Why the United States Remains a Beacon of Hope
I have been working really hard the last couple of months. I’m an attorney in New York City and one case has really consumed me. It is a pro bono asylum case, my first. The trial was today.
Let me tell you about it.
My client is a gay man from Uganda, a country that criminalizes homosexuality and makes consensual same-sex sex illegal. Violence and discrimination are routinely perpetrated by both state and non-state actors against the LGBTQIA population. The political and religious leaders actively stoke homophobia and violence, and are aided in this process by a vicious tabloid press that solicits tips to out people—those outed are often arrested and imprisoned, and/or attacked and shunned by their communities.
The general belief in Uganda is that homosexuality is like a disease, but also the product of poor parenting, and is contagious and often transmitted by people setting out to induce others, especially kids, into homosexuality. It is a huge taboo.
Mob justice is a form of extrajudicial killing prevalent in Uganda—mobs will form almost spontaneously to punish perceived wrongdoers, meting out brutal punishment. The worst brutality is typically reserved for gay people.
My client comes from a rural village and was an almost-victim of mob justice three times before he fled to the U.S. earlier this year. His friend (and the friend’s boyfriend) were seen having sex in the friend’s home by a villager, who quickly alerted the village. A mob formed, they dragged the men out, attacked them with weapons, and tortured them. Then the mob, which included village leaders and even its Local Council Chairman, promised to spare their lives if they gave up the name of another gay person in the village. My client’s friend named him under pain of death. The mob killed him and the boyfriend anyway, in a gruesome practice known as “necklacing”—they put car tires around the men to bind their arms, poured gas over them, and set them on fire. Someone called the police, but they said to call them back when it was over so they could take the bodies to the mortuary.
The mob, led by the village chairman, then came hunting for my client. By dumb luck he was not home, and his stunned parents (who had no idea he was gay; he had kept it secret out of fear) were able to deflect the mob, although the mob vowed to kill him if they found him.
The family held an emergency meeting and quickly arranged a marriage for him (he was barely 20). The also took him to a witch doctor to expel the evil demon homosexual spirit from him—which the witch doctor did by cutting him with razor blades. He got married to spare his own life and the villagers left him alone. But the wife left him; the family found a “replacement.” The second marriage also did not work.
He said that he realized he would die if he stayed in Uganda. And even worse, now he was endangering his family.
He then started coaching soccer (boys aged 16–24, his own age), but without the cover of marriage, the village came after him. He got a summons from the local village council ordering him to attend a meeting to “answer to” allegations of homosexuality and inducing children into homosexuality. The summons even mentioned the possibility of mob justice! The next morning, the village mob attacked him at soccer practice—he ran for his life, and escaped by darting into a sugar plantation, and then hiding in a forest for hours. At night he found his way to his uncle’s house, four hours away.
The uncle gave him shelter but the mob tracked him down. My client had just happened to be gone when the mob came. The mob arrived with the Secretary of Defence (head of security/police) from the uncle’s village, who demanded the uncle produce him. They had tires with them for the “necklacing.” When the uncle did not did produce him, they beat the uncle, broke into his home, and ransacked it looking for my client. Unable to find him, they vowed to return to finish the job and kill the homosexual.
My client was almost back to his uncle’s when he heard his uncle screaming, “The boy is not here! You are misinformed!” He hid in terror until he heard cars leave and then came home to find his uncle bleeding from his nose and mouth and his home destroyed. He and the uncle realized he had to leave if he wanted to live.
In court, when I asked him how this made him feel he started to shake and shudder. We had been over this together many times, but the emotion of reliving it for the Court was overwhelming. He said that he realized he would die if he stayed in Uganda. And even worse, now he was endangering his family. He knew he had to escape, and he had a passport with a 2017 visa to the U.S. His voice shaking, he said he knew if he could get out of Uganda and get to the U.S. he would be protected, because in America, human rights matter and people will help you.
I wish I could tell you the exact words he used because they were so beautiful and desperate, and so filled with the pure faith that the U.S. is a place of refuge for the oppressed. Despite all the vileness of this administration, the United States remains a beacon of hope. Watching him say this as he shuddered and cried in his gentle, precise Luganda dialect, I could not hold back my tears.
The judge ruled on the case from the bench. He granted asylum. The DHS lawyer did not contest a thing. He waived appeal. They released my client, and a few minutes ago he walked out of the detention center, an asylee. In a year he can seek permanent residency in the U.S. and apply for a green card.
Today is his 25th birthday.
ENDNOTE: The victims here go far beyond my client. His case is a microcosm of the evils of homophobia and demonization, and the extraordinary, rippling levels of damage that such bigotry creates: his family, which is being persecuted and threatened in Uganda (villagers will not do business with them); the “wives” who were procured and paid for by the family like chattel; the thousands forced to live their lives in secret and/or as lies, under constant threat of violence by both their local communities and the state. And all of it enabled and perpetuated by the use of incendiary language by politicians and religious leaders to demonize a population and give permission for mob violence and police brutality and discrimination.I took on this case through the Immigration Justice Campaign, a brainchild of American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). They partner with non-Immigration lawyers to help them do pro bono work. They have great training materials and they give you a mentor whom you can consult weekly on strategy, process, everything. They have volunteers who can help with research into country conditions. They have videos you can watch, sample filings—whatever you need. The theory behind this is that only 14 percent of asylum seekers are represented—but those who are represented have a much higher likelihood of success than those who do not. If you are an attorney, please consider taking on this work. It is incredibly rewarding.
This originally appeared as a post on Facebook.
Thank you for doing this work. It is so incredibly important that asylum seekers have good legal representation. And on top of that, it’s important that those individuals who have been through so much know that there are people who care about them and will do whatever they can to help them. A former student of mine has a similar (though thankfully less harrowing) story. I got to attend his wedding in DC a few years ago, and he and his husband just adopted a beautiful baby girl. None of that would have been possible in his home country, or without the help of his pro bono law team (who were also at the wedding!).
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