June 20, 2014
That seems to be the take-away in the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) front-page story on asylum claims from Honduras, which alternatively ran with the headlines “If You’re Seeking Asylum, It Helps to be Gay” and “The Battle for Gay Asylum: Why Sexual Minorities Have an Inside Track to a U.S. Green Card.” In his news story for WSJ on Honduras, Joel Millman tells a familiar story in which some members of a persecuted minority, namely LGBT Hondurans, can find some relief from their situation thanks to the U.S.’s liberal values and “a growing willingness by Americans to embrace alternative lifestyles,” though they must leave their countries of origin in order to benefit from enlightened asylum laws.
While much of the piece is offensive and inaccurate (Nathaniel Frank has great take-down in Slate that is worth reading), the main problem is that it ignores the most significant event in recent Honduran history: a successful military coup in 2009 that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and triggered a wave of human rights violations and widespread political repression. Attacks on LGBT Honduras increased greatly after the U.S.-supported coup – organizations in Honduras count at least 25 murders of LGBT individuals between 1990 and 2005, but more than 116 murders since 2008 – and so while it might be true that many Hondurans have benefited from successful asylum applications and are now living in the United States, this is clearly not the full story.
The U.S.-backed coup in 2009 sparked a wave of violence against activists, the political opposition, and members of the LGBT community, with as many as 5,000 reports of human rights violations last year in the northern region alone. LGBT activists point out connections between violence perpetrated against them for their identity and for their involvement in resistance to the dictatorship and its successor regime. Indeed, while targeted hate crimes are often not overtly related to targets’ political involvement, LGBT activists note that it’s important to recognize the embedded nature of coup-opposition activism in many LGBT advocates’ work. Members of the LGBT community, including activists, are obvious targets for right-wing violence.
At the same time, human rights organizations have repeatedly pointed out the connections between such violence and state security forces, which receive diplomatic and financial support from the U.S. government. Members of the U.S. Congress have called for accountability on several occasions; just last month, 108 U.S. Congress members signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry denouncing the “egregious violations of human rights,” stating that “there are indications that members of the Honduran security forces may have been involved in some of these attacks against journalists and activists.”
So, what Millman fails to address is that at the same time that the U.S. may provide an “inside track” for LGBT immigrants to gain asylum status, the State Department backs the very government under which such crimes take place with impunity. Millman’s selective account provides yet another example of pinkwashing U.S. foreign policy – a strategy of “highlighting support for gay rights while ignoring or downplaying other relevant human rights issues.” And this is an extreme example, where the U.S. helped create and legitimize the repressive government, and continues to support its military, police and repressive apparatus. In this case, the article focuses on the ostensibly lenient policies surrounding LGBT asylum cases and downplays or ignores the origins of the violence in Honduras, the U.S. government’s role in fueling the crisis, and the insecurity that many LGBT immigrants face, especially trans women, once they are in the United States.
Of course the whole premise of the piece is questionable – even if one group of victims of violence were, for whatever reason, getting political asylum more than other groups – why should anyone be upset about that? The real problem is that the other groups – including victims of political violence that the U.S. government may be less sympathetic to because it helped install the regime that is attacking them – are being denied their basic human rights, including the right to asylum.
It is also worth noting that Millman’s case is undermined by his own numbers. First, he doesn’t have any evidence showing that LGBT victims of human rights abuses are a growing proportion of people granted asylum, since they are included in a category called “members of a particular social group.” So there is no data to back up the thesis of the article. Second, the graph accompanying the article shows that even for this category, which included LGBT victims, the percentage of people granted asylum was noticeably bigger in the late 1990s than during the Obama years. It plummeted during the Bush years, and so the trend he is describing is only a partial catch-up to levels of the late-90s.
As the Obama administration honors the struggle for LGBT rights during the newly-declared Pride Month, it is worth remembering that foreign policy is an LGBT issue, as are economic and immigration policies. The State Department should review its support for parts of the Honduran government and military forces implicated in violating human rights, and encourage the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for crimes.