It’s been two years since Uchechukwu Onwa (who goes by the nickname “Valentine” now) was released from a detention center. Like thousands of LGBTQ refugees before him, the Nigerian-born Onwa had high hopes when he sought asylum in the United States. Instead, he found himself caught in an impenetrable system.
Thanks to a significant change in the asylum process mandated by the Trump administration earlier this year, the Asylum Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services prioritizes the most recent affirmed applications when scheduling interviews — rather than processing cases in the order they were received. In a nutshell, the regulation means asylum seekers in the U.S. who’ve spent years waiting for their interviews, like Onwa, have no idea when their file will be considered.
During the interim, many refugees are limited by the inability to work. Applying for a work permit could take several months, and even then, there are heavy travel and occupational restrictions. In Onwa’s case, it took nine months for him to get a work permit after coming out of an immigration detention center. But that was just step one.
“Even when I got the work permit, where is the job?” he says, arguing that in many cases, businesses don’t recognize college degrees from other countries. “Most people end up working in a kitchen as a dishwasher. These people, I know so many of my friends in Nigeria who are medical doctors, lawyers, have so many great things they were doing back home — but they wanted to be somewhere they can be free to be themselves without being beaten up or killed. So, they come here, they have to go back to square one, start life all over. You have to forget all the life you lived back home.”
For many, the system wins. “It’s so demoralizing and so challenging,” he explains. “I’ve known people who withdrew their asylum and asked for deportation because the process — sometimes you think about it and you’re like, I don’t think I can do this. It’s very tough. Some people have been waiting for five, six years without even having an initial hearing. They don’t even know what’s going on in their case.”
HIV-positive asylum seekers face specific barriers in the immigration process. Since immigration laws changed in 2010, allowing the government to accept HIV-specific cases, the U.S. has not released data on the number of HIV-positive refugees despite strong efforts from groups like the Center for American Progress and Immigration Equality. The lack of data makes it hard for activists to advocate for appropriate policies. It also makes it impossible to see the full scope of the HIV discrimination crisis across the globe.
ABOVE: Rainbow Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell (left) poses with Uchechukwu “Valentine” Onwa at a panel in New York City where they discussed the LGBTQ refugee crisis.
According to a recent UNAIDS report, more than 80 countries worldwide criminalize HIV nondisclosure, exposure, and transmission. Even in the U.S., 26 states have laws that criminalize HIV exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, Central America, Africa, and Eastern Europe are particularly known for persecuting people living with HIV.
Last year, the case of Ana Batiz and one of her daughters, Susan, 18, made headlines when both of them fled persecution in Honduras due to their HIV-positive status. Batiz had her life threatened while Susan was constantly being beaten up by classmates at school, according to New York public radio station WNYC. Upon arriving at the border, because Susan was considered an adult, their asylum interviews were separate. Batiz ended up passing, but her daughter was deported back to Honduras.
LGBTQ refugees face reprehensible treatment in immigration detention centers. Over a four-year period, one in four sexual abuse cases within centers involved a transgender person, according to ImmigrantJustice.org. As Onwa notes, trans women could end up in an all-male unit under the order of immigration officers. For those who are lucky enough to have a choice, many trans asylum seekers opt to stay in solitary confinement out of fear of being harassed by other refugees — and even officers.
In May 2018, Roxsana Hernández, a transgender woman living with HIV, died in an immigration detention center. Though ICE reported that she died of a heart attack and suffered symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV, an investigation from the Transgender Law Center showed contradicting results. Before her death, TLC revealed that Hernández had been the victim of constant abuse and physical beatings.
Gay sex carries a potential penalty of 14 years in prison in Nigeria — and progress is a slow burn. According to an Initiative for Equal Rights survey of Nigerians earlier this year, 47 percent of respondents say LGBTQ people shouldn’t have access to public services while 43 percent say they should (10 percent are indifferent). That’s a 19 percentage point reduction in those who are against LGBTQ public access, in a matter of three years. This encourages Onwa.
Above: Onwa (left) and Powell strike a pose during the OUT100, hosted by Plus’s sister publication, OUT magazine.
While living in Abuja, Nigeria, Onwa worked for the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health as an outreach coordinator and clinical documentation clerk, coordinating an HIV prevention program and conducting human rights advocacy work for the LGBTQ community. When he arrived in the U.S., thanks to the aid of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian-based organization helping LGBTQ people seek asylum, Onwa continued his advocacy in Chicago until he relocated to New York City and started working as codirector of community organizing at Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, which supports LGBTQ immigrants who are currently in immigration detention, those coming out of detention, and those at risk of being detained or deported.
“I want to say to refugees, asylum seekers: Don’t lose hope,” he advises. “People should seek legal advice, should seek medical advice. Look for somebody to talk to. Some people are just there. They don’t like to socialize. They don’t want to ask questions. So, I’m encouraging people to ask questions. If you see somebody who is in the same shoes but in [a better situation] than you, ask this person questions. If the person is not willing to tell you, leave this person and look for another person.”
Organizations like Rainbow Railroad, which received 1,151 asylum requests in 2017 and ended up fully processing 206 of them, trying to work the system doesn’t come cheap. As executive director Kimahli Powell said at a recent panel in NYC about the LGBTQ refugee crisis, successfully bringing one person to safety can cost thousands of dollars (due to transportation, paperwork, and outside-the-box routing), only to find a new set of challenges once they reach a border.
Once free from detention, violent oppression continues, especially since Donald Trump’s recent order allowing officers to raid people’s homes and demand to see their documentation.
“You can’t even go out on the street freely,” Onwa says. “You’re now scared of, maybe, running across police. When you meet an officer, you don’t know if they’re going to hold you, you don’t know what is going to happen the next day. So, it’s a very scary situation. You have to live your daily life in fear. And these are things that most of us, especially in the LGBTQ community, experience in our country… you’re constantly living in fear, you’re constantly persecuted because of who you choose to love, and you come here hoping that you’ll be free and it seems like the situation is still the same thing, nothing’s really changing. … So, people have to live by support from friends, or maybe within the LGBTQ community, that someone might help or support you financially — clothing, food, and all those things. It’s a crazy situation.”
Onwa still doesn’t have a date set for his asylum interview, but that hasn’t stopped him from using his voice to demand action.
Above: Nigerian-born Valentine Onwa fled LGBTQ persecution from his country. Now he’s using his life to help others find refuge.
“I’m very optimistic that in the next five years, there will be a lot of positive change in the immigration system,” he says. “Really, this administration has made everything so difficult, even the way the visa is processed. Right now, people getting visas from other countries to the U.S. is like a visa to heaven, you know? It’s so difficult right now to get a visa. People have been trying but it’s so, so very difficult and it’s because of this administration. I’m optimistic things will change. Maybe the government [will create] new policies that support more on helping immigrants and not locking people up in a jail, granting people asylum and not denying people and deporting people, and also open up the U.S. border.”
“The U.S. is like a home for all, it’s like a home for everybody,” Onwa adds. “So many people have a lot of hope for the U.S., but with these [policies], people are not seeing that. I’m hoping in the next five years that hope will be restored [and] people can actually feel comfortable to come to the U.S. to seek refuge.