Queens Offers A Safe Haven For Immigrants
By Juliet Werner
left Colombia to seek asylum in Queens.
this year is anything like last year, Carlos will
watch the Queens Pride Parade from the window
of his Jackson Heights apartment.
Carlos, 24, came to this country four years ago
when life as a gay man in Colombia became unbearable.
"I think I always knew, but I wanted to change,"
he said. "I was always thinking, 'I can change.'
I wanted to be the person like my parents or my
family wanted me to be."
The discrimination he faced both at home and at
school was manageable. But when a family friend
started harassing him - calling the house at all
hours of the night to demand sex - Carlos sought
refuge abroad. He had family in Queens.
"When I got here it was hard because it was kind
of like living in Colombia again with my uncles
and cousins," he said. "I tried to hide. It was
kind of like living a double life."
Still, the physical and emotional abuse he had
faced in Bogota seemed a million miles away.
"For you it used to be normal, but then when you're
here, you're like, 'Oh my god! That's not right
- it's wrong,'" he said. "You realize you don't
On the advice of a friend, Carlos applied for
asylum in January 2005, but his case was denied.
Asylum enables foreign nationals to remain lawfully
in the United States indefinitely and, after one
year, apply for legal residence. In general, an
asylum application must be filed within one year
of the applicant's arrival in the states.
In 1994 former Attorney General Janet Reno decided
that a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) case,
Matter of Toboso-Alfonso, would become precedent.
As a result, persecution based on sexual orientation
is enough to apply for asylum.
Victoria Neilson works as the legal director of
Immigration Equality, a national organization
that helps immigrants who were persecuted in their
home country based on sexual orientation, transgender
identity or HIV-status, with their asylum applications.
"Most of our clients find us through our Web site,"
Neilson said. "We get tens of thousands of independent
hits every month."
Carlos found Immigration Equality online and pretty
soon he had an attorney.
"I didn't know the steps," Carlos confessed. "They
told me what I was missing. So they helped me
out with building my case."
In order to have a case, one must provide an Immigration
Form I-589, a personal statement, corroborating
documents and proof that conditions in country
of origin violated human rights.
According to Neilson, the majority of immigrants
currently obtaining asylum on the grounds of their
sexual orientation are West Indian. However, a
few years ago, most were hailing from Venezuela
and other Latin American countries.
Nearly 80 percent of Immigration Equality's clients
are gay men.
"It's more difficult for women to get to the United
States," Neilson explained. "Also the type of
harm that women experience in their countries
fits less neatly into asylum standards. [With
men] it's more likely they have been in a gay
bar where they're physically harmed. Lesbians
tend to have more discrete relationships and some
of the harm they face is fear of a forced arranged
marriage or rape."
Carlos was granted asylum in April 2007. He now
lives in an apartment with a friend who had fled
similar circumstances in Colombia.
"Since I'm living on my own just here by myself
I feel more comfortable. I feel so much more confident.
It's very, very different," he said, adding, "It's
not just getting here and that's it. You have
to keep fighting and trying to become better and
Carlos said he's looking forward to studying interior
design at Parsons in the fall and has the following
advice for others who have escaped persecution.
"Stay focused because probably if you don't focus
on what your goals are maybe you can get lost,"
he said. "When you believe in something it comes
true. [A lot of people focus on] just getting
money, money, money, but they forget about getting
a better immigration status
You can improve your
life even more." .