More Immigrants Seek Queer Asylum

By Leticia Miranda Oct 28, 2009

Immigrant rights activists and immigration lawyers are seeing an increase in the number of immigrants seeking asylum because they fear persecution in their home countries for being transgender, gay or lesbian. The Associated Press reports:

Since 1994, sexual orientation has been grounds for asylum in the United States. That’s when former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled in a case that persecution based on sexual orientation could be potential grounds for asylum. Until recently, those grounds have been rarely used and such cases represent only a fraction of all asylum cases. Federal immigration law allows individuals asylum if they can prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Those applying for asylum are already in the United States, legally or illegally. No one knows for sure just how many have sought asylum on sexual orientation grounds. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn’t keep data on asylum cases won on that basis.

Michelle Saraswati is one such transgender Indonesian immigrant seeking asylum who was arrested last month and faced immediate deportation before she managed to get her asylum case re-opened by the United States Board of Immigration Appeals. She’s also hoping to be released from a Santa Clara County jail where she’s being held. Saraswati will have to prove to the immigration court that she would not be able to live in Indonesia. Although there is a place for waria, the Indonesian term for transgender women, it is as a hairdresser. Saraswati is a professionally trained architect and says she would find discrimination and aggression in this field if she were to move back to Indonesia. Not only this, but Saraswati is Catholic and Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. She’s afraid of the violence she’d face from Muslim men and non-Muslim men for being a Catholic waria outside of socially acceptable work professions. She told the Bay Area Reporter:

"I saw Muslim men hit the warias and throw rocks at them. I also saw how common it was for the men to sexually assault the warias by grabbing at their bodies without their consent. It is widely believed that there is nothing wrong with men grabbing a waria’s body. If I am forced to go back, I know that I will be treated as the other warias are: beaten and sexually assaulted with no one to protect me."

Fortunately, Saraswati has the support of San Francisco Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty, U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and a community group that started up to keep her from being deported. But Saraswati and her supporters are anticipating a long drawn-out process to prove to the court that she can’t go back home.