Dmitri had a secret.
He is 27 years old and from a republic in the Russian North Caucasus, not far from Chechnya. His secret was so big and so overwhelming that only a few people knew. It was the kind of secret that, if it were revealed, could get him arrested, tortured, or even killed.
Dmitri is bisexual.
While it’s not technically illegal to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in Russia, it is exceedingly dangerous to be open about it—or to be found out. Russia has never been the most tolerant place for queer people, but there was some softening in attitudes about LGBTQ issues after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Then, in 2012, deep into the Vladimir Putin era, local governments began passing laws that made it illegal to openly identify as LGBTQ. The following year, the country passed nationwide laws banning “gay propaganda,” which effectively made it illegal to hold gay pride events, speak out in favor of gay rights, or publicly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
After this law went into effect, attacks on queer people skyrocketed. In 2013, Central Station, Moscow’s largest gay club, was targeted, including a shooting and a gas attack. At one point, according to media reports, a mob of 100 men attacked the building. There have been murders as well. Last year, the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that at least 100 gay men had been rounded up and arrested in Chechnya, where they were held for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or water. Multiple people, according to the paper, were killed, including Russian pop singer Zelimkhan Bakaev, who went missing during a visit to the Chechen capital of Grozny. Bakaev was picked up by the police hours after he arrived in Grozny for his sister’s wedding, and, soon after, was reportedly tortured and murdered. Chechen officials have denied any involvement.
Kimahli Powell, the executive director of Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps move LGBTQ people facing violence or persecution across the world to safety, told me that the anti-propaganda law is the “mechanism that fuels homophobia,” and the greatest risk some people face is from their own families. After the “gay purge” in Chechnya last year, the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, herself a Russian lesbian, flew to Chechnya to investigate. She found that some of the men rounded up by authorities were released back into the custody of their families with the explicit understanding that they would kill their queer relatives themselves.
“Vigilante groups that entrap gay men online and then humiliate and torture them on camera now operate with impunity in many cities,” Gessen wrote in the New Yorker. The police, of course, won’t help. If a person who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans goes to the police seeking protection in Russia, the police can arrest that person instead, just for admitting that they are queer.
For Dmitri (not his real name—we are using a pseudonym to protect his identity), holding this secret was isolating. “If someone openly supports an LGBT person, he gets ostracized,” he told me. “That’s why basically no one speaks in support of LGBT people.” This meant that in Russia, he lived almost entirely in the closet. Aside from a few gay friends and the couple of men he had dated, almost no one in his life was aware that he was anything but straight. The risk of coming out was too great.
And Dmitri might still be living in Russia—but last year, he started having trouble with his supervisor at work. “He would overwork us and treat us like animals,” Dmitri later told immigration agents in the United States. When he complained to human resources, the company ignored him, and his supervisor went to the local police—a force he had served on for more than 20 years.
In November 2017, two policemen accosted Dmitri outside his home. They ordered him to get in their car. When he refused, they left, but two days later, a stranger approached Dmitri with a knife. He said the police knew that Dmitri was bisexual and that he would not survive much longer in Russia. Dmitri doesn’t know who the man was or how the police found out about his sexuality, but he suspects they had access to his social media, including gay dating apps.
After his encounters with the police and the man with the knife, Dmitri decided to flee to the United States, where he hoped to live openly as a bisexual man. He barely spoke English and didn’t know a soul in the United States, but at least, he thought, he’d be safe. Today, however, Dmitri is even less free than he was back in Russia, because, while he did make it out alive, he’s spent the last six months stuck in prison in a city he’d never heard of before arriving there: Tacoma.
Most asylum seekers fly to the United States on a tourist visa and then, once they arrive, request asylum. But Dmitri had applied for a tourist visa four times before, and each time his application was rejected. So he decided to get to the United States the long way: He flew from Moscow to Paris to Havana to Mexico City to Tijuana, and then took a taxi to the border, where he presented himself to immigration officials in December 2017. When he was detained, he thought it was just a formality—that he’d be kept in custody long enough for officials to check his identity and then he would either be sent back to Russia right away or be released into the US on bond to await an immigration hearing. Until recently, that is what happened in most asylum cases. But in February, the US Supreme Court reversed an earlier court’s decision that asylum seekers are entitled to a bond hearing every six months. Now they can be held indefinitely while they await their court hearing, even if they haven’t committed a crime.
The implications of this policy are playing out most visibly on the southern border, where, under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, thousands of parents either immigrating or seeking asylum have been separated from their children. While Trump recently issued an executive order ending family separation, in recent days he has advocated for getting rid of immigration courts altogether, so as soon as someone appears at the border claiming asylum, they would be immediately sent back to the country from which they fled.
After being detained at the border, Dmitri was put on a plane and sent to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, where he has been ever since.
Because the immigration process takes place in civil (not criminal) court, immigrants, refugees, and other asylum seekers aren’t entitled to an attorney. Nationwide, only 37 percent of all immigrants have legal representation, according to the American Immigration Council. And access to legal counsel makes a big difference; with a lawyer’s help, detained immigrants are twice as likely to be granted deportation relief. In this way, Dmitri was lucky: He found a local immigration lawyer through fellow detainees at the prison.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) denied my request to get into the Northwest Detention Center to speak to Dmitri myself, so we spoke on the phone through an interpreter. When I asked what the prison is like, he immediately said that it is freezing. This is something you frequently hear from immigrant detainees: ICE refuses to adequately heat the prisons or give detainees appropriate clothing or blankets, so the people stuck there are freezing most of the time. In Dmitri’s case, the constant chill has been hard on his health: He’s started showing symptoms of arthritis. His joints are constantly swollen and achy, but the doctors in the prison told him there is nothing to be done. He has trouble exercising now, and he spends his days practicing English, watching TV, and playing cards in the cold. It’s a tedious existence.
After five months in prison, Dmitri went before Judge Richard Zanfardino, a Portland-based immigration judge who appeared at the Tacoma hearing via teleconference. Getting this particular judge, it turns out, was bad luck: According to immigration lawyers and human-rights activists I spoke to, LGBTQ Russians seeking asylum generally have a good chance of being approved for asylum. Judges understand that being LGBTQ could get you murdered in Russia. (People from Central and South America have no such luck, despite rampant gang violence in their countries.) Zanfardino, however, has a history of denying asylum claims: According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization based out of Syracuse University, from 2007 to 2017, he approved only 16 percent of the immigration claims that came before him.
Judges understand that being LGBTQ could get you murdered in Russia. Judge Richard Zanfardino, however, has a history of denying asylum claims: From 2007 to 2017, he approved only 16 percent of the immigration claims that came before him.
Judges are supposed to be impartial, but evidence suggests they are anything but. A study that came out in May found that in criminal court, Republican-appointed judges sentence Black defendants to longer sentences and women defendants to shorter sentences than Democrat-appointed judges. Other discrepancies exist as well: Democrat-appointed judges are slightly more likely to rule in favor of environmentalists, and Republican-appointed judges are far more likely to rule in favor of industry. And in asylum cases, the discrepancies are even greater. A Reuters investigation from last year found that asylum largely depends on which judge you end up in front of: In Atlanta, 89 percent of cases result in a deportation order; in New York City, only 24 percent do.
And this is a problem, because if the outcome of a case is influenced by the judge’s attitude rather than the facts, asylum seekers are most certainly being deported back to countries where they face grave, sometimes life-threatening danger—not because of the merits of their case, but because of the judges they face.
Despite the clear threat to Dmitri’s life, Judge Zanfardino denied his claim, writing in his decision, “While [Dmitri] claimed homosexuality is illegal in Russia... the law does not criminalize an individual for being homosexual but instead criminalizes speech considered pro-LGBTI.” However, while it might not be technically illegal to be gay, it is illegal to be out—and there is a well-documented history of human-rights abuses in Russia against LGBTQ people.
Judge Zanfardino also denied the claim because Dmitri had secretly dated men in the past without suffering physical harm. But if he is returned to his homeland and the police know that he is bisexual, it’s just a matter of time before something happens.
“That judge is basically condemning him to violence,” said Rainbow Road’s Powell when I told him about the case.
The judge’s decision was a blow, but all is not lost for Dmitri, at least not yet: His attorney is appealing his claim. This appeal process will likely take six months to a year. If the appeal is denied, which it likely will be, she will then take his case to a federal court. While this process is ongoing, Dmitri will stay in prison, in a city he’d never heard of, in a country where his only contacts are his lawyer and his fellow detainees. It’s not what he expected from America, a land he thought would give him his freedom.
When I asked Dmitri why he wanted to move to the United States, that’s what he said: freedom. That’s all he wants. The freedom to be himself—openly, proudly, and without the risk of being arrested, tortured, or murdered because of who he happens to be.