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Senators urge Biden administration to protect LGBTQ asylum-seekers

Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 13 colleagues asked the State Department what steps it is taking to support LGBTQ asylum-seekers.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in Washington on March 17. Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A group of senators urged the State Department to take steps to better support LGBTQ asylum-seekers.

The letter — written by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and signed by 13 of her Senate colleagues — requests that Secretary of State Antony Blinken provide additional details regarding a February announcement that the department would "use a broad range of diplomatic and programmatic tools and resources to protect vulnerable LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers."

In February, President Joe Biden signed a presidential memorandum directing all U.S. government agencies engaged abroad "to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons around the world." Pursuant to that memorandum, the State Department announced that it would coordinate with relevant agencies to protect LGBTQ asylum-seekers.

Klobuchar's letter, dated Aug. 2 and made public Friday, Aug. 6, requests an update on what the department is doing to implement the president's memorandum.

"We write to commend the State Department for taking swift action to implement President Biden’s expansive commitment to 'pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world,'" the letter states. "At the same time, we also write regarding the need for additional steps to support LGBTQ asylum seekers."

From 2007 to 2017, at least 4,385 people filed credible fear claims — meaning they feared that they might be harmed if they returned to their home country — that led to interviews by asylum officers that were coded as related to LGBTQ status, according to exclusive data obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The senators' letter states that about 11,400 total applications for asylum were filed in the United States on the basis of LGBTQ status from 2012 to 2017, citing a statistic from a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a research institute focused on LGBTQ issues.

Almost 70 countries criminalize same-sex sexual acts, according to Human Rights Watch, and an estimated 11 countries punish same-sex sexual acts by death, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

The Trump administration put up a number of roadblocks that made it more difficult to qualify for asylum. For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services adopted a "last in, first out" policy in 2018 that gave priority to recent asylum applicants over pending applicants. It extended interview wait times to up to seven years for some asylum-seekers, NPR reported.

The administration also proposed a rule that would have disqualified applicants who claimed that they feared persecution based on their sexual orientation, but a federal judge blocked the rule from taking effect in January.

Still, other rules implemented by the Trump administration still remain, and advocates say they are harming LGBTQ asylum-seekers. The Biden administration has been enforcing a public health policy known as Title 42, which blocks most migrants from entering the U.S. because of Covid-19.

"The policy is blocking many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals from refuge and leaving them vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, bias-motivated abuse, food and housing insecurity, and other forms of violence," Emem Maurus, an attorney with the Transgender Law Center, and Julia Neusner, a legal fellow at Human Rights First, wrote in a news release for Human Rights Watch.

Both attorneys wrote that they have heard "shocking stories of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ asylum seekers stranded in Mexico."

"Many LGBTQ asylum seekers are terrified to try to seek protection at the United States border for fear of being expelled to the danger they fled in their home countries," they wrote. "Some have been waiting for more than a year in Mexico to request U.S. asylum."

Many LGBTQ asylum-seekers who have been barred from entering the U.S. under Title 42 have experienced violence, according to a survey that Human Rights Watch conducted in Baja, California, from February to April. It found that 81 percent of LGBTQ asylum-seekers were victims of an attack or an attempted attack in Mexico in the past month, including rape, human trafficking, kidnapping and other violent assaults.

Though the Biden administration established an exemption process to Title 42 in May, Maurus and Neusner wrote that it is too slow to accommodate thousands of asylum-seekers, and that an exemption can only be initiated by certain nonprofit groups, "resulting in disparate access."

The lawyers argued that the Biden administration needs to end Title 42 entirely.

Klobuchar's letter didn't mention Title 42, but it did commend the Biden administration for reversing a Trump administration policy that made it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers to claim asylum over credible fears of domestic abuse or gang violence.

The letter concludes by asking two questions of the State Department:

"What are the Department’s plans for restoring our former commitments to LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers and expediting resettlement for the most at-risk LGBTQ refugees globally?"

And, "What progress has been made in the Department’s global strategy to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community and to integrate LGBTQ concerns into U.S. foreign policy?" The second part of the question asks, "In what ways can Congress assist in these efforts, including and beyond the Global Equality Fund (GEF)?" referring to a public-private partnership within the State Department that provides emergency support to grassroots LGBTQ organizations.

The letter was signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Tina Smith, D-Minn.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Alex Padilla, D-Calif.; Edward Markey, D-Mass.; and Patty Murray, D-Wash.

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