African LGBTQ refugees hoping to come to the United States got the news they had hoped for Thursday night — they would not have to remain in countries where they face persecution or even death.
The news came after a three-judge federal appeals court panel refused to reinstate President Donald Trump's executive order that barred visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations for up to 90 days and suspended worldwide refugee entry into the United States for 120 days.
'Lives at Grave Risk'
African Human Rights Coalition Executive Director Melanie Nathan was elated when she heard the news.
"I was sitting here sweating because my trans[gender] refugee is in the air between Nairobi and [Europe], which will be her fist stop right now, and I had visions of her having to be stuck in [Europe] or rerouted. There's just been so much drama," Nathan told NBC Out just minutes after the news was announced.
The activist had been working day and night to get six LGBTQ African refugees into the U.S. before President Trump's suspension could get reinstated. She said the transgender refugee, whose identity and nationality are being hidden for her protection, had waited two years to come to the U.S. where she could live free from persecution for her gender identity.
"These are people who are discriminated against and criminalized in their country and persecuted and their lives are at grave risk," Nathan said. "They've gone through years of vetting and finally they're on their way here."
President Trump's executive order was temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Washington State on February 3. That gave refugees a window of time to travel to the U.S. while the Justice Department sought a stay to the ruling.
'Problems With Vetting'
Federation for American Immigration Reform Research Director Matt O'Brien said the U.S. has an obligation to help LGBTQ refugees but argued the vetting process is not rigid enough.
"The problem is that if the refugees are coming from a country in Africa [that] either doesn't have a good record keeping system or doesn't share information with the U.S., it's actually difficult to vet people in any meaningful way," he argued.
O'Brien said the Trump administration suspended the refugee program over "identified problems with vetting," particularly the prescreening of refugees that is done by contractors.
"They're often hired by the [United Nations] to work with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and the contractors have not been checked out by the United States," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said refugees can be expedited on the basis they are LGBTQ, which he said creates a channel for foreign-born terrorists to entire the United States.
"The issue is that the manner in which people are being admitted favors the concerns of the individual being persecuted at the risk of the security of Americans," O'Brien said.
Some but not all LGBTQ refugees come from countries high on the global terrorism index. But Nathan said they are unlikely to be affiliated with terrorist organizations, and that many who claim LGBTQ status are often denied entry after going through what she described as an "onerous" and "invasive" eligibility process. They are asked detailed questions about their sexual history and are vetted for potential terrorist ties, she said.
"You can't just show up and say, 'Hey, I'm queer, send me to America,'" she said with a laugh. "There's a huge amount of storytelling and fact checking and so of course it's a possibility [terrorists could use it as a way to get in], but it's quite onerous to get through the checking system."
Suggesting that terrorists won't pretend to be LGBTQ to enter the U.S. is "foolish," O'Brien said.
"Most of the people on the left who are concerned with these issues dislike profiling, but when you say LGBTQ people definitely aren't terrorists, that's a form of profiling," he said, adding that "eventually the bad guys are going to figure this out."
Nathan insisted that forcing LGBTQ refugees to wait long periods of time to enter the U.S. further endangers their lives. She said many LGBTQ Africans flee to Kenya while they wait for their applications to be approved. However, she said they face a Catch-22 situation in the East African nation, which is one of 34 African countries where homosexual activity is illegal. The Kenyan government wants refugees to stay in camps, where LGBTQ people typically face violence from other refugees, according to Nathan. The refugee agency will often find housing for them in cities, but that can also be dangerous once neighbors start to suspect who they are, she explained.
"You'll have natives turn on you and literally running you out of the house or a landlord saying 'I don't want you here anymore, it's causing problems,'" Nathan said.
'Living in Hell'
That was the experience of a 21-year-old gay Ugandan refugee named Ron, who asked only to be referred to by his first name. He said his family disowned him in 2015 for having a boyfriend. Ron fled to Kenya from Uganda after neighbors and police attacked him for being gay, which is illegal in the country, he said.
"The police was looking for me, so when I was trying to learn to escape and get somewhere else they attacked me," Ron, who spoke in a thick accent, said.
Ron said after escaping to Kenya with the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he waited a year and a half for his refugee application to be approved. In the meantime, neighbors constantly attempted to break into the Nairobi apartment he shared with several other LGBTQ refugees, likely to kill them, he explained. When the young men called the police for help, they were the ones who got arrested.
"When the police came they arrested us and took us to the station," Ron said. "They are saying 'You guys, you can't stay here, what you are doing is wrong, it's against the law. You've got to go somewhere [else].'"
Ron said the UNHCR intervened and found safe housing for them. He said he was so persecuted in Nairobi that he had to switch apartments six times. He was allowed to come into the United States in the summer of 2016 after his application was approved.
"I was afraid, because I didn't know what may happen tomorrow, because every time I was like 'Maybe tomorrow maybe my case will be denied, and I end up living in hell,'" Ron, who now lives in Kentucky, said.
When asked how he felt while he waited for the federal appeals court panel to make its decision, he replied: "I was so stressed, because I have so many people who are my friends even my boyfriend they are still waiting … So now when I got to know they might not make it to safety like how I did, I couldn't believe it."
White House lawyers are working on a rewrite of President Trump's executive order that could pass legal muster, NBC News has learned. In the meantime, LGBTQ refugees whose applications have been accepted are free to enter the U.S.
"I'm sure things are going to work out, and [my boyfriend] will come and join me. It's very difficult here to be alone, you have to have somebody," Ron said.