As we approach World Refugee Day and commemorate Pride Month in the United States, it is important to acknowledge the rising number of asylum seekers from the global LGBTQIA+ community. MoFo has a long history of advocating for LGBTQIA+ immigrants and is always looking for ways to continue expanding that work. A new pro bono initiative, led by San Francisco partner Mark Foster, Palo Alto associate Mary Race, senior paralegal Gary Stenger, pro bono counsel Dorothy Fernandez and Rachel Williams, has set out to do just that. Through this initiative, MoFo is partnering with Oasis Legal Services and the in-house legal team at long-time firm client VMware to expand the number of pro bono volunteers, providing much needed support to this vulnerable immigrant community.
Oasis Legal Services is a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit whose primary focus is serving LGBTQIA+ immigrants. Oasis services include initial screenings for immigration relief, filing affirmative asylum applications, and assisting with residency, citizenship, and family petitions. With just a handful of attorneys, Oasis has served individuals from over 35 countries around the world. And the need for help has never been more urgent than it is today.
While in recent years, some countries have advanced the rights of LGBTQIA+ people, that’s not the case in large parts of the world. Many countries still criminalize same-sex relationships and gender nonconforming behavior. In fact, in some countries having a same-sex relationship can result in the death penalty. Even in countries without these punitive laws, some governments turn a blind eye to violence against the LGBTQIA+ community and, in fact, are often involved in perpetrating violence against its members.
“The need to help LGBTQIA+ individuals successfully navigate the asylum process is greater than ever, given the disheartening rise in violence and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community in a number of countries. It’s uplifting, however, to be involved in this worthwhile project with Oasis and VMware.” For nearly thirty years, many of those who have experienced such atrocities have looked to the U.S. as a land where they could live openly and safely.
According to an NBC News report, citing data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), nearly 4,400 people who were persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity sought asylum in the U.S. between 2007 and 2017. With recent changes to U.S. immigration law and an enormous backlog in the immigration system, helping individuals navigate the asylum process is more important than ever.
“Our clients face unique roadblocks and systems of oppression due to their intersectional identities of being LGBTQIA+ and undocumented immigrants. We have worked hard to build a holistic service model that supports our clients through the difficult process of applying for asylum and connects them to the social, emotional, and legal support they need throughout their case,” states senior staff attorney and pro bono coordinator for Oasis Kusia Hreshchyshyn. “Our goal at Oasis is to ensure every eligible LGBTQIA+ asylum seeker receives high quality and culturally competent legal representation and related support services.”
The basic human rights of these individuals are at risk. By gaining legal status here in the U.S., Oasis Legal Service’s clients are not only able to qualify for citizenship and to find pathways to educational and occupational opportunities, but they are also able to get the necessary healthcare and support they need to fully heal. And, most importantly, they can express their true selves without fear.
The project we launched with VMware in May is to help Oasis keep its collection of “country conditions” information up to date. LGBTQIA+ people seeking asylum must provide evidence about the conditions in their home country to support the claim that they have faced persecution on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This includes evidence that their government either supports such persecution or will not do anything to stop it. The evidence must also be current. For example, when an individual is interviewed by immigration officials, they must be able to show that the dangerous conditions still exist in their home countries and that, as a result, they cannot return.
The volunteers in the new MoFo-VMware initiative will research and collect reports from human rights organizations, the U.S. government, and reputable news sources, to create compilations of material to submit in support of asylum cases. The submissions will highlight the most compelling facts and data for the asylum officer or immigration judge. The teams will research not only in English, but also in the countries’ primary languages. The work will sometimes involve looking beyond a country’s own reporting on its progress in protecting the LGBTQIA+ community to ascertain the day-to-day reality for its citizens.
MoFo and VMware, have started out the project by tackling research for five countries and hope to expand the work as this project gets off the ground. Oasis plans to use this work for its own clients and to share it with other organizations serving the LGBTQIA+ community, in hopes of having an impact far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I have had the privilege of representing LGBTQIA+ immigrants who experienced significant trauma and persecution in their home countries,” states Mark Foster in a recent announcement by Oasis on the partnership. “I derived great satisfaction from seeing how zealous and compassionate advocacy can transform lives—creating a space for healing, new opportunity, and the security that comes with obtaining asylum relief. I am excited to do more of this life-saving work with Oasis.”
Watch the below video to learn more about how Oasis Legal Services is making a difference: