Faith group creates ‘safe place to escape’ for LGBTQ asylum seekers

Church volunteers assembled furniture and hung decorations in the newly renovated building. They arranged almost all the necessities, right down to towels, linens, kitchen utensils and televisions.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, the first residents of the Worcester, Massachusetts home moved in: three gay men seeking asylum in the United States

“I don’t even have the words,” said Alain Spyke, 26, who fled Jamaica after being continually harassed and threatened by a local gang for being gay. “To come to this country and have a safe space to escape all hardship and trauma?” Not everyone has this opportunity.

A Massachusetts religious group that focuses solely on supporting immigrants fleeing their country because of their sexual orientation has opened a new permanent home for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers.

The LGBT Asylum Task Force, a ministry at Hadwen Park Congregational Church in Worcester, has raised more than $ 500,000 to purchase and renovate a dilapidated three-story former group home in the city’s well-heeled west end.

This is the ministry’s largest investment in long-term efforts to help LGBTQ immigrants, said Al Green, director of the task force.

The group typically houses asylum seekers in rented apartments in New England’s second largest city, but as efforts have intensified over the years, it has become difficult to coordinate services and foster the community among new immigrants, he said.

The task force covers the rent and provides a monthly allowance of $ 500 to immigrants, at least until they can receive work authorization, a process that can take about two years, Green said. The group also connects asylum seekers with immigration lawyers, opens bank accounts and health insurance for them, and helps them prepare to enter the workforce, among other things.

“We have found that giving people stability has helped them better prepare for their asylum claims,” ​​said Green, who is also from Jamaica and participated in the program. “They know they’re in a safe place until they can get up.

The church effort is one of the few programs to provide extensive, long-term assistance to LGBTQ asylum seekers once they are in the United States, says Pastor Judith Hanlon of Hadwen Park Congregational Church , who co-founded the ministry.

Groups like the Rainbow Railroad in Toronto, Canada, help LGBTQ people escape persecution in their home countries. Temporary shelters like Casa de Luz in Tijuana, Mexico, provide safe havens for gay and transgender migrants on the perilous journey across the southern border into the United States. And groups like the LGBT Asylum Project in San Francisco focus on providing legal aid while others like the Trans Queer Pueblo in Phoenix, Arizona, focus on community building and advocacy.

Church ministry began in 2008, when the United Church of Christ congregation rallied to support a single gay immigrant from Jamaica.

As the church’s reputation spread, migrants from Jamaica and dozens of other countries where homosexuality is explicitly prohibited began arriving, often out of the blue, Hanlon said. The task force is currently helping 21 LGBTQ immigrants, but has helped more than 400 over the years, all of whom have so far been granted asylum, she added.

Among the recent arrivals, a 25-year-old Muslim woman from Uganda said her parents forced her to marry a man 30 years her older than she found out she had a longtime girlfriend.

The woman, who asked only to be identified as Aisha, arrived last December after searching online for ways out of her forced marriage and learning about church work.

She says she appreciates the group not forcing Christianity or forcing her to attend church services. “They really accept me for who I am, and it warms my heart,” she said.

The opening of the new home comes as immigrant and gay rights activists push President Joe Biden’s administration to deliver on its campaign pledge to reverse nefarious policies adopted under former President Donald Trump.

The Biden administration repealed a rule that made it more difficult for migrants, including LGBTQ people, to qualify for asylum due to domestic or gang violence, said Ari Shaw, director of the Williams Institute, a UCLA School of Law research center. focused on sexual orientation and gender identities.

But other Trump-era immigration policies that disproportionately impact gay and transgender migrants also remain in effect, such as the use of Title 42 of the U.S. Code to justify the denial of asylum claims from migrants in because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19, Shaw said.

Following a court order, the Biden administration also recently announced plans to reinstate Trump’s migrant protection protocols, which have forced many asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed. asylum.

Department of Homeland Security guidelines for resuming the so-called “stay in Mexico” policy include a new exemption for gay and transgender people, although some advocates worry how this will be implemented in practice .

A DHS spokesperson said exceptions for LGBTQ people and other particularly vulnerable people will be considered on a case-by-case basis. The agency also noted that Biden issued an executive order in February pledging to improve the asylum process and address sexual and gender-based violence and other “root causes” of migration.

DHS does not track LGBTQ asylum claims, but a study earlier this year by the Williams Institute estimated that LGBTQ people made at least 11,400 claims from 2012 to 2017, more than half of which came from Central America.

Overall, approval rates for all asylum claims have increased since Biden took office in January. Gay and transgender people can apply for asylum under the same legal category as people persecuted for their race, religion or political opinion.

Back home from Worcester, Spyke says he’s still looking at the freedoms America offers.

In Jamaica, his family ostracized him after discovering he was gay and he was harassed, even in popular tourist destinations like Montego Bay.

Now living in the United States for almost two years, Spyke says he finally felt comfortable enough to kiss another man in public for the first time last April.

“It was really cool,” he said. “I would never have dared to do that in Jamaica.”

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Jerry B. Hatch