Students Author Report on LGBT Conditions in Honduras

Four Minnesota Law students’ work on a recently released report on the conditions faced by members of the LGBT community in Honduras may prove helpful in establishing claims for asylum.

State, religious, and social forces in Honduras, one of the most violent countries in the world, make life extremely difficult for members of the LGBT community. As a result, some flee and seek asylum in the United States.

To succeed with an asylum claim, applicants must demonstrate a well-founded fear of past persecution or the threat of future persecution in their home country. While they must provide specific personal evidence of persecution, general information about the situation in the country lends credibility to their claims and is therefore helpful, observes Professor Stephen Meili, director of Minnesota Law’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic.

To that end, clinic students Lauren Russ, 3L, Katherine Bolander, 3L, Anna Somberg ’20, and Kristina Tester, 3L-MD 2021, researched and authored a detailed 39-page report on “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression in Honduras.” The report was created in collaboration with the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, which specializes in the protection of exceptionally vulnerable refugees.

This is why I came to the U of M Law School. To be able to work with the clinic is an honor. —Lauren Russ, 3L, student director of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic

The work involved in creating the report was much different from familiar legal research because the authors had to find non-traditional, original sources, many of which were in Spanish. Bolander’s fluency in Spanish was a key component in making that work, according to Russ, student director of the clinic.

Conditions for the LGBT community in Honduras became particularly bad after a military coup in 2009, with the murder rate of LGBT people increasing dramatically, the report says. While Honduras criminalized discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 2013, a vigorous backlash followed, the report notes. Same-sex marriages are still not recognized in the country.

Horrific Stories

To Russ, the most important part of the project was the stories of the oppressed. “You can’t imagine people being treated like that,” she says. “It lends gravitas [to the report].”

The report includes accounts of torture, domestic violence, rape, and murder of family members. Clinic students, who work closely with clients to gain their trust and make the interviews productive, are coached to manage their own trauma from hearing the horrific stories of applicants, according to Meili.

In addition to potentially helping clients, the project is important pedagogically, Meili said. “I think it’s good for students to do this type of work to understand how individual cases fit into global context,” he explains. “This type of project enables them to see the issues broadly. The students amass and organize a large amount of material."

It also involves a different form of writing from briefs and other advocacy-centered documents, Meili says. “It’s important for students to learn how to write for different audiences.”

Clinic’s Work Continues

The COVID-19 pandemic will affect the operation of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic in the upcoming academic year, but its work will go on, said Russ. “We’re going to be adaptable.” 

Challenges will include finding ways to connect with immigrants who don’t have access to remote-communication tools. 

Despite the difficulties of undertaking these kinds of cases in a pandemic year, the students remain unwavering in their commitment to help these individuals. 

“This is why I came to the U of M Law School,” says Russ. “To be able to work with the clinic is an honor.”

—By Barbara Jones, a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Steve Meili
Steve Meili
James H. Michael Chair in International Human Rights Law
Director of Law Clinics
Professor of Law