President Biden’s “Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World” expressed the United States’ commitment to providing protection and responding to the unique challenges that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face during their resettlement process. With this commitment in mind, as well as San Diego’s proximity to Mexico and one of the busiest border crossings in the world, San Diego and its local organizations are in an ideal position to follow through on the memorandum’s stated goals. Currently, LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face several unique struggles throughout their resettlement processes that could be improved with an intersectionality-based approach to assistance. For these reasons, I propose that the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs expand the scope of their assistance to include the protection of LGBTQI+ international migrants before entering the United States. I also propose that pre-existing cross-border campaigns aimed at protecting LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers are ensured sufficient government funding to form and sustain their assistance programs.
On February 4, 2021, Joe Biden issued the “Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World.” (1) This memorandum revitalized the United States’ commitment to increase protection, acceptance, and decriminalization of LGBTQI+ persons internationally. (2)
Section 2 of the memorandum, in particular, outlines the current administration’s goal of “protecting vulnerable LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers.” (3) This section details three recommendations that can be taken at the federal level to improve the protection of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees:
(1) “The Departments of State and Homeland Security shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum” (4)
(2) “The Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security shall ensure appropriate training is in place so that relevant Federal Government personnel and key partners can effectively identify and respond to the particular needs of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, including by providing to them adequate assistance” (5)
(3) Ensure “that the Federal Government takes all appropriate steps, such as potential increased use of Embassy Priority-1 referrals, to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs” (6)
San Diego has become one of the largest refugee hubs in the world. Since opening the Camp Pendleton Refugee Camp to welcome Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees displaced during the war in Vietnam (7), San Diego has seen a continuous growth in refugee and asylum seeker population, many of them arriving from the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings. Jointly, these two border crossings are the busiest in the world (8). San Diego’s proximity to a large population of hopeful migrants puts it in a unique position to assist refugees and asylum seekers pre- and post-migration.
One local governmental body that currently provides refugee assistance is San Diego County’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. This office provides numerous programs and benefits to aid refugees and asylum seekers upon arrival with the main focus of economic self-sufficiency (9). However, nowhere on their website is there a mention of LGBTQI+ persons or pre-migration assistance. While the office is involved in important refugee assistance programs, it overlooks many struggles that international migrants face. With a primary focus on post-migration aid, pre-migration struggles that often exacerbate issues upon arrival are disregarded.
A cross-border campaign aimed at helping LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers was recently formed through a partnership between regional organizations and organizations offering legal services to refugees. Al Otro Lado, RAÍCES, and the San Diego and Los Angeles LGBTQ centers have collaborated to “ensure that legal services, case management, and humanitarian relief were provided to asylum seekers who are LGBTQ, and to those living with HIV, who made it to the Mexico/U.S. border” (10). Al Otro Lado provides legal services and prepares asylum seekers to present their claims at the border, RAÍCES provides legal services and sponsors housing accommodations, and the two LGBTQ centers provide health, legal, social, and advocacy services and connect migrants to host homes in the United States (11). This collaborative cross-border campaign is currently funded by community members, foundations, and organizations (12), but this form of funding may not be able to sustain long-term assistance efforts.
I am proposing that San Diego County’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs expand its role in providing refugee assistance to include the protection of LGBTQI+ international migrants before entering the United States. Presently, this office focuses solely on helping refugees and asylum seekers upon arrival in San Diego. However, with Biden’s memorandum reiterating a commitment to assisting LGBTQI+ international migrants throughout their resettlement process, San Diego’s unique proximity to one of the busiest border crossings in the world, and LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers continuing to face intersectional challenges, it is time for the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to expand the scope of their assistance programs.
In addition, I propose that the County of San Diego ensure that organizations that have already established cross-border campaigns receive sufficient funding to carry out and sustain projects that provide protection to LGBTQI+ migrants. Since it can often be difficult to create substantive change in government, the work that organizations such as Al Otro Lado, RAÍCES, and the San Diego and Los Angeles LGBTQ centers are involved in is vital to the protection of refugees and asylum seekers who identify as members of the LGBTQI+ community. These organizations also have more experience working alongside this vulnerable population, so they will have a greater understanding of the best methods to allocate funds and provide assistance.
LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face various forms of discrimination due to their gender and sexual identities. A study by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute estimated that 11,400 applications for asylum in the United States were made by people who identify as LGBTQI+ (13). Of those 11,400 applicants, 3,899 were seeking asylum based on fears associated with their LGBTQI+ identity (14). Often, migrants who are members of this community choose not to reveal their identities out of fear of harassment: “Somebody gave the advice just not say you’re gay" (15). It is also common for LGBTQI+ migrants to lose their support systems because of their identity; LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers often lose support from their families and religious communities due to their gender and sexual identities (16). Studies have found that refugees and asylum seekers who identify as transgender are often denied hormonal treatment and have increased difficulty in finding testing and treatment for STIs (17). In addition to lacking sexual health infrastructure for these migrants, LGBTQI+ migrants also have higher rates of mental and physical health conditions due to the stresses of the process combined with the lack of access to these services (18). Refugees and asylum seekers who identify as LGBTQI+ face many unique struggles that are not encountered by straight, cisgender migrants.
The recently formed cross-border LGBTQI+ international migrant assistance campaign has already seen success stories in taking on these challenges. One such story involves a caravan of over 7,000 asylum seekers traveling across Mexico from Central America in the summer of 2018 (19). A large group, many of whom identified as LGBTQI+, separated from the caravan and decided to walk to the border on their own due to gender and sexual identity-based discrimination (20). Marcos, a Honduran refugee, recalled LGBTQI+ members of the group having been “denied basic needs such as showers and food and received constant verbal and physical abuse, including sexual assault and rape" (21). The cross-border campaign heard about this and decided to meet with the leaders in Tijuana and offer comprehensive humanitarian assistance (22). Assistance was delivered in the form of direct aid, such as food, clothing, and funding for health care, the provision of legal services, and help with the preparation of how to present their asylum cases at the border (23). Substantial funding and assistance from San Diego County and the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will allow this cross-border campaign to continue offering protection and expanding the assistance it offers LGBTQI+ international migrants prior to crossing the border.
1 Biden Jr, Joseph R. "Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World." official memorandum, The White House 4 (2021).
7 Patrick L. Townsend, "The Hand of Hope," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (1976) 102#9 pp 38–45.
8 Gallego, Ricardo. "Immigration and LGBTQ Intersections: A Pioneering Project on the San Diego/Tijuana Border." Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 22, no. 2 (2020): 178-184.
9 “Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.” SanDiegoCounty.gov. https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/hhsa/programs/sd/community_action_partnership/OfficeofRefugeeCoord.html
10 Gallego, Ricardo. "Immigration and LGBTQ Intersections: A Pioneering Project on the San Diego/TijuanaBorder." Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 22, no. 2 (2020): 178-184.
13 Shaw, Ari, Winston Luhur, Ingrid Eagly, and Kerith J. Conron. "LGBT Asylum Claims in the United States." (2021).
15 Yarwood, Vanessa, Francesco Checchi, Karen Lau, and Cathy Zimmerman. "LGBTQI+ migrants: a systematic review and conceptual framework of health, safety and wellbeing during migration." International journal of environmental research and public health 19, no. 2 (2022): 869.
16 Fox, Samara D., Randi H. Griffin, and John E. Pachankis. "Minority stress, social integration, and the mental health needs of LGBTQ asylum seekers in North America." Social Science & Medicine 246 (2020): 112727.
17 Yarwood, Vanessa, Francesco Checchi, Karen Lau, and Cathy Zimmerman. "LGBTQI+ migrants: a systematic review and conceptual framework of health, safety and wellbeing during migration." International journal of environmental research and public health 19, no. 2 (2022): 869.
19 Gallego, Ricardo. "Immigration and LGBTQ Intersections: A Pioneering Project on the San Diego/Tijuana Border." Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 22, no. 2 (2020): 178-184.