From silence to safety

Posted on 12 Apr 2013 at 9:15am

Judge denies asylum to gay refugee from Jordan but allows him to stay in Dallas with his partner, in case that highlights discriminatory laws

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RELATIONSHIP RECOGNIZED | Khalil, shown outside the courthouse after the hearing, can’t apply for a green card because his relationship with Alex isn’t recognized by the federal government. But a judge recognized their relationship in granting an order withholding his removal from the U.S. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

If Khalil is forced to return to his native Jordan, he says he’ll have a choice: go back into the closet, or risk imprisonment or death because of his sexual orientation.

Fortunately, Khalil recently won a reprieve from an immigration judge in Dallas, who denied his application for asylum but granted him a waiver of removal from the U.S.

Khalil is one of 44,170 people who applied for asylum last year — and one of 63 from Jordan. The U.S. Department of Justice doesn’t track how many are LGBT. However, Khalil’s case exposes a major problem for gay and lesbian asylum seekers: They must apply within one year of arriving in the U.S., but for many, it takes much longer before they come out.

“I appreciate the freedom of speech,” Khalil said outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas. “People take it for granted. I left family, friends, career, education for my freedom of speech and to be who I am.”

While Judge Richard R. Ozmun’s order allows Khalil to stay, it does not allow him to seek a green card, which he could get if it weren’t for the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

He can apply for a work permit, return to school, get a driver’s license and remain with his partner, Alex. But he won’t see his parents or have a path to citizenship.

Khalil’s last name is being withheld to protect his identity because he fears possible reprisals.

‘I should be dead … ’

As a teenager, Khalil thought something was wrong. While all of his friends were talking about girls, he didn’t care.

Although that story is common among LGBT teens, discussing how he felt simply didn’t seem possible for a Saudi-born Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship living in Amman.

In 2007, after meeting an Austin man online, Khalil applied for a student visa and enrolled at the University of Texas.

“It was the happiest time of my life,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t a phase.”

Although things didn’t work out with the man he met online, Khalil soon met Alex, who lives in Dallas. After visiting every weekend for months, Khalil moved here.

As he began living as an openly gay man, he realized he couldn’t return to his previous life. But his visa had expired.

If the federal government recognized same-sex marriage, or if gays and lesbians could sponsor their partners as heterosexuals sponsor theirs, Khalil could have gotten a green card.

Instead, he lived with Alex in Dallas, unable to work. But he became a close, integral part of that family as he cared for Alex’s mother and brother, who both died of cancer. Not until after his brother’s death did Alex suggest Khalil apply for asylum.

“How is gay connected to being a refugee?” Khalil said. “I didn’t think that asylum was an option for someone just because they are homosexual and fleeing abuse. I should be dead for thinking this way. Being gay in the Middle East isn’t possible.”

In 2012, Alex and Khalil consulted with immigration attorney Stacy Webb, who suggested applying for asylum based on his fear of attacks and reprisals if he were to return to Jordan as an openly gay man.

Asylum based on sexual orientation was first granted in the U.S. in 1994 under Attorney General Janet Reno.

Asylum applicants are required to apply within a year of arrival in the U.S. That one-year rule can be problematic for someone still coming to terms with his sexual orientation after growing up in a society that suppresses any gay life.

Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls said while the U.S. does the right thing by granting asylum based on sexual orientation, the one-year rule is strict and can be waived only with a change in circumstance.

“Coming out after arriving in the U.S. is not applicable for seeking a waiver,” he said.

But Webb used the changed circumstances exception to build a case for not returning an openly gay man to Jordan, despite its perception as a progressive Middle Eastern country.

“Does the Jordanian government have an officially stated policy on homosexuality?” Webb said.

“No, but in reality Sharia law controls, and that’s where we get into trouble.”

Nancy Stockdale, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of North Texas, who has traveled and lived in Jordan, agreed being gay in Jordan is not illegal per se.

But Stockdale said the governor of Amman has made public statements that he wants to eradicate homosexuality. Someone can be arrested and held for up to two months without charges or harassed with prostitution charges.

Because Khalil is Palestinian, she said, he’s automatically a second-class citizen in Jordan.

“Even successful Palestinians don’t have access to power,” she said.

Stockdale said if his family cut him off, he would not be able to create a new life. “Everything is embedded in your social connections,” she said.

That includes family, tribe and social contacts. Without his family, Khalil would not be able to get an apartment or a job. So simply returning to Jordan and moving to another city is not feasible. Khalil said even his father, a medical doctor, needed connections to get his job.

While Khalil is not afraid of his immediate family, Stockdale said he could fall victim to an honor killing. He has an extended family of hundreds.

Khalil

YES HE CAN  | Khalil poses in front of a portrait of the president in the lobby of the courthouse after the hearing. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

“And that would seem normal,” she said. “It [his being gay] would reflect on their honor.”

‘Take my picture with Obama’

In October 2012, Khalil filed his petition for asylum. After a preliminary hearing, the court date was set for March 25 — coincidentally, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in two key marriage equality cases.

At his March hearing, Khalil went to the Earle Cabell Federal Building with friends, members of Alex’s family and Stockdale, prepared to testify that returning to Jordan could be dangerous for an openly gay man. During pre-trial motions, the judge and government attorney offered a compromise.

Khalil would withdraw his petition for asylum. The judge would enter an order for him to be removed from the country, but concurrently enter a second order permanently withholding removal.

Khalil would not be eligible for a green card, but he could apply for a work permit, go to school and get a driver’s license.

If DOMA is struck down, the judge said Khalil may apply for a green card based on his relationship with Alex, but until then he has no path to citizenship.

After Webb explained the terms of the offer, Khalil said, “Let’s do it,” knowing he might never see his immediate family in Jordan again.

The judge praised Khalil for presenting an honest document and account. He acknowledged his loving, committed relationship and how he had become part of a family.

Khalil was stunned that a judge would recognize his relationship — even though the law does not.
Although asylum may be granted based on sexual orientation, the provision for changed circumstances doesn’t allow waiving the one-year rule even if the person hasn’t come out and fully understood his circumstances until more than a year after arrival.

Congressman Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who has made immigration reform a key issue since arriving in Washington in January, said any changes to asylum law must be comprehensive.

“That means we need to include all groups, from Latinos and Asians to Africans and the LGBT community,” he said. “[We need to address] our country’s asylum system so that persecuted and displaced individuals receive needed protection under the law. President Obama is committed to aiding refugees and I fully support his initiative to improve our asylum system.”

Although asylum was denied, Khalil left the court ecstatic he could begin moving forward with his life and talked about how accepting his new city has been.

“Take my picture with Obama,” he said, pointing to the portrait hanging in the lobby of the federal building.

Next on his list of things to do now that he was a permanent resident was upgrading his iPhone.

He’d been putting off signing a new phone contract in case of deportation.

And he worried about what he was going to tell his parents. Friends suggested that like many parents, they might already know he’s gay. For now he’s only told them that he was given the right to stay in the U.S. and to go to school. And that he wouldn’t be returning to Jordan anytime soon.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 12, 2013.

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