MIAMI -- For the first time in its history, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has recognized gays and lesbians as a distinct social group who are sometimes entitled to a haven in the United States.
Earlier this week, an INS officer in San Francisco granted asylum to a Mexican man who said he was beaten, raped and extorted by police in his native country for only one reason: He was gay.
"As a gay man in Mexico, life was made intolerable for me," Jose Garcia said yesterday at a news conference in San Francisco. He used a pseudonym to protect his identity.
"When I learned that being gay in the United States was tolerated and even accepted in some areas, I had only one desire: to flee Mexico for the United States," he said. He said the INS decision "saved my life."
By granting asylum to Mr. Garcia, the INS greatly expanded its interpretation of laws designed to protect refugees. The United States offers a haven to people who harbor a "well-founded fear of persecution" in their homelands. The persecution must be based on one of five grounds: political opinion, race, nationality, religion or membership in a "particular social group."
"The INS decision simply recognizes that a person's sexual orientation falls squarely within the definition of a social group," said Ron Silberstein, Mr. Garcia's attorney.
Four years ago, Mr. Garcia could not have even legally immigrated to the United States. A U.S. law barred homosexuals from settling in the country. It was repealed in 1990. This year, some 40 asylum applications by lesbians and gay men are pending.
Duke Austin, INS spokesman in Washington, said a decision in one case should not be viewed too broadly. Asylum decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, he said.