ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Today, the President of Uganda signed into law a bill that doesn't just criminalize homosexuality, it imposes harsh sentences - up to life in prison - for homosexual behavior. Even first-time offenders could see up to 14 years in prison. That move has been decried by human rights groups around the world. President Obama called it a step backward for all Ugandans. And it got us wondering, is being Ugandan and gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender now dangerous enough to merit asylum here in the U.S. for anyone who wants it?
Well, Aaron Morris specializes in questions like that one. He is legal director at Immigration Equality, an advocacy group that offers free legal services to indigent LGBT or HIV-positive immigrants and their families. Welcome to the program.
AARON MORRIS: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, your professional opinion. Has Uganda raised the bar high enough that it meets U.S. standards for persecution and, therefore, asylum?
MORRIS: So the definition of persecution is a really nebulous term in immigration law. Generally, it's been seen as something - it doesn't necessarily have to shock the conscience, but it's something more than discrimination or harassment. Generally, we would say physical abuse by the government or by agents of the government or even by people who the government won't control is sufficient to establish a fear of persecution.
SIEGEL: How would a, let's say, a gay Ugandan man, how would he come by asylum in the United States?
MORRIS: There's a two-step process with asylum. The first is a voluntary process where if you're physically present in the United States already and you decide you'd like to apply, you go through what we call a non-adversarial proceeding. You meet with an immigration officer. They hear your testimony. They look at your evidence. If they agree with you, they believe you, they think you should be granted asylum, the case is over.
If, for some reason, they don't understand your case or there's some issue in it they don't quite understand, then they'll move you to immigration court where, at that point, the government hires a lawyer to try to convince the judge to deport you. And then you're either on your own to defend yourself in that or, if you're lucky enough to find a lawyer, to have a lawyer apply for asylum on your behalf.
SIEGEL: And if the same person remains in Uganda, does he have a chance of getting asylum if he's there and, say, goes to the U.S. embassy?
MORRIS: While the U.S. embassy has occasionally fought to get certain people out of a country, it is very rare. And mostly, if you go to the embassy and you ask for asylum at the embassy, unless you have a very high profile or something similar, the government will not grant you asylum on sight.
SIEGEL: What kind of precedent is there here for immigrants seeking asylum because they're being persecuted for their sexual orientation?
MORRIS: Janet Reno established sexual orientation as a grounds for asylum or a fundamentally protected human right in 1994.
SIEGEL: When she was the attorney general.
MORRIS: When she was the attorney general.
SIEGEL: And which countries stand out today for the volume of LGBT immigrants who look to the U.S. to stay here and have asylum here?
MORRIS: The U.S. government doesn't track, as far as we know, LGBT claims specifically. So I can tell you Immigration Equality currently has about 350 open asylum cases throughout the United States. And historically, probably the last 10 years, our number one cases have been from Jamaica. Right now, I think, we're representing 65 or 66 Jamaicans, probably 50 or so people from Latin American countries, and then Uganda is tied after Russia with El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala at about 13 cases each.
SIEGEL: Surrounding the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there was much discussion of the treatment of gays and lesbians in Russia. And the Russians defended their regime. Is it clear that if one is gay and Russian and has an expired tourist visa in the United States that you would do pretty well applying for asylum based on what the situation is in that country?
MORRIS: Based on country conditions alone, I would say if you could establish that you're gay, that you're Russian, that you have no criminal history, that, you know, you're a pretty vanilla person, you've got a good strong chance at asylum. Towards that, our numbers skyrocketed after the Sochi Olympics.
SIEGEL: You mean your numbers of Russian cases?
MORRIS: Our number of Russian cases have gone way up. Two or three years ago, we probably represented three or four Russians a year. Right now, we have almost 40 Russian cases.
SIEGEL: Mr. Morris, thank you very much for talking with us today.
MORRIS: It was my pleasure.
SIEGEL: Aaron Morris who is legal director for Immigration Equality. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.