Oasis Legal Services provides extra help to LGBTQ+ community
If there are any slam dunk asylum cases – 99% success rate – Rachel Kafele knows the heavy price paid by this group of immigrants.
“LGBTQ+ immigrants have a strong asylum history,” said Kafele, director of programs for the Berkeley-based Oasis Legal Services.
“They have been victims of hate crimes in their home countries, faced violence from family members, been victims of sexual assault, and have faced discrimination in all facets of their lives,” said Kafele during a recent interview.
That fear does not stop with an approval for asylum, she said, because hate crimes, hate speech, harassment and bigotry continue.
Especially in a current environment where politicians have introduced 520 pieces of legislation – and passed 70 laws – that targets the LGBTQ+ community in 2023, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The campaign – the country’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights group – said more than 200 bills specifically targeted transgender and non-binary people.
“Anti-LGBTQ+ laws embolden people to commit hate crimes,” said Kafele, who leads a staff of 14, including five attorneys accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Oasis opened a Fresno office last year to accommodate a surge in Central Valley clients. The 6-year-old organization focuses on legal assistance like residency petitions and naturalization, but it also serves as a social service agency because its largely Latino clientele trusts very few.
“All the clients we have worked with have experienced some level of hate because of who they are,” said Juana Echeveste-Davis, one of two staff members in Fresno. She is the Central Valley community outreach and support coordinator.
“The stigma for those living with HIV/AIDS adds another barrier,” said Echeveste-Davis.
Oasis handles 800 clients a year, with about 190 of them filing for asylum. Nine of every 10 are Latino and mostly speak Spanish, said Kafele.
Data released in late June by the state Department of Justice shows that hate crime events involving a sexual orientation increased 29% in 2022.
That statistics – plus news like a Clovis councilmember warning about LGBTQ+ books in school libraries – unnerve clients, said Kafele.
Oasis is seeing members of the LGBTQ+ moving to California from states like Texas and Florida that are deemed unfriendly.
“They don’t sense the government is going after them,” said Kalefe.
Yet, conservative areas of California, like the Central Valley, may not be a safe haven. That leaves many hate crimes unreported, said Echeveste-Davis.
“Part of the reason hate crimes are so underreported is that they don’t feel validated,” she said. “While City Hall and the leaders have been very supportive, that hasn’t been necessarily the case in the recent past.”
Echeveste-Davis said the LGBTQ+ community wants leaders to come out strong against hate crimes against it.
“It matters what you do and what you say,” she said. “People have to be acknowledged.”
“We are often the first people our clients report hate crimes to because we are the people who have been there for them,” said Kafele.
That trust has led to Oasis becoming a one-stop place for LGBTQ+ residents, who are looking for more than legal help. Most are in need of mental health, housing and food.
Some, however, are hesitant to seek mental health, said Echeveste Davis.
“There is such a stigma, especially in the Latinx community, in regards to receiving mental health,” said Echeveste-Davis. “Let’s say you need a dental appointment; no stigma. But mental health affects every part of your body, how you respond to everything.
“Still, in the immigrant Latino LGBTQ+ community, that stigma is so heavy and prevalent. The resources are not there,” she added. “Even a basic support group is not easily accessible.”
Oasis has made efforts to be more visible, including participation in the recent Rainbow Pride Parade in the Tower District. That’s because at the 2022 Pride event, clients told Oasis they didn’t feel represented.
Echaveste-Davis then rounded up staff and friends to join this year’s parade. She also held a Noche de Cultura last year to coincide with Day of the Dead.
“Slowly, the community is becoming aware that we are here,” she said. “We have clients from Mendota, Kerman, Dinuba and Laton. Word of mouth is important.”
Details: www.oasislegalservices.org or (559) 777-6786.
This is part of a series on Stop The Hate, a project funded by the California State Library.
This story was originally published August 9, 2023, 8:28 PM.
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