December 8, 2015 at 8:17 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
White House: No quota, but priority for LGBT Syrian refugees
Josh Earnest, gay news, Washington Blade

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Amid reports of violence targeting LGBT people committed by the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria, the White House said Tuesday it won’t set aside a specific number of slots for LGBT Syrian refugees, but will make cases of persecution like the kind faced by LGBT people a priority for asylum.

White House Press Josh Earnest explained the administration’s position in response to a question from the Washington Blade following President Obama’s speech in the Oval Office on Sunday focusing on the nation’s commitment to dismantle ISIS. In the address, Obama called ISIS “thugs and killers” and called the organization “part of a cult of death.”

Speaking generally about the widely reported atrocities committed by ISIS, Earnest said the tactics of the terrorist group “have shown a callous disregard for basic human rights.”

“And it is certainly no secret that there are a variety of ways in which they offend those basic rights and trample those rights,” Earnest said. “That’s one of the reasons the president has mobilized such a strong international coalition to destroy them.”

Earnest also rejected calls to set aside 500 slots for LGBT people among the anticipated additional 10,000 incoming refugees Obama has pledged to accommodate from Syria. Instead, he said the administration would make cases of individuals “deemed to be the most vulnerable” a priority.

“When it comes to our refugee resettlement efforts, the United States does not set aside quotas like what you just described,” Earnest said. “But what the United States does do, in terms of resettling refugees, is prioritize the cases of those who are deemed to be the most vulnerable — those who have been subjected to acts of torture, those who have been singled out because of their minority status in one way or another.”

Asked by the Blade to clarify that the “most vulnerable” would include LGBT people facing persecution, Earnest said LGBT people would be among the groups facing persecution that would meet that definition.

“There are no quotas that are set aside, but the process that we have implemented does prioritize the cases of those who have been subjected to torture, including like the torture that you described, or might have been singled out for their status as a minority, whether that’s a racial minority or an ethnic minority or a religious minority, or even somebody — an LGBT person,” Earnest said.

Earnest also took a dig a Republican governors who said they won’t allow Syrian refugees to settle within their states and House Republicans for passing the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, which critics say would effectively bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States.

“I think it underscores the commitment of the United States to lead on this issue,” Earnest said. “And it’s why the president has strongly disagreed with the effort of some Republicans who have suggested that it would be in our interest to somehow shut down the program.”

A State Department spokesperson echoed the administration’s position no quota would be set for LGBT Syrian refugees, although cases of extreme persecution would be made a priority.

“The U.S. does not establish quotas o‎r set-asides for refugee applicants based on type of claim (race, religion, membership in a particular social group, etc),” the spokesperson said. “Each refugee applicant is considered for U.S. resettlement based upon the merits of his or her individual claim, which could include persecution based on being LGBT.”

As of August, Islamic State militants had reportedly executed more than 30 men in Iraq and Syria over allegations they engaged in “sodomy.” One activist in Lebanon told the Washington Blade a transgender woman was hanged by her breasts in a suburb near Damascus.

Leading calls to set aside slots for 500 LGBT Syrian refugees is the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, or ORAM, which initiated an online petition seeking that accommodation. As of Tuesday, the petition was signed by 34,863 people.

Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, said he agrees with the White House the most vulnerable refugees should be a priority, which is why his organization will “continue to advocate” for setting aside 500 slots for LGBT people among the additional refugees.

“Living under a constant threat of being thrown from the top of a building or beheaded simply because of your sexual orientation or gender identity is about as extreme a form of persecution as you can imagine,” Grungras said. “Escaping that threat only to live in constant fear of being killed by other refugees or locals is too much for any human to bear.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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