What does it mean to apply for asylum? This is the story of one man, Luis Mancheno, and the events that unfolded in his home country of Ecuador that led him to seek refuge in the United States. His journey is heartbreaking and harrowing and powerful – and best heard in his own words.
LUIS MANCHENO: You hear a lot about this country being a country of laws. If we actually want this country to be a country of laws, I think that it might be important for our country to start following those laws, right? And we have an international legal obligation to protect people. You know, we're a country of laws and compassion and I think that like as a country we need to wake up and we need to start thinking about the duty that we have to fellow human beings who are in so much need.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
There's this quote that is often attributed to Joseph Stalin and though like basically all famous quotes attributed to people, it's unclear whether he actually said it or not. It goes like this, "One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic," and it's something I think about a lot in the context of the news because it's quite profound, right? You hear about a remote place and thousands of people have died of famine and you kind of, you know, put it in your head in some location, you try to store it, you try to get your arms around the moral enormity of what you've heard. But often if you read one story about one child who starved to death, you see one picture that does more to kind of communicate the human stakes than the numbers do.
And we see this all the time in the stories of various refugees in huge migration flows, which, in total, feel like too much to get your arms around. But if when individualized, there's a way in which you can relate at just a human empathetic level. I think about that a lot in the context of the current debate we're having the U.S. about migration flows in particularly the hundreds of thousands of people that have been coming across the border seeking asylum in the U.S.
A lot of times it gets talked about in terms of statistics and in fact this is engineered by CBP and the Trump administration who like to give press conferences with statistics. Oh look at these numbers. Oh it's these many people this year. It's these many people this month. It was this many people last month and look at this line chart and don't really want to speak about the individual circumstances so much and it can be easy to kind of view it all as some kind of massive human misery where even if you feel sympathetic or empathetic or even you feel compassion or you feel like the Trump administration is treating them cruelly.
Even all that said, it all feels a little un-individuated. Like, there's all these people, they're all coming and they're all fleeing terrible things, but like they don't have names, they don't have personality characteristics. They don't have like sarcastic jokes that they make and annoying little verbal ticks that may drive their brother or sister crazy and all the features of like a fully realized human being that you live with that if that person were your spouse or your child or your sibling, you would know intimately and care intimately about their fate.
So, today's podcast is just a single interview with a single asylum seeker, just one person. His name is Luis Mancheno and he left his country and came to the United States and he applied for asylum here because he feared for his life where he lived. I'm not going to tell you anymore about the details of that because as you'll see in this conversation, it unspools through his telling and I can't begin to do justice to the way that he's able to tell his own story.
Luis is an interesting case because he himself is an immigrant and was granted asylum and became a U.S. citizen, and now also works as an attorney in immigration law. So he has the rare experience of having seen this from kind of both sides. He now does even training for asylum officers.
Two things I should note. One, we recorded this on July 31st — which is only significant because it's significant in the context of the story, which you'll hear us sort of figure out in real time. And then the second thing just broadly is just to know that asylum is a internationally recognized right. It's really codified in the wake of World War II after the experience of so many refugees — Jews in particular — being turned away from countries. There's a famous ship, the St. Louis, which is turned away from the U.S. and the inhabitants, all Jews fleeing the Nazis essentially, I think all lose their life. They're all killed by the Nazis when they're turned away.
[Ed. note: Of the 937 passengers on the St. Louis, 908 were denied entry to Cuba or the U.S. in 1939 and returned to Europe; 907 were Jewish refugees and, after negotiations, all were permitted entry into Great Britain, Belgium, France or the Netherlands. Of the 620 who gained asylum in continental Europe, 532 still remained when the Germans invaded in 1940 and 254 later died in the Holocaust.]
In the wake of all of that. In 1951, there's an international treaty that codifies international treaty obligations to refugees and asylum seekers. And then that's further codified in U.S. law in 1980 and so the U.S. has both as a matter of international and domestic law requirements, statutory legal requirements, for how we treat asylees and asylum law. It's something written in law. It's recognized in international law, and it's not just some like weird loophole that, like, a bunch of scammers are trying to, like, get by on, which is basically the story that Trump is telling.
And part of what's important, I think, about taking the time to listen to this conversation today, is precisely because in this conversation you will hear a single individual describe a single set of circumstances that led him to seek asylum in the U.S. that may seem either recognizable to some parts of stories that you have experienced or people you know, or not recognizable at all. But what is undeniable is just the true core truth of the experience, the genuineness of the fear. The danger and threat, and the way in which our country to migrate pride was able to give him a fresh start. Just so folks know there is violence, there is very severe anti-gay violence, particularly that happens in the story, but it's in the end an incredibly beautiful and hopeful story about what this country can be.
So, I want you to tell me a little bit about the story of how you left Ecuador and came to the United States. What year were you born?
LUIS MANCHENO: I was born in 1986.
CHRIS HAYES: 1986.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, in Quito, Ecuador. I was born to very young parents. My family was also very conservative. They're religious. My family converted to Christianity from Catholicism to Christianity when my parents were 18.
CHRIS HAYES: So like an evangelical kind of form.
LUIS MANCHENO: Evangelical. Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Do you have siblings?
LUIS MANCHENO: I have two siblings and I'm the oldest one of the three.
CHRIS HAYES: And what was your family life and upbringing like?
LUIS MANCHENO: Growing up I feel like I had an amazing childhood. I, you know, my parents were good parents. They provided me with everything I needed. Everything that my siblings needed as well. You know, we had food on the table. We went on vacation during the summer. We were like upper middle class in Ecuador. So, I really have no complaints about, you know, how I was raised.
I went to a very good school, very good high school. So in general, I think that I had access to everything I needed.
CHRIS HAYES: What was your relationship like to your parents' faith growing up?
LUIS MANCHENO: You know, you're a child and you know when you're a child you sort of like follow whatever your parents tell you on. I think that I was not only supportive, but I think that I was very involved in all of the church activities then that we did. We would go to church every Sunday. We had Bible studies every Friday. I had a youth group that I went to on Wednesdays. At some point I volunteered to teach Sunday school.
CHRIS HAYES: So it was a huge part of your life.
LUIS MANCHENO: Oh yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean they were full out, the whole nine, the full evangelical experience.
LUIS MANCHENO: 100 percent.
CHRIS HAYES: Like totalizing world. Like that's the people that your parents hung out with. Those were your connections. That was the world.
LUIS MANCHENO: That was our community. That was our community. All of my friends were evangelical. In fact in a country that are so Catholic, we were sort of, like, different to everyone.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah I imagine.
LUIS MANCHENO: To everybody else. Sort of like part of like the idea of, like, you know, being part of my family was, like, you know, we're different than everybody else. We have the right faith, the right way of doing things and that's sort of how I grew up.
CHRIS HAYES: What kind of work did your parents do?
LUIS MANCHENO: My dad graduated from college when I was growing up. He was an architect but he didn't practice it. He was a painter. He was a professional artist and he would sell his paintings and he would have galleries and openings to sell his paintings. And at the same time he had an art school in Ecuador that he taught at.
My mom didn't graduate from college and for the majority of my life she did not work. She was a homemaker and she stayed with us.
CHRIS HAYES: With respect to sexuality, homosexuality, gender identity, what were the messages that you got? What was the sort of world that you were growing up in, in terms of those?
LUIS MANCHENO: Just to give you an idea of how sort of like conservative my parents were when I was growing up, I remember when the Harry Potter books came out, we were not allowed to read them because they have...
CHRIS HAYES: Magic.
LUIS MANCHENO: ... Witchcraft.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, witchcraft. Exactly.
LUIS MANCHENO: And they were true. I mean they were right. They did have witchcraft in it.
CHRIS HAYES: That's, like, a really evangelical thing, like the not-celebrating Halloween.
LUIS MANCHENO: Correct.
CHRIS HAYES: Any children's world that has to do with magic.
LUIS MANCHENO: My mom used to say every Halloween she would be like, "Today is the birth of the devil," and yeah. So, that was my world. So, you can just imagine that in such a conservative family, I suddenly started to realize that I was gay.
You know, I always feel a little different. I always felt different going up. I would remember my dad always telling me to, you know, to play sports, to play soccer, to do things and I was just not really attracted to that. You know, I preferred to play with my sisters. I preferred to play with dolls, but that really didn't check out for me or for anybody else until, you know, until I started becoming older and started, like... my sexuality starts becoming a topic.
Sort of like the day when I realized, you know, there's something really different is, in Ecuador in 1998, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as our currency and my grandmother went to get her first U.S. dollar and she got it and then she gave it to me. And she was like, you know, you always, you know, like, use it well.
CHRIS HAYES: You're 12 at this point, more or less.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yes. So I take my first year U.S. dollar and I went and I bought two cigarettes and a porn magazine with my first U.S. dollar, which at time it was just like 25,000 sucrase which is like the equivalent of like $25, $30. So, I bought my first porn magazine not even knowing, you know, what...
CHRIS HAYES: You're 12. Those are like, OK, I have this money. What are the illicit, what are, like the illicit things you do with grown-up money? Cigarettes and porn mags.
LUIS MANCHENO: So, I remember like looking at my first porn magazine that I was like, ah, what's happening to me? Right? I'm not attracted to the woman here. I'm attracted to the guys.
So, that's the first time that I started thinking, you know, something is actually very different.
At about 14, I sort of, like, started coming to terms with the idea that I am gay and at that point there were, there were sort of, like, two experiences that I'm going through. Part of it is, like, I'm thinking it's going to be a temporary thing, which is the experience that a lot of LGBTQ people go through. Sort of, like, it will pass, right?
CHRIS HAYES: It's a phase.
LUIS MANCHENO: It's a phase. And the other side was like, you know what? If it doesn't, I'll just have to keep it secret for the rest of my life. Right? I'll have to...
CHRIS HAYES: Just going to bury that down. Get married, have kids with the woman and...
LUIS MANCHENO: Correct. Yeah. And like, you know, like, because I knew that in my household and with my family, it would never pass. It would never pass because growing up we constantly had messaging from church and from my parents, you know about gay people, right? About gay people being you know, sinners, gay people being filthy, gay people being perverts, right? So that's sort of like the messaging that I continued to get throughout my childhood and during my teenage years. So as I am realizing that I'm gay, I just say, like, this is something that my parents would, could, never find out.
CHRIS HAYES: What's the broader sort of cultural context of this? I mean, so 1998, or say, 2000, right? In the United States it's the beginning of a real central fight about marriage equality. And in 2004, the president of United States runs against gay marriage and the evangelical movement throws its weight behind it. But there's this sort of fight. I mean, there's prominent folks who are out. It's like a real cultural battle. In Ecuador what is it like?
LUIS MANCHENO: There's very little that lives there. I would say two things. One, I wouldn't be able to tell you how much there was out there because I was completely secluded.
CHRIS HAYES: Inside this world.
LUIS MANCHENO: In my world of being evangelical and, you know, being in church. So I wouldn't be able to tell you, you know, like This is what was happening. But I do know, later on, when I was a little bit more out there that simply, you know, being LGBTQ was simply that... people didn't talk about. Something that sort of, like, was reduced to people who were maybe hairstylists. And other than that, the only time when you would actually hear about gay people would be when you would take tabloids and you would hear about gay people being murdered, right? You know, a transgender woman who was attacked and murdered or gay people who are actually being murdered in the streets. And those were the only two contexts, right? In which I would actually know that, you know, like gay people existed, other than me and on top of like my parents telling me, you know, like, They exist, they're bad and they deserved it.
CHRIS HAYES: So then what happens?
LUIS MANCHENO: So, I don't know if you remember this, but you know, internet dial-up at some point.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh buddy. Buddy I remember. This is a great shared experience across the world obviously. This is the thing that unites all humans and particularly all teenagers, is the discovery of a dial-up connection.
LUIS MANCHENO: So with my dial-up connection, I finally convinced my father to, you know, he didn't even understand what internet was, but he was like, OK, that's something that we need to do.
So, I convinced him to get us internet and, with my dial-up connection, I started exploring websites and one of the things that I did, I don't know if you remember, was this chat room.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh yeah, I remember.
LUIS MANCHENO: Chat rooms where you would like go in by affinity and you would talk about, like, whatever. And I think that these are sort of like an important space for a lot of LGBT people because we found a space where we could talk to others like us.
CHRIS HAYES: I can only imagine what it must've been like for you to find that. I mean as a closeted teenage son in an evangelical conservative family that only tells you messages that the thing that you're feeling inside you is wrong and sinful. And, I mean, it must've been amazing.
LUIS MANCHENO: It's life-changing, and experience-changing because, for the first time, after talking to a couple of people, sort of, like, my understanding from the way that I see myself from thinking, you know, this is going to be a phase or there's something wrong with me. It goes into like, maybe it's okay, you know, like, maybe it's okay for me to be different, to be different like others are different.
So I went to gay.com — can I be more cliche?
CHRIS HAYES: Let's see, what should I check out here?
LUIS MANCHENO: Exactly. Could I be more cliche? So gay.com had chat rooms and I started chatting with people on. Eventually after chatting with somebody, I ended up talking to somebody who lived in Quito, and with this person after talking for a couple of weeks and you know, we decided to meet up in person.
CHRIS HAYES: How old were you?
LUIS MANCHENO: I am 18 at the time.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay.
LUIS MANCHENO: It was a very scary experience because it was the first time that I felt that I was going to be hanging out with somebody else who was gay. We decided to meet up at the mall.
CHRIS HAYES: And you didn't know this person at all except through the internet?
LUIS MANCHENO: Correct.
CHRIS HAYES: Just so that to the millennials who are listening this now, the way this worked is that there was no Facebook, so there was no, like, now all of this stuff, there are these connections you can trace. You know that you have a friend in common, you know that like their face is there and that's the actual person and they went to this college like that, just again, if you're under a certain age and listening like that's not the deal. It's just like you are going in totally blind.
LUIS MANCHENO: Not even really a picture. I didn't even really know how he looked like, right? So I knew that his name was Sebastian. He was 23. We even had to tell each other, you know, what clothing we were going to be wearing and where we were going to be meeting to identify each other, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Luis, I can only imagine how hard your heart must've been beating.
LUIS MANCHENO: Oh yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: For a million reasons.
LUIS MANCHENO: You know, in many ways, right? Because like part of it is like I'm really scared but a part of me I'm really excited. I'm really excited. You know, I'm going to meet somebody else who was like me.
So we met up the Dunkin Donuts.
CHRIS HAYES: So romantic.
LUIS MANCHENO: I always talk about the Dunkin Donuts because American franchises outside of the U.S. are sort of a fancy thing.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
LUIS MANCHENO: Right? Especially in that America, you go to Pizza Hut and you like sit down and it's a gourmet meal that you're going to have, right? So Dunkin Donuts was this like sort of stylish cafe in the mall. So we went there and you know, as soon as I met him, one of the things that I first realized he was very handsome, but he was very feminine. He was very feminine. To such an extent I would say, like, very flamboyant and as soon as I saw that it was something that really worried me, right? Because I felt that other people were going to guess.
CHRIS HAYES: Peg you immediately as gay because you're with him.
LUIS MANCHENO: In association, right? So I remember that even though we were talking and I was sort of, like, enjoying his company, like the majority of the time I was just incredibly nervous that somebody would see me there and somebody would associate me and think that I'm gay as well.
Well my worst fears did come through. I didn't know this, but about an hour later after I say bye to Sebastian, it was a wonderful, you know, meeting that I had with him on first date. But after I said bye to him I got a phone call from my aunt and my aunt says like, "Luis, we will love if you come and visit us. Come to our place tonight. Why don't you come and have dinner with me and your uncle." I said, "Sure." I went to my aunt's house that night. As soon as I got there, she said, "God gave me a vision." She was also very evangelical and she said, "And he told me that you are in the wrong path and that you're either an alcoholic or drug addict or homosexual. It's just sad. I don't think that you're a drug addict. I don't think that you are an alcoholic. You are homosexual."
You know, the first time that somebody that I care, somebody who is a figure of authority, a family member says that to me to my face is so, so disarming, so scary. The thing that I do first, I start crying and I don't say anything back to her. And after a couple of minutes, I said, "No, no I'm not." And she says, "No. Yes you are. You are homosexual. You're not going to leave this house until you confess." So, that sort of like dynamic repeats again and again for, not exaggerating, for the next two hours, until I finally say... I'm not able to say I'm gay, all I say is yes, I am attracted to men.
CHRIS HAYES: This is the same day that you had the first date with a man you've ever had in your life.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: You go to a random, go to a mall, you meet him, you're feeling nervous but excited and maybe a little infatuated or post-date high, and you get this call. Did you realize something was up when you got the call?
LUIS MANCHENO: Not really. To be honest, not really.
CHRIS HAYES: And you go there and your aunt basically interrogates you about being gay for two hours.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, and there were two things I think that happened right there. I think that I had first, so much fear for saying it for the first time, but at the same time... And this is sort of, like, the experience that a lot of people, gay people go through is just wanting to say it.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
LUIS MANCHENO: To say it and to be like, "F--- this, I am gay." So I ended up saying, and immediately she said, "I'm going to talk to my sister and my mom and she needs to know." So I went home that night and then the next day she called my parents and my parents went to talk to my aunt about me, without me there. While my parents were finding now that I'm gay, I remember being in my bedroom smoking an entire pack of cigarettes, and I'll tell you this, that was the first time I thought about taking my life away.
It was sort of, like, the idea that my parents would find out and what would they do after that? It was just unthinkable for me. My parents came back before I did anything and I remember my dad coming into the room and saying, "You, you betrayed me. You betrayed your family." And he immediately started beating me, started punching me in the face, kicking me until he left me on the floor. My mom was there too, and my entire childhood with my mom had always been... You know, my parents, my mama always was a good cop in the relationship. Ryan, my dad would be, like, "You have to do this and that," and my mom would come around and say like, "I'll help you do it." She was always the one who maybe overprotected me, or protected me, and being on the floor there, the first thing that I thought is that she was going to stop him or she was going to do something. But I remember she came and she hit me as well. And then she said, "You're not my son."
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So, that was my first date. That was my first experience with a gay man and then my parents. Everything that happened after that was a series of... I call them the nightmare years.
CHRIS HAYES: Let me just ask you, had your father hit you before?
LUIS MANCHENO: No. Well, maybe when I was a child.
CHRIS HAYES: Like spanked or something, but nothing... This was completely, this had never happened.
LUIS MANCHENO: No, not in this way.
CHRIS HAYES: He beat you.
LUIS MANCHENO: He beat me to the point that left me bleeding on the floor. I think the first thought that crossed their mind and my mind is, like, what are we going to do about this? They said, you know, we need to fix you, we need to cure you. So they contacted the pastor, and after talking to the pastor, they were recommended to go to the psychologist who was experienced in conversion therapy.
I'm not going to tell you that I was forced to do conversion therapy. I willingly wanted to do it because part of me said like, if I could change this, why not, right? If I could avoid having to live in this life of fear, constant fear and lies, why not? So I voluntarily went to this conversion therapy person. Conversion therapy was all sorts of ridiculous things, to like pretty horrific things as well. I had to pick everyday between blue or pink. And whenever I picked blue he was like, "Yeah, he's, he's more straight now." Right?
But there were also some more horrific things, I was forced to watch straight porn and I was forced, right next to the psychiatrist, to tell him what parts of the body of a woman aroused me, and all sorts of other things that I had to do. But the last test in this conversion therapy was that I needed to have sex with a sex worker to...
CHRIS HAYES: Are you kidding me?
LUIS MANCHENO: No, it was sort of, like, I needed to try, I needed to test what it meant to have sex with a woman.
CHRIS HAYES: What's crazy about that to me — maybe I sound naive saying — but this all is in the context of an evangelical world. That's just crazy to me. This is very, very strict views of sinfulness and righteousness and virtue and vice, that in the context of that worldview, that the vice of gayness is so profound that the cure is, like...
LUIS MANCHENO: Having sex with a sex worker.
CHRIS HAYES: ... sex with a sex worker...
LUIS MANCHENO: Right, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: ... for the Lord. For the Lord.
LUIS MANCHENO: Pretty much. Fortunately, I was so terrified of that... I'll, I'll tell you. I'm 18, think about that. I'm a teenager, right? I started looking to see if I could find somebody that I could date, and I knew that I had a friend who was always sort of like infatuated with me and I asked her out and eventually started dating her. So I was able to convince her, I don't remember what lies I told her, but I was able to convince her to bring her to see my therapist....
CHRIS HAYES: So you could get out of...
LUIS MANCHENO: ... So I could get out of having sex with a sex worker.
CHRIS HAYES: ... the test. Jesus. So the conversion therapy was not, like, inpatient, you didn't go away for this, this was a thing that you would go to.
LUIS MANCHENO: Not the one that I participated in.
CHRIS HAYES: OK. Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: Not the one that I was part of. Yeah. There were other people who were inpatient. I was outpatient.
CHRIS HAYES: You were outpatient. You were visiting there every day and going back to your house.
LUIS MANCHENO: Which is sort of like a deal that we were able to do with my parents because I wanted to continue to go to school.
CHRIS HAYES: So you go and ask out this friend as a means of this desperate effort to extricate yourself from what sounds like an utter nightmare in every way and completely traumatizing. And I have to say traumatizing even if you were straight. Just, like...
LUIS MANCHENO: To have to be with somebody that you do not want to.
CHRIS HAYES: It's utterly sick, sick thing to do to someone.
LUIS MANCHENO: And, I remember like being with my girlfriend at the time that I, we're good friends now, but I felt horrific for her because sometimes she would want to have sex with me, and I would always lie to her and go back to like, "You know, God tells us that we need to, you know, wait until we get married before we have sex."
But I was able to bring her to a couple of my therapies with my therapists and eventually she was ... The therapist told my parents, "Luis is cured. He's straight. I run all these tests and he is cured." I got everything back and more. My dad bought me a car, I had my allowance was bigger now... For them their son was back, their son was back, and I continued to date my girlfriend for a couple months and then I just couldn't do it any longer, and eventually I went back to the chat rooms.
CHRIS HAYES: I want to pause there for one second because I want to talk more about this remarkable journey, and I want to ask you a question about that day, your first date. I'm going to talk about that right after this break.
So before we continue this, you've sort of survived this first round of conversion therapy. You're talking about going back to the chat rooms. Did you, at the time, do you ever find out how your aunt found out that day?
LUIS MANCHENO: Oh yeah. Yeah. She was at the mall. She went to the mall.
CHRIS HAYES: She saw you.
LUIS MANCHENO: She saw me. So literally, what I was afraid of that somebody might do, which was to see me with my friend Sebastian, who was very feminine, that's exactly what happened. She saw me, she'd probably walked back to Dunkin Donuts and there I was.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow. Okay. So, you go back to the chat rooms. You break off this...
LUIS MANCHENO: I would go back to the chat rooms and I continued to talk to people, and I make a good friendship with somebody who was living in Colombia. Camilo, that's his name. And we started chatting and we just sort of became pen pals and we just chatted about life and things. And this guy was just very smart. He was also going to college at the time and we just had a very good, very good connection.
Eventually Camilo says, "I'm going to go on a road trip through South America, and my first stop is going to be Quito. We should meet up." So, was really excited. I told my parents I think that I needed to do homework or something and I took my car and I went to pick him up at the bus station, and Camilo was everything that I had hoped for. He was this handsome man, funny, smart, really... I was just so happy, so happy to meet him, to see him, and I realized that, with him, I was able to share in a couple of minutes more than I have ever shared with anybody in my life. And he said, "Let's go to a gay bar." I've never been to a gay bar before. There was one gay bar in Ecuador that I had heard of, high odds....
CHRIS HAYES: ... High odds your aunt isn't at that one. Probably a safer place actually.
LUIS MANCHENO: Right? The bar that we went to, it's called Blackout of course. It was this bar that was hidden behind this garage, you just sort of needed to know where it was to find. And, Chris, I'll tell you, going into a gay bar, and this is an experience that a lot of LGBT people would tell you, it's sort of like a really amazing experience. I know for me, walking in there, seeing men holding hands and kissing each other and dancing to music that I liked, being as feminine as themselves, as they wanted to be, is a really amazing experience. For the first time in my life I felt I was not sick, there was nothing wrong with me and there were others like me out there. So I got there with Camilo and my goal that night was like, I'm going to make out with Camilo, right? He's very handsome, so my goal was also the goal of many of the people at the bar.
So, I get there and people started piling up behind Camilo and then started talking to him and suddenly I find myself by the bar by myself, while Camilo has, like, 10 of his fans surrounding him. Then I see across in the bar, I see across the bar that there's this guy who's also very handsome and he starts looking at me and he says hi from far and I say hi to him and then he walks towards me and then he says, "Would you like to drink?" I was like, "Sure." I take that drink and that's the last thing I remember.
The next thing I remember I woke up and my entire face is covered with blood. I am behind the steering wheel of my car. I sort of don't understand what's happening, but I realized that I had crashed against the light post. Because of how scared I was and how late it was, it was like 4:00 a.m. it was all dark, I started crying because I just couldn't understand what was happening. I couldn't really move my legs because my knees had hit the car.
First thing I think is where's Camilo? And I look around and I see that Camilo is in the backseat. I started yelling his name but he's not responding, and for a second I'm like, is he dead? So I put my finger on his nose and I did notice that he's breathing so he's alive. I attempt to get out of the car and I pushed the door of the driver's side and I fall out of the car and, because I can't really move because of my legs, and I sort of crawl to the side of the road to see what was happening.
And then I start understanding what happened that night. I see that my car is at the end of this road going downhill. The people who attacked me or the other person, I still don't know if there were one or many, left my car running on the top of the hill, on the top of the road, and they just let it run downhill. The only reason why I'm talking to you today is because my car hit a light post. Otherwise, on the other side of it, there was like a 200 feet cliff and I wouldn't be here today.
When you realize that somebody has tried to murder you, it's sort of like an unexplainable feeling. I still cannot explain to you exactly how you feel, sort of, like, a type of fear that consumes all of everything that you're thinking. I immediately became paranoid because I just didn't know if they were around, if they were going to come again once they realized they were not successful. And then I see written on the side of the car, I see they had written, the word which means f----t in Spanish.
CHRIS HAYES: So, they had gone to this bar to do this. This was a hate crime. They had gone there looking for someone like yourself to...
LUIS MANCHENO: For a f----t, yeah, and they found one. That's when I realized that they tried to murder me for being gay. The first thing I want to do is not call the police, not call my parents. The first thing that I'm worried about is that people are going to see the fact that they wrote [a homophobic Spanish slur] on the side of the door. So, I took my sweater off and I looked for a puddle of water, and I get my sweater wet and I started just cleaning my car, cleaning the word [a homophobic Spanish slur] out of my car. I remember actually praying to God that night, asking him to erase the word [a homophobic Spanish slur] from my life. For me, everything that my parents had taught me about being gay certainly sort of became true, that my life was going to be over soon, that it was not a good life. Suddenly I felt like I was the one to blame for that happening to me.
Eventually, somebody came to help us and we got the car out of there and I went home. But I couldn't tell my parents that this happened to me. Especially, I couldn't tell them that Camilo was gay, that he had woken up eventually and didn't tell them that he was gay. I couldn't tell him that we were at a gay bar. I just told them that I fell asleep behind the wheel, and my dad beat me that night on top of everything that happened to me because he felt that I was like drinking and driving. Yeah.
And then two or three days later, I went to the police station to report this. When I got there, I started telling this police officer what happened to me, and the moment that I told him I was at this gay bar, he closed the notebook that he was reading, where he was taking notes, and he said, "We don't have jurisdiction over that bar. If you don't want that to happen to you again, then don't go there." So that's when I realized I had nothing.
CHRIS HAYES: You had no objection from the law.
LUIS MANCHENO: I had nobody, no protection from the law. I don't have my parents and I'm walking on the street and I cannot stop looking around to see if somebody's going to hurt me. Somebody, you know, that people who had hurt tried to hurt me already. I still don't know if they were targeting me specifically or if they were just targeting anybody who was gay.
CHRIS HAYES: At this point you're still 18 right?
LUIS MANCHENO: No, this happened when I was 20 years old.
CHRIS HAYES: 20, okay.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: When does it start to form in your mind that you have to leave, have to get out.
LUIS MANCHENO: Immediately. Right after talking to the police officers I say, I need to leave. I was a very good student — and definitely the experience of a lot of gay people too, which is just sort of overcompensate the fact that you're gay and try to hide, be like a star student. I was the star student.
CHRIS HAYES: Don't worry, very straight, straight As, straight guy, don't worry about it.
LUIS MANCHENO: Exactly, yeah. I always talk about the fact that I was... I was I think for my parents, I think that was the biggest disappointment, because I was their model child, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: Up until then.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: Good son, good friends, good grades...
I went back to the school that I was attending at the time. They had a program for people to study abroad, and I applied to this program in Oregon, here in the U.S., and didn't know where Oregon was. But, I said, "It's far away enough, let's do it."
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: I was admitted to it, and a couple months later, I arrived in the U.S. I arrived in the U.S. on July 31st, 2008.
CHRIS HAYES: July 31st, 2008. Wait, is today July 31st?
LUIS MANCHENO: What, really? Yeah! Oh, wow.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow, the 11 year anniversary of your arrival in this land.
LUIS MANCHENO: My 11 year anniversary, yeah. So...
CHRIS HAYES: You apply for a student... Today is the 11 year anniversary of touching down...
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, that's right.
CHRIS HAYES: ... in the majestic state of Oregon, sight unseen, straight from Quito, and you have some kind of student visa.
LUIS MANCHENO: I have a student visa.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: I have a student visa.
CHRIS HAYES: To study at a university, or...
LUIS MANCHENO: At a university in Oregon, in Salem, Oregon.
CHRIS HAYES: In Salem?
LUIS MANCHENO: At Roger Williams University, and when I was in Ecuador, I was a law student, so I went as an exchange student to a law school in Oregon.
Very, very soon after I arrived, I had a boyfriend here. Oregon is very liberal, and he was living in a college town, which is a really amazing experience for me, being...
CHRIS HAYES: Did it feel like liberation, like freedom?
LUIS MANCHENO: Oh, 100 percent.
CHRIS HAYES: The promised land?
LUIS MANCHENO: Holding hands with my boyfriend, and everybody not saying anything, but celebrating it, right? Celebrating me, and celebrating who I was. I was part of an LGBT group in college.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
LUIS MANCHENO: All of these sorts of things that I had never imagined that were possible in my life.
Prop. 8 was on the ballot in California, and there was a lot of rallying, and a lot of organizing around defeating Prop. 8 in California, because we were the state right next to Oregon.
A lot of talks about same sex marriage in the U.S., like, Obama is running for president, sort of a lot of amazing energy I think, of change in the U.S., and so that's when I came.
One day, I was in my intellectual property law class, and I was with my friend Maria. She is this U.S. citizen now, but she originally was from Bulgaria. She was working with asylum seekers. Our school had a clinic that would help asylum seekers pro bono.
She was working with this woman from Liberia, who was seeking asylum in the U.S., based on her disability, and based on the fact that, if she would go back to Liberia, she would be persecuted because of that.
We started talking about it. She was doing a lot of research on what was happening in Liberia, and she says at some point, "I wish that my client would be gay, because I keep looking at all of these articles about people being gay in Liberia, and terrible things happening to people who are gay in Liberia. We could apply for asylum. It would be so much easier."
CHRIS HAYES: I see, because documenting some sort of systematic persecution against people with disabilities was proving more difficult, and when she was doing the research, she was finding that there's a ton of systematic persecution of LGBT people?
LUIS MANCHENO: Correct, correct. I was like...
CHRIS HAYES: Wait a second.
LUIS MANCHENO: ... "Wait, what? You can apply for asylum if you're afraid of going back to your country, because of being gay, because you were persecuted for being gay?" The answer was, yes.
I started doing a lot of research online, and I found out that in 1994 — and it's since 1994 — the birth of immigration appeals, which is the immigration agency in the U.S. decided in this case that a gay Cuban asylum seeker could seek asylum in the U.S., based on his sexual orientation.
CHRIS HAYES: Thank God for a little Cold War...
LUIS MANCHENO: Correct.
CHRIS HAYES: ... to set the precedent.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, no, absolutely, yeah. This is also in the Clinton Administration, right? In December of that year, of 2008, I submitted my application for asylum.
I say that, but I submitted by application for asylum was also one of the scariest things that I could do. First of all, I drafted it myself. I looked at it the other day. I'm a lawyer now, and I'm like, "Oh my God. What was I thinking?" Because, I didn't know what to write in it.
CHRIS HAYES: Sure, well, you're a law student, and you're doing a pro se, right.
LUIS MANCHENO: Right, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: You're also very close to it. There's a reason, as you know, as a lawyer, distance helps a little bit.
LUIS MANCHENO: Oh, no, no, of course. Yeah, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: In representing someone, it must be very hard to write your first person story.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, so it was like, I always describe it as my application just being very cute, because it was just cute.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the vibe I'm going for.
LUIS MANCHENO: Submitted it on... It used to work this way, but not anymore. I had my asylum interview scheduled for February of 2009, very soon after. The interview lasted three and a half hours, or something.
Then, after the interview, which was incredibly traumatizing for me, because the asylum officer would not have any patience in me crying, for example. I got emotional a couple of times, and he had a box of Kleenex, and he gave them to me at some point, and he said, "Crying is not allowed here. Take your Kleenex outside, and when you are done, you can come, and we can talk about your case."
The entire time, I felt like he was just trying to get me to say that I was lying, to trick me into saying things that I didn't want to say.
After the interview, I regretted filing for asylum.
CHRIS HAYES: It was that bad?
LUIS MANCHENO: Because, I was like, "I'm not going to get it. This means that I'm going to be placed in deportation proceedings."
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
LUIS MANCHENO: On top of having to go through the deportation proceedings, I'm going to be sent back to the country that I fear.
Luckily, I'm here, which means that I was not deported. A couple months later, on August 24th, 2009, I went to check the mail, and there was a letter in the mail, that said that I was granted asylum in the U.S.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm crying a little bit. Obviously I know the way the story ends, because you're here, but it's just, I don't know man, hearing the story from you, and hearing you tell it with the incredible honesty and rawness that you tell it with, it's just... it makes me feel really emotional, because it makes me feel very proud of the United States, that this is a place that you can be here, and be part of our community that we share together, and feel safe, and flourish, and it really makes me feel very proud as an American.
It also makes me feel really sad, both that the process was traumatic, but also that we have someone right now, right in the country, who just doesn't see the value in it. There are people like you, Luis, who are not going to get asylum.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Who have I think, I think it's fair to say, stories like yours.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, no, absolutely, and that's part of the reason why I talk about this, is the idea of realizing that I am just one in the hundreds of thousands of people who have the stories like this.
Most of them, one thing that people don't realize often is that, I'm here, and I gave everything up, to be able to have the freedom that I have here.
The day when I got asylum was a bittersweet day for me. In many ways, I was like, finally, I'm going to be able to be free, and I'm going to be able to have what I always wanted to have, which was freedom to be who I am.
But, at the same time, it also meant that I was giving up on everything that I had before, my parents, my family, my language. I'm speaking to you in English. I'm married today, and I speak to my husband in English. I gave up the language that I grew up with.
Not only that, it's just tiny things, and songs, and just so much of my culture had to be put to the side, to be able, because the first thing that I feel that... and a lot of immigrants go through this is, your desire to assimilate, your desire to fit in.
When I got asylum, I definitely had that, but also, a sacrifice that asylum seekers, or asylees have to do is that, you are not allowed to go back to your home country.
CHRIS HAYES: That's it?
LUIS MANCHENO: You are not allowed to go back to your home country, while you are an asylee, which means that, until you become a U.S. citizen, really, I would just have given up on seeing my family, and seeing everybody else that I care for in Ecuador.
CHRIS HAYES: One of the reasons I want to talk to you, my wife had met you, and told me about your story, and said that you would be a great person for the podcast, is just because I feel like, there's that Stalin line about, "A single death is a tragedy, and a million deaths is a statistic." The asylum story is such a story of numbers, it's such a story of, "Oh, there's this many, how many border crossingd ... how many hundreds of thousands, and there's these many thousands in detention."
It just starts to feel like ... There's a real attempt I think, by the right wing, particularly to create this mass of humanity that has no particularity.
You now work in the system. You're an attorney at legal aid. You work with people that have immigration cases. What do you want people to know about the people that are showing up at the border, who again, are going through a different process, because they're crossing without authorization, and presenting at the border?
LUIS MANCHENO: Well, it's not just about people who are crossing without authorization at the border. It's also about people who are already here, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: People who, through the work that I do at legal aid, I am a supervising attorney, part of this amazing program that actually New York City has is, the New York Family Unity Project, because one of the things that people need to know is that, people do not have the right to access to a lawyer, paid by the government, in immigration deportation cases, which means that they have to do pretty much what I did.
But, on their cases, they don't have the English that I had. They don't have the law studies that I had, and everything that I had behind me, but they have to go through this very incredibly scary process on their own.
The things that I suffer are horrific, but I talk to my clients every day, and the things that they have... Compare my story to their stories, it's just unfair, because the things that people go through, that makes them actually come to this country, people would be shocked by the horrific things that people are escaping from.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the thing that... just if you think about it with any kind of common sense, particularly these folks that are coming 2,000 miles over land, with a child, just...
LUIS MANCHENO: What makes you do that?
CHRIS HAYES: Well, yeah! Come on! This idea that they're coming for free healthcare, or to game the system, and it's like, let's say they're coming to quote, unquote game the system. That's a lot of effort, risk, danger, danger of being robbed, or being killed, or assaulted, or if you're a woman, particularly sexually assaulted, although not exclusively, of your child being assaulted in some way.
No one's doing that for kicks. No one.
LUIS MANCHENO: Yeah, it's exactly the opposite, and I think that, that's what people need to understand, that immigrating, it's one of the most human things that are very characteristic of us as human beings.
It's just this idea that, I want to provide a better future for my children. I want to be able for them to go to college. I want to be able to have a good job, so I can buy a house for them, we can live in a house.
What is so wrong with that? What is so wrong with having to wish better for you and your family? The thing is that, the majority of the people, it's not only economic opportunism, but it's real, real danger that they are in.
That's why the idea that, the harder we make it for people to access our asylum laws, and our protection, we think that, that is actually going to have an effect on people stopping to come here. But, that is just so not true, because the things that people are facing in their home countries are so horrific.
Look, I was living in El Salvador actually, recently, because I worked for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and I did some work there. In El Salvador, I met so many people, especially the story of this trans woman who I met is so impactful.
I asked her as I was interviewing her, "Has anything happened to you, why you would like to leave?"
She said, "Well, I would like to go and work, and have a better future."
Eventually, after hours of interviewing, she finally opened up, and apparently, she was raped by gang members, twice a week, and she didn't even talk about that with me, because it was just so normal for her that, that was the type of life that she was used to.
Those are the type of people who are incredibly desperate for safety, to be able to just live freely, without having to worry that their kids are going to be murdered tomorrow.
CHRIS HAYES: It's also really useful to listen to you, and talk about this, because I think we all have this idea of the Tutsi in Rwanda, or Muslims in Serbia, or Jews in Germany, a specific group that you're part of a class of, that there is oppression of, and you need to get out, because you are being persecuted.
A lot of the cases that we see from the Northern Triangle — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — they don't fall neatly into that category. It's a lot of people who are fleeing persecution that is related to particularly gang violence.
LUIS MANCHENO: Correct, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Or, people like yourself.
LUIS MANCHENO: I think that they don't fill the traditional way, how we have thought in our minds that we're asylums for laws protect, but if you actually look at how the International Instruments Protection, they actually should be protected.
That's why UNHCR, The United High Commissioner for Refugees, have been saying again, and again, and again that actually, these people do meet the definition of refugees.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, this is my point though, because I think people do have this mode of, Oh, you have this faith tradition, and so, it's just important to me, to hear your story in particular.
Obviously, you were persecuted as part of being part of an identity group, but this is an amazing country. We should extend mercy to people that are fleeing from danger. I don't know. It's not a particularly hot take, but...
LUIS MANCHENO: You know, you hear a lot about this country being a country of laws. If we actually want this country to be a country of laws, I think it might be important for our country to start following those laws, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
LUIS MANCHENO: We have an international legal obligation to protect people. We're a country of laws and compassion, and I think that as a country, we need to wake up, and we need to start thinking about the duty that we have to fellow human beings, who are in so much need.
CHRIS HAYES: Final question, do you talk to your family?
LUIS MANCHENO: I do now. My father actually passed away in a year after I left Ecuador.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm sorry to hear that.
LUIS MANCHENO: But, at the end, he said... I was able to see him through a special permission that the U.S. government gave me, and the day, two days after he... before he died, he gathered the family, and he said, "This is my son, and he's gay, and I'm proud of him."
You know what? That's like the gift that asylum gave me, the idea that I was able to be free enough, that I was able to confront my father, and my father was able to realize that I was still his son.
I'll tell you that, the happiest moment in my life, I don't think that it will ever get to that place, is the moment when I became a U.S. citizen. When I became a U.S. citizen, and I decided for the first time, and I realized for the first time that I finally had a home.
CHRIS HAYES: Luis Mancheno, is an immigration attorney at legal aid. He was granted asylum in 2009, originally from Ecuador. Really, I cannot thank you enough, for sharing your story, Luis. Seriously, it made a huge impact on me, and I know that's true of the people who listened, as well.
LUIS MANCHENO: Thank you Chris, for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Luis Mancheno. He's an attorney at legal aid. He does training for asylum officers, and does immigration work, and you can find out more about Luis on our website, where we link to some more information about him, including his Twitter handle. He's got a great Twitter presence.
Speaking of Twitter, we always love to hear from you at our Twitter, #WITHpod, W-I-T-H-P-O-D. Send us your feedback, your guest requests, things you learned, or want to learn.
Where you can email us, email@example.com.
We've also got an announcement coming soon I believe, on some more live shows, maybe? Teasing that as a possibility, so we will have more on that soon, but I think we're gonna do some more live shows, and they won't be in New York, okay? Okay, you've been heard, the rest of America, WITHpod heads.
“Refugee, Immigrant and Citizen” by Alexandra S. Levine
Why is this happening is presented by MSNBC, and NBC News, produced by the All In Team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.