Gay Refugees Seek Asylum in U.S.

The United States offers asylum to gays and lesbians from other countries, and more are seeking it. In this week's Behind Closed Doors, Ivinelda Dos Santos shares why he sought asylum in the U.S. Also, Victoria Nielson with Immigration Equality, a group that works to help gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people seeking asylum, talks about the work of her group.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: dance hall beats with an island twist. The music of Collie Buddz is next. But first, our regular feature Behind Closed Doors, where we talk about issues that aren't so easy to discuss.

Today's topic: asylum and sexual orientation. Increasingly, the U.S. is granting asylum to those who have been persecuted not just because of political conviction or religious belief, but also because of their sexual orientation. It can be a difficult and dangerous journey.

With us to talk more about this is Ivinelda Dos Santos. He was granted asylum here based on his experiences as a gay man in Brazil. He joins us from NPR's Chicago bureau. Also with us is Victoria Neilson. She's the legal director of Immigration Equality, a New York-based group that helps gay and lesbian people get asylum in the U.S. She joins us from NPR's New York bureau.

Welcome to both of you, and thank you for being here.

Mr. IVINELDA DOS SANTOS (Asylum Seeker): Thank you.

Ms. VICTORIA NEILSON (Legal Director, Immigration Equality): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Ivinelda, if we could begin with you, why did you seek asylum here?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Well, I seeked asylum because, I mean, after 32 years living in Brazil in a horrible environment and being persecuted from the society, police, even my family. I had just had it.

MARTIN: When you say persecuted, what do you mean?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Police, if you are leaving a gay bar, for instance, you're safe once you're inside sometimes, but when you're leaving, that's a problem. Because sometimes the police would stop you and create a whole argument with you and humiliate you and hit you and do other stuff. And I had a horrible experience of that. I was leaving this rave, and it was kind of in a remote area, and I was waiting for my cab there on the road. And this police car stopped and three of them, it was like start asking me, what are you doing here? And I explain to them that I'm waiting for a cab to go home. And then they started an argument saying, now I know what you were looking for. And started using like horrible words...

MARTIN: Epithets directed toward gays...

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Exactly. Those police, they arrest me. They handcuffed me. They drove with me, saying that they would take me to, you know, to have some fun and stuff like that. And once I start saying, listen. I'm a person that works and have my rights. When I start confronting them, then they beat me up, putting inside the truck of the car and drove me - I didn't know where it was -and dropped me inside of a jungle in some forest.

So that's how they do there. And I'm sorry, I lost the question...

MARTIN: They just abandoned you there? They just left you there?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Yes. They just left me there. And they were like talking to each other, do you want to finish or do you want me to finish? I mean, with a gun pointing at me. You know what I mean?

MARTIN: Oh, dear. Were you in fear of your life? Did you think that they were going to kill you?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Oh, my God, yes. Exactly. I was begging for my life.

MARTIN: How did you escape?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: I start walking. I didn't have a phone with me or anything. So it was about, let's say 2 a.m. at this time or three, and I start walking and then I looked for some light. And then I saw like the side of there was more lights going on. And I start walking that direction. And those lights that I was seeing from where I was seeing was actually gas station. And I walked to the gas station, and that's when I asked for help and I asked for - so they could call me a cab because I need to get home.

MARTIN: And?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: That's how I did.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this? I'm sure there's no answer to this, but can you envision a reason why anyone would do that to you?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: For what I listen to their conversation, they were talking to each other saying that we are like the disgrace of the world. And just for pure prejudice, for homophobia, you know. They're talking to each other and I could see that they were having fun.

MARTIN: If you just joined us, we're talking about asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation.

Victoria Neilson, how common is Ivinelda's story?

Ms. NEILSON: It's a very common story. I mean, we find that with our gay male cases, that in many countries, the police themselves single out gay people in gay bars and will raid them, will arrest people and detain them without charges, often force them to have oral sex with them or place them in holding cells with sort of common criminals and let the common criminals know that these are, you know, a bunch of faggots or something along those lines.

MARTIN: For the purpose of subjecting them to physical assault.

Ms. NEILSON: Exactly. Even as heated as the gay rights debate can be in the United States, I think it's difficult for us in the United States to envision the level of hatred that people feel toward homosexuality in other parts of the world. You know, we work with people who've been targeted simply because they're, you know, over 30 and unmarried, because they have, you know, guests coming to their home who are of the same gender. So I think that's one reason that it's often important in these cases to find, you know, an expert witness who can describe the culture that the individual's living in to really even understand the level of hatred.

MARTIN: Victoria, as I understand it, it used to be that being gay or lesbian was grounds for not being admitted to the United States. When did sexual orientation become a basis for asylum?

Ms. NEILSON: Up until 1990, simply being gay was a ground of exclusion, meaning that, you know, if a U.S. citizen was sponsoring her daughter to come to the United States and Immigration found out that she was a lesbian, that could be grounds to deny the application.

In 1994, Janet Reno decided that a particular case called Toboso-Alfonso would be a precendential decision. From then on, judges and the immigration court had to follow that ruling, saying that sexual orientation could be a ground for political asylum.

Frankly, the cards are still stacked against gay people, because the most common way for individuals to get immigration status in the United States is through family-based immigration, through having a husband or wife sponsor an individual for a green card. And that door is still shut to gay people. Even if they're legally married in Canada or Massachusetts, that marriage is not recognized under federal law and therefore under immigration law. So this has been, you know, an incredible way for people to remain here safely who need to do so.

MARTIN: Ivinelda, how did you come up with the notion of seeking asylum? I mean, how did you even know that asylum was a possibility?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: First, let me - I knew asylum as a political thing. You know what I mean? But once I start talking to some friends, they said no, you can ask for asylum for other stuff.

Ms. NEILSON: Can I just add one thing to that?

MARTIN: Sure.

Ms. NEILSON: One thing - people actually have to physically be in the United States to seek asylum.

MARTIN: They do?

Ms. NEILSON: If they say when they're applying for a visa that they want to seek asylum, that's actually grounds to deny the visa. So it's another kind of...

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Exactly. That's a bad system.

Ms. NEILSON: ...than the immigration system.

MARTIN: It's interesting.

Mr. DOS SANTOS: A very good point.

MARTIN: So in a way, a bit of deception is required.

Ms. NEILSON: Right. It's not until they get here that it's actually safe to disclose it, that they do want to seek asylum here. People from some of the most oppressive countries, you know, such as the Middle East, basically can't get here at all. We frequently receive e-mails that are heartrending from people, you know, in Iran or in Qatar saying, you know, I'm gay and I fear for my life. What can I do? And there's really not much that we can do to assist them.

Ms. NEILSON: Because they will be denied visas for other reasons.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. NEILSON: For being, you know, a young single man from a Middle Eastern country. It's just almost impossible for those people to get visas.

MARTIN: Unless they get here illegally. And then once they're here illegally, they can then apply for asylum. Is that it?

Ms. NEILSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Ivinelda, finally, we're down to our - just our last minute here. I wanted to ask, how is your life now?

Mr. DOS SANTOS: My life now is great. I can be myself. I don't have to hide or pretend that I'm something I'm not, you know.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Ivinelda Dos Santos is a Brazilian who received asylum in the U.S. because of his sexual orientation. We're also joined by Victoria Neilson, legal director at Immigration Equality, a group in New York that helps gay, lesbian and bisexual and transgender people get asylum in the United States.

Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. DOS SANTOS: Well, thank you for having me.

Ms. NEILSON: Thank you.

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