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Trump Years Were Terrifying For Gay Asylum-Seeker

Liam at a golf course in his college town shortly after he arrived in the United States.
courtesy of Liam
Liam at a golf course in his college town shortly after he arrived in the United States.

Liam first realized he liked men while watching the music video for Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" as a young child.

"I knew there was something wrong because everyone was talking about the girls, but I didn't find them attractive. I was just looking at Ricky Martin," he says.

Liam is not his real name. We're using it because exposing his sexuality could put his family in danger back home. Azerbaijan, where he grew up, is a small, predominantly Muslim country. It's a conservative, authoritarian state where honor killings still occur. Although homosexuality was legalized in 2000, LGBTQ advocacy group ILGA Europe has repeatedly rated it the worst country for gay people in Europe. In 2017 and 2019 Azerbaijani police carried out a series of anti-LGBTQ+ raids in the capital Baku.

Tamara Grigoryeva is a U.S.-based Azerbaijani journalist and former human rights activist who documented the raids.

"At any time, you can be exposed. At any time, someone you think is a friend can betray you, call the police or out you to the public," she says.

Liam suffered a lot as a child and adolescent. His father found personal messages exposing Liam's sexuality and threatened to kill him. By the time he graduated from high school, Liam felt he wouldn't survive if he stayed in Azerbaijan.

"I was thinking what do I do? How do I leave this country?" he says.

He decided to go to college in the United States. At age 21, he applied for political asylum.

"I was feeling so happy you can't even imagine," he says.

It was 2016, Barrack Obama was still president, and Liam felt confident about his case.

Corey Offsey, who worked as an asylum officer in the New York area from 2016 to 2018, says Liam had every reason to feel that way, "that, on paper, is a slam dunk case."

But a lot has changed since Liam applied. The Trump administration overhauled the asylum system, making it much more difficult to qualify. In 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services switched to a "last in first out" policy, which prioritized recent arrivals over pending applications like Liam's and extended interview waits to as long as six or seven years for some asylum seekers. Liam, who's been waiting for more than four, says he was so terrified by the Trump administration's policy changes and rhetoric that he was plagued by insomnia, thinking,

"What's going to happen at night? Will ICE come and arrest me or, are any rules going to be changed tomorrow?" he says.

Liam's attorney, Sumaiya Khalique, says the past four years have been agonizing for her asylum clients.

"You can't relax because one day you think you have a strong claim and then the next day it's not. And what do you do? It was a very discouraging and disheartening time," she says.

The Biden administration has promised to reverse the changes, but it's unclear how long the process will take. A federal court recently blocked a last-minute asylum rule that was scheduled to take effect in January. It would have been detrimental for cases like Liam's, and difficult to repeal. But, there are other last-minute changes that may go through.

Liam is feeling optimistic with Biden officially in the White House. But, he says the stress of awaiting asylum during the Trump years has taken a physical toll. He's gained more than 100 pounds and it's causing health problems — diabetes, trouble breathing, pain in his ankles.

"I feel like since applying for asylum, I got older, like for 20 years. That's how I feel mentally, because that's so exhausting," he says.

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Masha Udensiva-Brenner