under her young wing. There is no sentimentality, no overwrought confessions or dramatic angst. Just the bite of true emotion and the message that no matter how lost someone is, there is always someone waiting to find them. Man From Nebraska By Tracy Letts; directed by David Cromer At Second Stage Theatre

Review: 'Escaped Alone' Captures the Current Political Moment

Four women in their 70s sit in a small, fenced garden in Britain, talking about nothing much: family, the antique shop that formerly was a cafe, the soap opera they follow on TV. They are working class and a bit frumpy. But then, out of the disjointed detritus of their conversation, surprises emerge. A little quantum physics. A little speculation about alternate universes. And once in a while, the stage goes dark and is rimmed with a red, menacing box of light. One of them, Mrs. Jarrett (a sly Linda Bassett), steps out and addresses the audience. She's an oracle of sorts, detailing ludicrous horrors that, in our age of "alternative facts" seem, well, possible. "The hunger began when 80 percent of food was diverted to TV programs," she says. "Commuters watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work. Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking. The entire food stock of Newcastle was won by lottery ticket and the winner taken to a 24-hour dining room, where 50 chefs chopped in relays and the public voted on what he should eat next." It's apocalyptic. We don't know if she's describing something that's happened, or about to happen, or is happening, or is imagined. But there's a sense that there's a darkness underlying everything — the sunny garden that slowly clouds over, the idle chatter. This sense is only heightened as each woman (Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson round out the cast), in monologue, describes a secret that darkens her life. The secrets are expressed so vividly that we are right there with them, feeling their internal claustrophobia as they wrestle with themselves. Caryl Churchill wrote "Escaped Alone" before Donald Trump became President — and before the Brexit vote, for that matter. But she perfectly captures the roiling anxiety of our current strange days. Yet it's not a dismal play. The women are wry and funny and smart and tough. There's a bright, lovely moment where they sing "Da Doo Ron Ron." They're good companions; not wise, exactly, but struggling with what many are struggling with: how to find happiness when the world seems to be shaking apart. Escaped Alone By Caryl Churchill; directed by James MacDonald The Royal Court Theatre at BAM through Feb. 26

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