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Legal experts stress need for LGBTQ+ immigration pro bono representation, holistic approach during UH Law Center CLE

Panelists discuss the challenges of the U.S. immigration system for the LGBTQ+ community during the UHLC Immigration Clinic CLE on “LGBTQ+ Immigrant Representation.”

Panelists discuss the challenges of the U.S. immigration system for the LGBTQ+ community during the UHLC Immigration Clinic CLE on “LGBTQ+ Immigrant Representation.”

July 24, 2023 — Community advocates, policymakers and legal experts joined the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic for a discussion on how to assist the LGBTQ+ community navigate the U.S. legal system. Panelists for the CLE presentation “LGBTQ+ Immigrant Representation” talked about holistic paths to the immigration system, detailing the importance of emotional awareness, listening and being non-judgmental.

“There were about 140 anti-LGBTQ bills recently, and we were able to effectively defeat 138,” said State Rep. Ann Johnson. “The two that passed are harmful to youth, harmful to the community and can be perceived as dehumanizing to the trans community.”

“We have to find our way back to humanity,” emphasized Judge Shannon B. Baldwin.

“The purpose of this CLE is to recognize that there is a need for direct representation for LGBTQ community migrants in Texas,” said moderator Parker Sheffy, clinical supervising attorney at the UHLC Immigration Clinic. “There is a deficiency for immigrants in general, let alone the immigrants of a certain intersectional line.”

Representing LGBTQ+ Immigrants

The first panel consisted of Nusrat Ameen, senior director of Daya Inc.; Maddy Dwertman (they/them), senior associate at Baker Botts; and Lorilei Williams, immigration attorney and abolitionist. They discussed how to effectively represent the LGBTQ+ immigrant population and encourage consultation.

“The best thing that we can do is make sure that we engage in active listening,” Lorilei Williams (they/them) queer, trans non-binary Korean American attorney advocate said. “There are actual frameworks for that, making sure we, without judgment, are really reflecting and clarifying things back to the speaker as they speak to us, making sure that we also don't make assumptions about how people feel.”

Houston’s population is nearly 25% foreign-born, largely diverse and ever-expanding, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census. The city faces various challenges, including those related to asylum seekers, bi-national same-sex couples, survivors of violent crimes, LGBTQ+ immigrant detainees and individuals seeking appeals.

Navigating LGBTQ+ Policy

The second panel was composed of Diana Martinez (she/her), a teacher and community worker; Ashley Heidebrecht, LMSW, director of the Diversity and Resiliency Institute of El Paso; Shelly Skeen (she/her), senior attorney for Lambda Legal; and Ash Hall (they/them), policy and advocacy strategist on LGBTQIA+ rights for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas. They addressed policy and provided holistic approach examples.

“We've seen over the years traumatic changes in policy,” Heidebrecht said. “We've seen a lot of discussion and rhetoric that's designed to confuse migrants, that's designed to confuse service providers and advocates and to confuse the legal community as well.”  

“Part of what the litigation is supposed to do is to not just advocate on behalf of the plaintiffs, but it's also to raise awareness and to educate the public about what it is,” Skeen said. “The lived experiences of the people on the ground who are feeling the impact of the bad legislation.”

Skeen added that self-identification often emotionally goes hand-in-hand with self-worth and fundamentally plays a role in a person’s life. Even more, the difficulty in changing gender status on an ID can complicate basic tasks such as getting a bank account, renting an apartment, or receiving health care, exacerbating the pains of LGBTQ+ individuals.

“Migrants and trans women are very much more vulnerable to exploitation, especially to sex work as they're being held from coming into the country,” Martinez said. “They're staying in places like Juarez and other border towns in Mexico because there are still anti-immigrant groups in these communities that refuse entry.”

Hall highlighted several ways to help LGBTQ+ people thrive in a community, including ensuring their physical safety at events, encouraging political involvement to improve LGBTQ+ equality, and voting in elections ranging from school boards to the presidency.

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