A Seldom Heard Perspective On Today's Broken Immigration System

This past weekend, Washington University in St. Louis hosted the 11th annual Midwest LGBTQ Law Conference. Organized by OUTLaw, the gathering provides an opportunity for law students, professors, practitioners, judges and others to come together to discuss legal issues in the Midwest, and focuses on a different theme each year.

This year's theme was "Rights Beyond Borders" and perfectly described by OUTLaw president Brigid Hurn-Maloney: "[It's] all about reminding ourselves that even with marriage equality in the United States now, there’s still so much more progress to be fought for and won—both here and abroad."

Out of the many speakers at the conference, #Boom was fortunate enough be granted an interview with Clement Lee, staff attorney in the detention program for Immigration Equality. The not-for-profit LGBT organization with a staff of immigration attorneys supports and represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and HIV-positive immigrants seeking safety, fair treatment and freedom and is is only organization of its kind. Considering all of this, Mr. Lee provides an opportunity to share a different perspective on a broken immigration system that is increasingly affecting our community.

Can you say a little about who you are and what you do?

My name is Clement Lee, and I’m a staff attorney at Immigration Equality, the leading national LGBT immigrant rights organization. In the United States, the federal government detains immigrants in a network of about 250 jails and jail-like facilities where LGBT people are at high risk of mistreatment, harassment or assault. I represent detained LGBT asylum seekers in immigration court, and I advocate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on issues related to detainee housing, medical care and sexual assault prevention for LGBT immigrants.

How are you liking your stay in St. Louis so far?

One of the highlights of my trip happened almost immediately after landing at Lambert International Airport, when I finally met my client and fellow panelist Estrella in person. Immigration Equality had previously advocated for her release after she had been detained in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly a year. Immigration Equality’s pro bono partners at the law firms Kilpatrick Townsend and Fried Frank have provided and continue to provide Estrella with high quality representation as her case winds through the courts. I’m so glad she was able to speak out about her experiences, both as an activist and as a person formerly in detention, at this conference.

What are your thoughts about the importance of this conference, and your role in it?

By many accounts, the world has seen a record number of migrants and refugees over the past year. One idea I think this conference has helped highlight is how that figure includes LGBT people who flee their home countries, fearing for their lives. In nearly 80 countries, being gay or trans is a crime. In many more, being LGBT or HIV positive can make life fundamentally unsafe for a person. Immigration Equality’s clients flee persecution and violence in search of safety in the United States—and when they do, they are too often detained in the custody of immigration authorities. The “traditional” immigrant story many of us as Americans have grown up with—that people leave their home countries of their own free will, to encounter ample opportunity in this country—simply doesn’t reflect their lived experience. By shining a spotlight on activists who fight LGBT persecution abroad, and those like Estrella who fight it here, I think this conference helps give human rights a face and a name, and pushes forward the conversation about the need for comprehensive immigration reform that is inclusive of LGBT and HIV-affected people.

Out of all the careers you could have chosen, why were you drawn to this field?

As a queer-identified person of color, representing LGBT immigrants feels a lot like representing my brothers and sisters. Also, I was born in Chinatown, New York, a community that draws its lifeblood from a legacy of immigration. My father’s family fled persecution during the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, so the idea of fleeing one’s country for the United States is one that I can identify with through my family’s experience, and one that continues to inform my work.

Can you explain a typical day at work for me, or does one even exist?

Some days I’m in court; on others I’m visiting detention centers to monitor conditions and speak with detainees. Immigration Equality provides a free International Hotline that allows LGBT folks fighting for asylum in immigration detentionto ask my colleagues and me legal questions.

What do you most enjoy about it, and what makes it very hard some days?

When I’m at an immigration detention center and I hear a plane flying overhead, I sometimes gulp thinking that there’s a chance my client will be deported. Thankfully, Immigration Equality’s success rate is 99%.I most enjoy seeing my clients who receive asylum become advocates for those with similar challenges.

How do you see the current state of immigration in the United States?

The immigration system in the United States is broken. There’s a disconnect between the way the United States of America holds itself out to be a global leader in terms of LGBT rights, and how it regularly detains and deports LGBT asylum seekers looking for safe haven in this country.

What about our current immigration system makes your job difficult; first strictly based off fulfilling your job responsibilities, and second on a more personal basis?

The current shortage of immigration judges has created a court backlog that means that my clients regularly have to wait in limbo for years before they are able to have their cases heard. I also find it frustrating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a risk classification assessment system for detainees that recommends against detaining people 70% of the time, and yet that individual officers override that recommendation 68% of the time.

Can you offer a different perspective on immigration? That is to say, we so often hear about this issue from the side of the hopeful immigrant, but not necessarily those on the other side like attorneys who are working to make their dream a reality. Do you think you see things differently because of this?

Unlike in criminal proceedings, immigrants in removal proceedings are not provided by the government with legal counsel. In many cases, this can make it nearly impossible for an LGBT asylum seeker to meaningfully present their case to a judge. At any one time, we serve over 500 LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants living at or below the poverty line. Because we are at the front lines serving so many clients, we are able to spot and advocate for critical policy changes that help our communities.

If you could share one piece of information, what would it be?

Anyone can be involved in this movement, not just attorneys. Whether you become a pen pal with a detained immigrant, volunteer as a translator, advocate to elected officials, or take a stand against anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant rhetoric, everyone has a role to play in facilitating change for LGBT immigrants.