WASHINGTON -- While the United States awaits a major Supreme Court decision that could legalize gay marriage across the nation, there are more than 70 countries where being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a crime.
LGBT rights activist Victor Mukasa said the violence and hate crimes against LGBT people in his home country of Uganda became so bad that he had to get out.
"At some point it became unbearable. It became unbearable and you're just like, 'I have to leave. I have to leave to save my life,'" Mukasa said Thursday at a panel hosted by the think tank Center for American Progress. "There are people who are here for safety. There are people there who need safety."
The U.S. has been offering asylum to LGBT people who face persecution in their home countries since 1994. Mukasa was able to obtain asylum in 2013, and others have done the same, although the government does not collect data on LGBT asylum seekers. But LGBT people still face serious barriers to receiving asylum, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress.
“For LGBT people seeking a haven in this country, we are doing more to meet our charge than ever before, but much more work still remains,” said Winnie Stachelberg, an executive vice president at the think tank who participated in the panel discussion.
One difficulty is a requirement that asylum seekers apply within a year of arriving in the U.S. The Center for American Progress report calls for dropping the one-year deadline so that those who need protection aren't denied it simply because they applied too late.
“A lot of people don’t even realize that they can get protection based on persecution because of their sexual orientation or identity,” Sharita Gruberg, senior policy analyst at the think tank, said during the panel discussion. “And feeling comfortable disclosing something to a government official you’ve been forced for survival reasons to hide your entire life, you have to do all that and do it in a year.”
The report also urges the government to limit the detention of immigrants, which it says hurts individuals' chances of receiving asylum. Aaron Morris, legal director at the nonprofit group Immigration Equality, said detention is particularly problematic for transgender people.
"One of the biggest problems that we see and one of our highest policy priorities is to get the U.S. government to stop putting transgender women in men's facilities," Morris said at the panel. "They're attempting to keep them safer, but it's not a humane way to do so."
The report recommends the government dedicate more resources to reducing the backlog in immigration courts, offer free legal counsel to asylum seekers and increase training on LGBT issues for immigration officers and judges.
Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, said during Thursday's discussion that he thinks the nation's asylum policy could be improved by allowing people to apply at U.S. embassies in their home countries.
"Asylum is given to people who are already here and then can apply not to be sent back by documenting the problems," said Frank, who helped push to expand asylum to include LGBT people in 1994. "There should be a procedure whereby people could go to the embassy and apply for refugee status."
Even after people are granted asylum in the U.S., Mukasa said, many LGBT individuals need assistance in finding food, jobs and housing.
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