1. A Brief History

The information contained herein is for reference only and may not be up to date. It does not constitute legal advice. You should always consult an attorney regarding your matter.

U.S. asylum law is derived from international agreements written after World War II which provide protection to people fearing or fleeing from persecution. The first agreement, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, was drafted by the United Nations in response to the large migrations of people in the aftermath of the Second World War. The United Nations attempted to set forth an internationally agreed upon standard for who will be considered a refugee. The 1951 Convention, however, only applied to people who were refugees on the basis of events occurring before January 1, 1951. The United Nations incorporated the definition of refugee set forth in the 1951 Convention but expanded it to include future refugees in the 1967 U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. 1 The United States acceded to the 1967 Protocol in 1968. In order to bring U.S. law into compliance with its obligations under the Protocol, the United States enacted the Refugee Act of 1980, adopting essentially the same definition of refugee as set forth by the Convention. A refugee is defined as:

“any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” 2

An individual can be granted asylum if they are present in the United States and otherwise meet the definition of a refugee. 3 Refugee status can be based on either race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group (PSG), or political opinion. Of the five grounds on which a claim for asylum can be based, membership in a PSG is the most open to interpretation and thus provides the best basis for claims of asylum based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or HIV status. Although there is no statutory definition of what suffices as membership in a PSG, it has frequently been described as a group of persons who share a common, immutable characteristic that the members of the group cannot or should not be required to change.4 In 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno declared as precedent the Matter of Toboso-Alfonso case in which a gay Cuban man was found to be eligible for withholding of removal on the basis of his membership in the PSG of homosexuals.5 This case was pivotal in establishing that a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of one’s sexual orientation is a valid basis on which to claim asylum status in the United States. The Ninth Circuit followed up in 1997 with a decision recognizing a lesbian from Russia as belonging to a PSG for asylum purposes.6 More recently, the Ninth Circuit has affirmed that “all alien homosexuals are members of a ‘particular social group.’” 7 The recognition of this basis for asylum is in accord with other countries which have granted asylum to gay and lesbian refugees. 8

In the years after Matter of Toboso-Alfonso, courts have employed a more expansive definition of what constitutes a PSG, including gender-based violence, such as female genital mutilation and domestic violence, as sufficient grounds for asylum. 9 Courts have also been more willing to recognize persecution based on sexual identity. Since Toboso-Alfonso there have been more than half a dozen precedential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or HIV-positive (LGBTQ/H) asylum cases. 10

Although those who identify as transgender have not been explicitly found to be considered members of a PSG for asylum purposes, courts have recognized that “gay men with female sexual identities” (problematic as this formulation may be) constitute a social group and may be persecuted based on this identity. 11 While there has been no precedential decision recognizing women with male sexual identities as members of a social group, there have been numerous successful, non-precedential claims based on this ground.

Another significant ruling for LGBTQ/H people considers the intent of the person or persons who commit the persecution. Generally in asylum cases, the persecutor intends harm to the victim, however, courts have acknowledged that persecution can occur even when the persecutor has no intention to harm the victim, such as when a gay person is subjected to electroshock therapy to “cure” her sexual orientation. 12

In 1996, the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Office of General Counsel issued a memorandum which recommended that the INS and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should grant asylum based on the social group category of HIV-positive individuals, assuming that the applicant in question meets all of the other elements required for asylum. 13 Although there are no precedential cases which recognize HIV status as creating membership in a particular social group, asylum has been granted in some cases where HIV-related persecution was an essential element of the application. 14

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which generally restricted access to asylum protection and greatly hindered the ability to obtain asylum status on the basis of sexual orientation. This legislation created additional bars to asylum, the most restrictive of which was the one year filing deadline. In order to be granted asylum, an applicant must file for asylum within one year of their arrival in the United States. This deadline has created unique hardships for LGBTQ/H asylum seekers because they are often unaware that their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or HIV status can form the basis of an asylum claim and, are often afraid to disclose these intimate aspects of their identity to a government official given the persecution they faced in their own country. 15

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. government abolished the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and formed the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and re-organized the agencies that oversee immigration. 16 DHS is now the umbrella organization for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is the enforcement and deportation branch; Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), which is the immigration service and application processing branch; and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), which oversees border inspection.

In May 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which imposes further limitations on the asylum process. 17 Under the revised law, asylum seekers must provide documents to corroborate their claims unless they can demonstrate to the adjudicator why the documents are unavailable or why the applicant cannot obtain them. The Real ID Act also makes it easier for an adjudicator to deny a claim based on lack of credibility by the asylum seeker. Now, if an asylum seeker makes an inconsistent statement, even if the statement is not directly related to the substance of the claim, the application can be denied on credibility grounds. An applicant also must now demonstrate that his or her protected characteristic was “at least one central reason” behind the persecutor’s actions.

This Manual is intended to provide information to attorneys and accredited representatives. It is not intended as legal advice. Asylum seekers should speak with qualified attorneys before applying.


  1. U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Jan. 31, 1967, 19 U.S.T. 6223, T.I.A.S. No. 6577, 606 U.N.T.S. 267 (1967). 
  2. INA §101(a)(42)(A), 8 USC §1101(a)(42)(A). 
  3. INA §208(a),(b)(1); 8 USC §1158(a),(b)(1). 
  4. Matter of Acosta, 19 I & N Dec. 211, 233 (BIA 1985); Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Refugee Protection in International Law: UNHCR’s Global Consultations on International Protection 313 (Erika Heller, Volker T rk & Frances Nicholson eds.) (2003), available at www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home
  5. Matter of Toboso-Alfonso, 20 I. &  N. Dec. 819 (BIA 1990). 
  6. Pitcherskaia v. INS, 118 F.3d 641 (9th Cir. 1997). 
  7. Karouni v. Gonzales, 399 F.3d 1163, 1172 (9th Cir. 2005). See also Amanfi v. Ashcroft, 328 F.3d 719, 727 (3d Cir. 2003) (noting concession of the BIA that homosexuals are a protected group). But see Kimumwe v. Gonzalez,  431  F.3d 319  (8th Cir. 2005) denying asylum to a gay man from Zimbabwe and using language which seems to question whether homosexuality constitutes a PSG. 
  8. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission reports that the governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Thailand, and the UK have granted asylum on the basis of sexual orientation. 
  9. See In re Kasinga, 21 I & N Dec. 357, 358 (BIA 1996) (finding the threat of female genital mutilation as a sufficient basis for an asylum claim); Gonzales v. Gutierrez, 311 F.3d 942, 947 n.9 (9th Cir. 2002) (asylum granted on the basis of domestic violence). 
  10. For an updated list of LGBTQ/H precedential asylum decisions contact us. Note that this Manual uses the phrase LGBTQ/H throughout to discuss case law and strategy pertinent to members of any of these PSGs. However, in working on an asylum case, it is important to specifically identify the particular social group to which the applicant belongs, for example, “lesbians,” or “transgender women and people living with HIV.” 
  11. See Hernandez-Montiel v. INS, 225 F.3d 1084 (9th Cir. 1997); Reyes-Reyes v. Ashcroft, 384 F.3d 782 (9th Cir. 2004). 
  12. Pitcherskaia v. INS, 118 F.3d 641 (9th Cir. 1997). 
  13. See Memorandum from INS Office of the General Counsel, David A. Martin, General Counsel, to all Regional Counsel, Legal Opinion: Seropositivity for HIV and Relief from Deportation (Feb. 16, 1996), reported in 73 Interpreter Releases 901 (July 8, 1996). 
  14. Matter of [   ], (IJ Dec. 20, 2000) (Baltimore, MD) (Gossart, IJ), reported in 78 Interpreter Releases 233 (Jan. 15, 2001) (HIV-positive married woman wins asylum as a member of the social group of married women in India based on evidence of ostracism and lack of appropriate medical care if she returned to her native country); Matter of [   ], A71-498-940 (IJ Oct. 31, 1995) (New York, NY), reported in 73 Interpreter Releases 901 (July 8, 1996) (man from Togo granted asylum on the basis of his membership in the PSG of individuals infected with HIV). 
  15. Victoria Neilson & Aaron Morris, The Gay Bar: The Effect of the One-Year Filing Deadline on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and HIV-Positive Foreign Nationals Seeking Asylum or Withholding of Removal, 8 N.Y. City L. Rev. 601 (2005). 
  16. U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Jan. 31, 1967, 19 U.S.T. 6223, T.I.A.S. No. 6577, 606 U.N.T.S. 267 (1967). 
  17. Real ID Act, Pub. L. No. 109-13, 119 Stat. 231 (May 11, 2005). 

The information contained herein is for reference only and may not be up to date. It does not constitute legal advice. You should always consult an attorney regarding your matter.

This handbook is intended for use by pro bono attorneys and immigration attorneys working on LGBTQ/HIV asylum cases.


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