By the time Mohammad Abdollahi figured out he had been living in the United States illegally for more than a decade, he also knew that his personal safety would depend on being able to stay in the country he calls home.
Abdollahi, a 24 year-old Iranian who was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, came to the U.S. as a child when his parents immigrated to study at a state university. He says he learned of his undocumented status in high school, which is also when he first began identifying as a gay man.
"It wasn't until I was 17, 18 that I began connecting the dots," he said of his situation. "I grew up in a very Muslim family. I didn't know what 'gay' meant. ... I didn't understand the gap."
Abdollahi is now facing that "gap" head on, with the looming prospect of deportation to Iran where homosexuality is a capital crime. He was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities after a protest in May, and his removal proceedings are scheduled to commence later this summer.
"It's not something I can imagine," he said of the thought of returning to Iran. "It would be a very scary thing because I haven't hidden my sexuality in talking with friends or the media."
Iran has a documented record of persecuting gays and lesbians, including by death, according to U.S. government officials and international human rights groups.
Still, Abdollahi's case for asylum is not cut and dry: As an undocumented U.S. resident for twenty years, he missed the one-year window of opportunity by law to proactively apply for protected status. He now faces the more difficult task of appealing defensively before an immigration judge.
More than 13,000 immigrants in situations such as Abdollahi's requested so-called "withholding removal" status in U.S. immigration courts last year, according to the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review. But only 14 percent of the requests were granted, reflecting a much more stringent standard than that applied to asylum applications filed by people not facing deportation.
"He's looking at having to prove greater than 50 percent chance of persecution, a clear probability of persecution," said D.C.-based immigration attorney Kimberley Schaefer, who handles asylum cases.
The risk of physical harm must also be demonstrably linked with either his race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services guidelines.
Sexual orientation is loosely classified under "membership in a social group," according to immigration officials, and has been recognized by the courts as a protected category since 1994.
"In Iran, it's illegal to be gay," said Hossein Alizadeh of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, who received U.S. asylum as a gay Iranian in 2001.
"Even if you're not charged, however, you face the threat of honor killings by family members and vigilantes. The government does nothing to protect these individuals."
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which processes asylum applications, received 198 petitions from Iranians last year of which 91 were granted. But it's unclear how many, if any, were based on an individual's sexual orientation because the agency does not track those statistics.
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