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LGBTQ Immigrant-Rights Groups Brace for Trump Administration

Immigration Equality and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project talk to NBC Out about how they're preparing for the incoming Trump administration.
Image: Donald Trump
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.Evan Vucci / AP

As President-elect Donald Trump continues to fill out his cabinet, it is shaping up to be the most conservative in the nation’s history. Several of his nominees have anti-LGBTQ records, including his Attorney General pick, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and his Health and Human Services Secretary choice, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. At the same time, Trump has continued the anti-immigration rhetoric that helped define his campaign. Most recently, he has reiterated his commitment to establishing a Muslim registry and a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants from the United States.

Image: Donald Trump
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.Evan Vucci / AP

Given the openly anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration positions taken by some members of the incoming administration, LGBTQ immigrant-rights organizations are bracing themselves for challenges ahead. They plan to fight many of the same battles as they did under the Obama administration, such as advocating for those facing detention, but must now attempt to prevent a rollback of the modest gains they achieved over the last eight years.

Defending LGBTQ Immigrants’ Rights

Incorporated in 1994, Immigration Equality works at the intersection of LGBTQ and immigration issues to preserve the human rights of LGBTQ and HIV-positive migrants. Aaron C. Morris, the organization’s executive director, told NBC Out that after the adoption of same-sex marriage, the organization “pivoted toward legal services for LGBTQ immigrants and to focus on how badly our community is being treated in detention.” Immigration Equality offers a hotline to answer questions and direct people to resources and provides legal services in 39 states.

“We identify individuals who cannot afford a lawyer and counsel them in house or place them with an attorney pro bono,” Morris said. “We also do a lot policy work and public education work.”

Jamila Hammami has served as executive director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) since its inception in 2014 and said the group’s “focus is to shut down all detention centers.”

“Some say the system is broken … It’s not broken. It’s working the way it’s supposed to. We see the current system as built to criminalize people, lock them up and deport them. We see it as a response to 9/11, a way to incarcerate women, immigrants. We don’t believe in borders being closed,” Hammami told NBC Out.

The organization spends a good deal of time and resources on raising bonds for this purpose. “We are on the front lines getting people out of detention,” Hammami said. “We just raised another bond two weeks ago for $3,000. We are raising a bond right now for $20,000 to get someone out of detention.”

As a grassroots organization, QDEP’s work also includes rights trainings, community education, support groups and political organizing.

“We are our own best advocates. The people that should be on the front lines doing this work are the folks who are most affected. Everyone on staff is either immigrant or first generation, and all of us have dealt with the criminal justice system. Everyone is queer, trans or HIV-positive,” Hammami explained.

Unique Challenges Facing LGBTQ Immigrants

LGBTQ migrants face some unique obstacles in the immigration system, according to Immigration Equality’s Morris.

“When people come to us, they have often come to us seeking safety in the U.S.,” he said. “They come from places where lesbians have been raped to correct them. Men are set on fire for being gay. There are places where it is not safe to be an LGBTQ individual.”

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Many LGBTQ asylum seekers will still be detained and require bond to be released, even if they pass their “credible fear” interview, which establishes “they are not lying about being gay and under attack,” Hammami explained.

“Judges can post bonds in whatever amount they want,” she added, noting a client of hers has not yet been released because his bond is $20,000. “I’ve heard that they are [as much as] $125,000, and that was under the Obama administration.”

“At the same time,” Morris explained, the system is “stacked against” migrants. “Immigration courts are overwhelmed and under-resourced, and the Department of Homeland Security hires lawyers to deport these individuals,” he said. Immigrants confront precarious housing and employment, and many living with HIV have trouble accessing health care, Morris added.

An Uncertain Future

“There is no reason to not believe him,” Morris said regarding Trump’s campaign rhetoric. “Anyone who is sitting back to wait to see what happens is wasting time.”

“Some of his positions seem to be dialing back rhetoric of his campaign, but at same time, he is appointing the most conservative—radically conservative—people to his cabinet positions that control the immigration system,” Morris added. “[The appointment of] Sen. Sessions for the Justice Department is particularly disturbing to us. He is vocally anti-LGBTQ, and his record on human rights speaks [for itself]. This will be a remarkably conservative administration.”

Image: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley Meets With Trump's Attorney General Nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions
U.S. Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) attends a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on Capitol Hill, November 29, 2016 in Washington, DC.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

QDEP has already felt the impact of the changing administration, according to Hammami.

“We have seen an increase in arrests since the election … [and] I think the hate crimes have increased,” she said, adding that she believes Trump’s election and cabinet picks have emboldened hate groups.

“In my neighborhood there have been KKK flyers put up. They are coming out of the woodwork," Hammami said. “We are under siege.”

Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

A Trump/Pence administration will require a shift in focus from the executive branch to the legislature and courts, according to Morris.

“Over the last eight years, we had a heavy emphasis on lobbying Congress for progressive bills for LGBTQ people and a lot on administrative advocacy. The Obama administration has a mixed reputation in the immigration sphere but was open to LGBTQ reforms. We had more access to different agencies [and] to the White House than in the G.W. Bush administration.” Under Obama, Morris explained, “[we had the] opportunity to identity problems and solutions and bring them to the administration and, depending on the agency, have success getting the problem solved.”

Given what Morris calls the “remarkable authority” of the executive branch in issues of immigration, Immigration Equality will seek to identify members of Congress “who are immigration- and LGBTQ-friendly to be champions” and explain to them “why we need opposition to certain cabinet appointments and encourage them to oppose any new draconian law, defend due process and judicial review.”

The new administration also means an adjustment of expectations, according to Morris. “We used to be in a position where we aggressively pushed for reform and aggressively pushed back against regression,” he said. “ Now, he added, the goal is to “slow down regression and stop dismantling of reforms that it took eight years to build.”

Immigration Equality plans to supplement this with a “public messaging strategy” that demonstrates “why immigrants are good for America.” In addition, the organization is “taking steps to protect as many people as possible—giving almost a clinic a week, providing rights training [and] pushing pro bono partners to help as many people as possible,” Morris said.

QDEP anticipates a more “reactionary” strategy for the organization moving forward. “As much as we want to invest our time in prison divestment, we are so busy trying to play defense. We just don't have a choice. We know it’s only going to get worse,” Hammami said.

In the near future, she anticipates being forced to spend less time helping clients get out of detention and lead stable lives and more time on political organizing. She said QDEP plans on “going out into the streets and doing rallies and actions and showing up to the Million Woman March and doing public appearances to show that LGBTQ and HIV-positive people have presence in this community and are not backing down.”

“We have to fight like hell for our own community, because other people are not going to do it,” Hammami added.

For both Immigration Equality and QDEP, the commitment to the LGBTQ immigrant community is unwavering.

“The reason why we provide this service is because it is life-saving and life-altering,” Morris said.

(Julie Moreau is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She tweets at @JEMoreau.)

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