San Diegan leads effort to spare local gay man's deportation to Uganda

SAN DIEGO -- A San Diego man has started a petition to stop a local gay man from being deported back to Uganda, where homosexuality is a crime.

When Hector Martinez, the LGBTQ Outreach Coordinator for Mental Health America of San Diego County, learned from a co-worker that a local gay man was being held in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services) custody for an expired visa and under threat of being deported back to Uganda, he took action.

One man’s plight, one man’s mission

Martinez said he was approached by co-worker Awichu Akwanya, who is African Refuge Outreach Coordinator for Mental Health America of San Diego County. Akwanya told him about a local gay man whose U.S. visa had expired and who had recently affirmed and announced his homosexuality.

Akwanya told Martinez that the Ugandan man facing deportation, Joseph Sekajugo Bukombe, was active in his local Ugandan community and was worried about how his fellow Ugandans would react once they found out he was gay.

Now that Bukombe’s U.S. visa is expired, he faces deportation back to Uganda.

Uganda is a very unsafe place for homosexuals, with laws that criminalize homosexuality. Until recently, a “Kill the Gays” bill was being pushed through Parliament in Uganda that would have imposed the death penalty on those taking part in “aggravated homosexuality” and those having sex when HIV-positive. And David Kato, a prominent LGBT activist in Uganda, was murdered in Kampala this year after a tabloid published his photo under a sign that read “Hang Them.”

After hearing about Bukombe’s plight, Martinez said he immediately researched the political situation in Uganda to find out what it was like for LGBT people living there. Martinez said he found some horrifying information about the “Kill the Gays” bill and read about Kato’s gruesome murder.

“Needless to say that LGBT people in Uganda are facing unimaginable oppression,” Martinez said. “I thought it would be the right thing to help him.”

Martinez said that after attending a meeting at The Center in Hillcrest, where he is a member of the Community Leadership Council, he learned about Immigration Equality and Change.org. He then started a petition to help Bukombe and finding a way to put Bukombe in touch with Immigration Equality.

The petition that Martinez started in late March to stop Bukombe from being deported is posted through Change.org, an organization concerned with helping citizens create change through petitions. Since its creation three weeks ago, the petition has been signed by 238 people.

Martinez also said he was able to get Bukombe in touch with a lawyer at the Casa Cornelia Law Center, so that he had proper representation for his hearing with the USCIS.

It is debatable whether or not the petition that Martinez started on Bukombe’s behalf will make enough of an impact.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, a San Diego-based organization that aims to encourage communities to develop reconciliation projects, said petitions can be helpful to refugees.

“I think a petition would help him,” Ogle said. “I think it would be very helpful, but there are people in the State Department who I think would be sympathetic to this case as well.”

Whether or not the petition will make any difference, Martinez said he couldn’t sit idly by.

“I do not know if all this effort will keep Joseph from being deported, but what I do know is that if I don't do anything he will definitely be deported,” Martinez said.

Lack of awareness

Unfortunately, in the U.S. it seems that few people are aware of the plight of refugees worldwide facing persecution for their sexual orientation. And those experiencing the persecution often don’t know where to turn to find help.

Ogle said many Americans are in the dark about the persecution that LGBT people endure every day.

“There is something like 128 countries where it is still illegal to be gay,” Ogle said. “And a lot of Americans and LGBT people don’t know that. There are only 70 countries that have signed onto agreements in the United Nations that have decriminalized homosexuality. There is a huge amount of work to do.”

Tyler Baker, communications coordinator at the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), a non-profit organization that advocates for refugees fleeing sexual-based violence, said that ORAM works especially hard to help refugees, but also to educate the public.

“One of our goals is to better educate not only the general public of the plight of LGBTI refugees, but training and educating non-governmental organizations and institutions worldwide to better the conditions for LGBTI refugees,” Baker said.

Even Martinez admitted that he hadn’t before heard of Immigration Equality, a heavy-hitter in the fight for immigration rights for the LGBT and HIV-positive community.

If refugees and those working to help them were more aware of all the services and companies that can provide help, perhaps fewer refugees would be deported or refused access to the U.S.

Where to find help

While Bukombe’s fate is still up in the air, other refugees seeking asylum can find valuable resources for help.

Baker said ORAM works to protect LGBT refugees worldwide and is the only non-governmental organization that focuses exclusively on those refugees fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender.

ORAM provides free legal services to refugees and also works to help them get settled and integrated into society safely. The company works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and also advocates for policy changes that will better protect refugees seeking asylum during their transition, Baker said.

“In the United States, we currently are working on policy advocacy and education to help train institutions in handling specialized cases like LGBTI resettlement,” Baker said. “We have an Adopt-a-Refugee program, where we ask for private funders to help cover the costs and assist in transitioning our clients from peril to safety in our satellite offices.”

Visit ORAM for more information.

Immigration Equality is another outlet for refugees seeking asylum and fair treatment of immigrants. The national organization not only provides services and legal representation for LGBT refugees, but also advocates for changes to be made to the laws that discriminate against LGBT people.

Visit Immigration Equality for more information.

The Casa Cornelia Law Center is a public interest law firm that provides pro bono legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations. The law center also works to educate the public about the serious impact that current immigration laws have on the San Diego community.

Visit Casa Cornelia for more information.

How you can help

It is vital that all countries throughout the world abolish laws that make homosexuality a crime.

Perhaps the most important way that Americans can help refugees is to lobby Congress. Ogle said that the majority of Uganda’s budget comes from foreign aid and that if Americans can cause a change in the way the U.S. allocates monies to Uganda, then maybe Uganda will be forced to change its anti-homosexuality laws.

“Decriminalization of homosexuality should be the No. 1 priority,” Ogle said. “If Americans are giving their tax dollars to countries, then they need to be open to everyone.”

California is represented by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer as well as 53 state representatives in the House. A full list of California’s elected leaders and their contact information can be found HERE.

Signing the petitions at Change.org can also make an impact. Bukombe’s petition can be found HERE.

Staying aware of the plight of all refugees, particularly those enduring oppression and violence for their sexuality, is only the first step to making a change.

“We in the U.S. have to see that equality is globalized,” Ogle said.

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