ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Biden is making sweeping changes to U.S. immigration and asylum policies. For many people, it feels like an issue of life and death. This next story is about one such asylum-seeker, a gay man from Azerbaijan. He has struggled under the Trump administration policies that Biden has promised to reverse. Masha Udensiva-Brenner reports.
MASHA UDENSIVA-BRENNER, BYLINE: Twenty-five-year-old Liam first realized he liked men when he was a young kid and saw a video of the pop star Ricky Martin.
LIAM: I knew that there was something wrong because everybody's talking about the girls, but I don't feel them attractive. I was just looking to Ricky Martin.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: Liam's not his real name. We're using it because his sexuality could put his family in danger. Azerbaijan, where he grew up, is a predominantly Muslim country that used to be a part of the Soviet Union. It's a conservative, authoritarian state. Even though homosexuality was legalized a couple decades ago, honor killings still happen there. And a few years ago, the Azerbaijani police carried out a series of raids against LGBTQ-plus people.
TAMARA GRIGORYEVA: It's dangerous. At any time, you can be exposed. At any time, someone you think is a friend can betray you.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: Tamara Grigoryeva is an Azerbaijani journalist and former human rights activist living in the U.S. She says even if you stay closeted like Liam did, living in Azerbaijan as a gay person is harrowing. Liam understood this early on. He suffered a lot of abuse as a kid and adolescent. One time, his father found some messages that exposed Liam's sexuality and threatened to kill him. When it came time for college, Liam went to study in the U.S. At 21, he applied for political asylum.
LIAM: I was feeling so happy. You can't even imagine.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: It was 2016. Barack Obama was president, and Liam felt confident about his case.
Corey Offsey started working as an asylum officer during the transition to Trump's presidency. I asked him whether, on paper, he would've approved a case like Liam's at that time.
COREY OFFSEY: Yeah, absolutely. That's a slam-dunk case.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: But a lot has changed since then. The Trump administration overhauled the asylum system, making it much more difficult to qualify. And now, four years after he applied, Liam is still waiting for an interview.
LIAM: When you wake up in the morning and you open your eyes, you think, OK, I wake up in the United States. Everything's OK. But before you sleep, you think about what's going to happen at night. Will ICE come and arrest me? Or is any rules going to be changed tomorrow?
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: Liam's attorney, Sumaiya Khalique, says it's been agonizing for her clients.
SUMAIYA KHALIQUE: You just can't relax because one day, you might think you have a strong claim. And then the next day, it's not a strong claim. And what do you do?
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: Even now, with the Biden administration coming in and promising to reverse the changes, Khalique says the advice she's giving her clients is to be patient, to see what the new administration will do and how long it will take.
KHALIQUE: It's just too much uncertainty about what will actually go into effect and what will not.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: A federal court recently blocked one last-minute asylum rule from the Trump administration that would've been detrimental for cases like Liam's and difficult to repeal. And Liam's feeling a lot better with Biden officially in the White House.
LIAM: The promises that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris made - they're going to keep them. And I'm sure that they're going to be able to help us.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: But Liam says the stress of waiting in limbo for so many years while listening to a president who called the asylum system a scam has taken a physical toll. He's gained more than a hundred pounds, and it's causing health problems - diabetes, trouble breathing, pain in his ankles.
LIAM: I feel like since applying for asylum, I got older, like, for 20 years. That's how I feel mentally because that's so exhausting.
UDENSIVA-BRENNER: Now he's trying to heal, to focus on his mental health. And he's finishing a degree in computer information systems, doing his best to plan for a future in the U.S.
For NPR News, I'm Masha Udensiva-Brenner.
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