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Biden administration ends ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy

Trump-era program made LGBTQ asylum seekers even more vulnerable

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A portion of the fence that marks the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 25, 2020. The Biden administration has ended a Trump-era policy that forced asylum seekers to pursue their cases in Mexico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden administration has officially ended a policy that forced asylum seekers to pursue their cases in Mexico.

The previous White House’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, which became known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, took effect in 2019. Advocates sharply criticized MPP, in part, because it made LGBTQ asylum seekers who were forced to live in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros and other Mexican border cities even more vulnerable to violence and persecution based on their gender identity and sexual orientation.

The White House in January suspended enrollment in MPP shortly after President Biden took office.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday in a memo he sent to acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Troy Miller, acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson and acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Tracy Renaud that announced the end of the Trump-era policy said roughly 11,200 asylum seekers with MPP cases have been allowed into the U.S. between Feb. 19 and May 25. Estuardo Cifuentes, a gay man from Guatemala who ran Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants in Matamoros that the Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create, is among them.

“MPP does not adequately or sustainably enhance border management in such a way as to justify the program’s extensive operational burdens and other shortfalls,” wrote Mayorkas in his memo.

“In deciding whether to maintain, modify, or terminate MPP, I have reflected on my own deeply held belief, which is shared throughout this administration, that the United States is both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, committed to increasing access to justice and offering protection to people fleeing persecution and torture through an asylum system that reaches decisions in a fair and timely manner,” he added. “To that end, the department is currently considering ways to implement long-needed reforms to our asylum system that are designed to shorten the amount of time it takes for migrants, including those seeking asylum, to have their cases adjudicated, while still ensuring adequate procedural safeguards and increasing access to counsel.”

Steve Roth, executive director of the Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration, a Minnesota-based organization that works with LGBTQ refugees and migrants around the world, welcomed the end of MPP.

“We’re very happy to see, at long last, the termination of the dangerous and illegal ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy that was put in place by the Trump administration in early 2019,” Roth told the Washington Blade in a statement. “This policy forced asylum seekers at our Southern border — including many LGBTIQ individuals — to spend months and sometimes years in dangerous Mexican border towns while they waited for their asylum cases to be processed.” 

Roth added MPP “was not in keeping with the United States’ commitments to international asylum law and it was not reflective of who we are as a country.”

“We’re grateful to President Biden and his administration for overturning this policy and for their commitment to a just and humane immigration and asylum system,” he said.

Immigration Equality Legal Director Bridget Crawford echoed Roth.

“President Trump created a humanitarian disaster with this policy that has resulted in well over a thousand asylum seekers being assaulted, raped, kidnapped or murdered while awaiting their asylum hearing, including LGBTQ and HIV-positive people,” Crawford told the Blade in a statement. 

Ending MPP is the latest in a series of steps the Biden administration has taken to reverse the previous White House’s hardline immigration policies.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told the Blade last month that protecting migrants and asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution based on their gender identity and sexual orientation is one of the administration’s global LGBTQ rights priorities.

Vice President Kamala Harris is among the administration officials who have publicly acknowledged that anti-LGBTQ violence is a “root cause” of migration from Central America. Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, whose district includes the border city of El Paso, and others have noted to the Blade that Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Congress has yet to consider a comprehensive immigration reform bill that Democrats introduced in February. Crawford in her statement also notes Mayorkas’ memo “does not address the many thousands of individuals who were wrongfully denied relief under the MPP program.” 

“These people no longer have ‘active’ cases, so they are not being processed by the administration, but many are living in Mexico or have been returned back to their countries where they face persecution.  Quite literally, some of these people have been handed a death sentence,” said Crawford. “The Biden administration has not addressed these cases yet and whether people wrongfully denied relief under the MPP program will have an opportunity to renew their claims.” 

Estuardo Cifuentes outside a port of entry in Brownsville, Texas, on March 3, 2021, shortly after he entered the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes)
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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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