Loeb & Loeb associate Michael Jones said he got his first taste of gay rights activism as an Emory undergraduate seeking equitable treatment in the early days of the fight against bias based on sexual orientation.
“I was gay and wanted to be treated fairly,” he said, explaining that he was part of a group of Emory students that successfully pressed the school to address anti-gay discrimination in its equal opportunity statement. “It took a fair amount of courage for folks to bring that up. This was way before anybody was talking about gay marriage.”
After completing his undergraduate studies at Emory, Jones went on to Yale, where he earned three graduate degrees and taught ancient Greek and Latin. Eventually, though, he decided to trade the classics for a career in the law. He returned to Emory to attend law school and graduated in 2004.
Jones, 46, focuses his practice on advising media, telecommunications and technology clients on intellectual property, licensing, and joint venture and development matters, but he also commits himself to pro bono work and has taken on several cases representing gay individuals seeking asylum in the United States.
In one sign of how much has changed since his undergraduate days, Jones himself is now married. Every other week, he and his husband volunteer at Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, where homeless youth gather on Saturday nights for a hot meal and access to an array of social services. It was while volunteering at the church—a haven for AIDS patients and members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community—that Jones met the client who would provide him with his latest pro bono triumph.
The man—a 27-year-old gay Paraguyan who prefers to be identified by the initials C.R. to protect his family against the threat of retaliation—hoped to relocate to the United States after being repeatedly humiliated, persecuted, and beaten in his native country because of his sexual orientation.
In some ways, C.R. was not the typical asylum seeker. Raised in a middle-class family, he was trained as a lawyer and licensed to practice civil and criminal law. It wasn’t his preferred profession, but the one he chose after being made to feel that his true passion, interior design, wasn’t sufficiently masculine.
In other ways, though, C.R.’s personal story was similar to those of the three gay men Jones previously helped win asylum. He got the first of those cases while working at Atlanta’s Rogers & Hardin, which he joined after finishing law school.
Jones later moved to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom before landing at Loeb & Loeb in 2006.
As in the earlier cases, Jones’s main task was to get C.R. to tell his story in a way that would persuade immigration officials.
“The key document in that application is the applicant’s own statement,” said Jones.
The 30-page affidavit Jones helped C.R. prepare encompasses the lifetime of attacks, verbal and physical, he endured in a country where being gay is often viewed as a sin. The story begins with childhood memories from C.R.’s time at Catholic school, where the insults first surfaced. At the age of 8, his classmates began calling him “putito” (“little faggot”) and “nena” (“little girl”) because he wasn’t interested in playing soccer. The attacks persisted until he was expelled from school at age 14 years for kissing another boy. The mistreatment extended into C.R.’s university years, with his fellow law students voting him out of the school’s student council after learning he was gay.
In addition, C.R. had to fight against his family’s strong disapproval, and he was publicly assaulted in a pair of gay-bashing incidents. Though more mentally traumatized than physically harmed, he nonetheless suffered frequent panic attacks to the point that he contemplated suicide and feared leaving his apartment.
It was during a business trip to the United States earlier this year that C.R. decided to seek asylum. His decision came just months after President Barack Obama signed a memorandum urging federal agencies to do more to open the country to gay asylum seekers. (The government does not keep records of how many people fall into that category.)
The president’s December 2011 order was the latest step in the evolution of the U.S. position on welcoming those seeking sanctuary because of their sexual orientation. For more than 40 years—from the birth of the asylum law in the wake of World War II until the passage of Immigration Act of 1990—gay asylum applicants were considered “sexual deviants” and prohibited from entering the country as refugees.
That changed as the result of a case involving Fidel Toboso-Alfonso, a Cuban citizen who fled his homeland in the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and—after serving a five-year probation term for cocaine possession—applied for asylum in Texas. Testifying that Cuban authorities had maintained a file on him and other gay citizens, Toboso-Alfonso was ultimately awarded asylum in a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that then-Attorney General Janet Reno declared precedential in 1994.
But those seeking asylum in the United States based on their sexual orientation still face barriers to entry. Among the most significant, according to Jones and others, is that they must apply for asylum within a year of arrival here.
Migdalia Santiago, a counselor and program coordinator at the LGBT Center in New York, said the deadline, which went into effect under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, creates a hardship for most gay asylum seekers she encounters, who have been in the country for more than a year before learning that such an option
“It takes time to trust another person, adjust to a new country and hear about the services that are available to them,” said Santiago. “Usually they try to connect with their community, because of the language and the culture they share. They hide their situation again, until something happens and they come to us.”
Another challenge—this one created when Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005—is the requirement that applicants augment their personal statements with documents that corroborate their claims of abuse. This can be especially problematic for LGBT asylum seekers, who often have neither the support of their families nor the respect of the police in their native countries.
C.R.’s case, on which Jones said he spent between 70 and 100 hours, was bolstered by police and medical reports detailing two assaults. C.R. had also gathered statements from people who witnessed the attacks, as well as his mother. The latter, said Jones, was a particular rarity.
“In all the other cases I’ve had, I’ve never been able to introduce a family member,” Jones said. “What often happens in these cases is that the applicant is not only seeking asylum from his or her home country but from his or her own family.”
Ultimately, C.R. was granted asylum in October. Along with the stack of documents he used in his application, he keeps a magazine article he read while flying to New York from his homeland. “I’d rather my son to be a drug addict than a homosexual,” reads the bold headline next to a rainbow flag. “Here’s the kind of things you hear in my country,” he said.
@|Diane Jeantet is an intern at The American Lawyer magazine, an affiliate of the New York Law Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.