Justice for marginalized immigrant populations

USC Gould School of Law • July 9, 2012

Michael Santos '13 describes his work with National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, representing LGBT asylum seekers
by Meghan Heneghan

Among the many struggles facing U.S. immigrants, those facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) populations often prove harder to overcome, due in part to a complex immigration system that has become what Michael Santos ’13 calls “a giant monster designed to keep immigrants out”

 As part of his many efforts to serve and even improve the system, Santos is spending this summer working at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, where he represents the often marginalized LGBT asylum seekers.

Santos is one of 30 USC Law students to receive a Public Interest Law Foundation Summer Grant—an honor awarded to select students who have completed at least 25 hours of pro bono work during the previous year.

Santos’s previous work through USC Law’s Immigration Clinic, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, and the USC Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project provided a solid foundation for his work. Santos spent his second year of law school representing LGBT asylum seekers in front of Los Angeles immigration courts as part of his work with the clinic. He also worked at the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration the previous summer, advocating for refugees fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

His experiences have only highlighted the inconsistencies he finds in the legal system.

“I’ve represented [clients] in immigration court in California but see the same laws read so much differently here in Chicago,” Santos says, referring to situations presenting grounds for asylum. “I’ve realized how much work needs to be done in immigration law, particularly at the Bureau of Immigration Appeals level, where the board’s decision tends to be inconsistent across circuit courts.”

At the National Immigrant Justice Center, Santos represents LGBT individuals before immigration judges, explaining their fear of persecution if they were to return to their home countries.

Immigration courts tend to be unfamiliar with the nuances of LGBT asylum issues, Santos says. He finds it important to make a distinction between the conditions for gays in many countries and those for transgender individuals.

“Courts try to deny asylum because the conditions for gays are favorable in the home country,” Santos says. “For example, Mexico supports the rights of same-sex marriages. However, transgender individuals still face great danger.”

Additionally, Santos describes the difficulties of serving the legal needs of a population that is so widely misunderstood.

“How can you easily prove someone’s sexuality? It’s difficult and can even be a very traumatizing experience for an asylum applicant to discuss in front of strangers,” Santos says. “But I get to control how the story is told to the judge and how to ensure its credibility.”

The benefits, for Santos, extend beyond just success in the courtroom. He says, “I’m making a difference, and that’s why it’s so gratifying…seeing a client get out of detention, hearing the diversity of stories. Whether a person gets deported can mean a matter of life or death, particularly if they risk persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Next year, Santos will be the legal director of USC Law’s Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). The group offers legal assistance and policy advocacy on behalf of Iraqi refugees wishing to resettle in the United States.

In addition, Santos plans to apply for a fellowship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., where he will research and analyze federal civil rights laws as they apply to limited English proficient persons and vulnerable immigrant populations.

“I’m definitely interested in furthering my career working with asylum seekers and vulnerable immigrant populations,” Santos says. “As an immigrant, I want to be an advocate for those who had similar experiences as I did living here in the United States, especially those who are stuck in the immigration system and not fortunate enough to afford good legal representation.”

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