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LGBT immigrants protest against 'death sentence' deportations

For many undocumented LGBT immigrants, deportation is just a heartbreaking possibility; it's a matter of life and death.
Demonstrators with the group GetEQUAL hold a protest with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals affected by the country's immigration policies during a rally outside the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 9, 2014.

For 25-year-old José, deportation wasn’t just a heartbreaking possibility; it was a matter of life and death.

“I personally suffered and was attacked by gang members back in El Salvador, just for being gay,” he told msnbc by phone Tuesday, moments after being closed out of Rep. Bill Cassidy’s D.C. office. The Louisiana Republican, who opposed a comprehensive immigration bill that died in the House last session, was among a handful of lawmakers targeted by about 20 advocates during a protest for reform.

“I literally was going to get killed out there,” said José, who spoke on the condition that he be identified by only his first name. “So I escaped. I went out here to the U.S.”

José lived free from anti-gay persecution for five years in California. But while visiting his partner in 2011, he was arrested at the airport in New Mexico for not having proper immigration documentation, and taken to an ICE detention center in El Paso, Texas. There, he lived for five months with the fear of being ostracized by his fellow inmates, or worse, being sent back to the country where epidemic levels of anti-LGBT violence and harassment went without prosecution.

“It was a nightmare every day I was in the detention center,” said José. “I was scared to talk to anyone there. I felt really insecure and unsafe.”

With the help of his partner, José was able to pay thousands of dollars to get an immigration bond and be released. He was granted asylum in 2012 -- a legal status allowing him to live freely in the U.S., get professional treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and help others as a community counselor.

But not everyone is as lucky. According to the Williams Institute, there are approximately 267,000 LGBT individuals within the adult undocumented immigrant population. Many, like José, come from countries that out-right criminalize homosexuality or turn a blind eye toward anti-LGBT violence.

With an average 1,100 deportations per day, argue immigration advocates, every moment that passes without reform matters -- especially for the LGBT community.

The community is "returning to violence, sexual violence, intimidation, death threats, you name it,” said Diego Ortiz, communications director at Immigration Equality and one of the organizers of Tuesday’s protest.

“Getting asylum in the U.S. is no easy thing,” he continued. “It’s a long process, and there’s a lot of evidence that you have to provide showing that you were persecuted.”

Furthermore, said Ortiz, conditions inside U.S. detention centers can be particularly dangerous for LGBT immigrants, who are more susceptible to sexual assault and abuse. A report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) also found instances of transgender detainees not receiving proper medication to treat their gender dysphoria -- a medical condition in which there is a marked difference between a person’s expressed or experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her.

“Conditions inside immigration detention centers are terrible for everyone, but the LGBT community is especially vulnerable,” said Ortiz. “If you talk to people who have been in there, they’re afraid of saying they’re gay for fear of ridicule and abuse -- not only from inmates, but from the guards.”

It wasn't just Republican lawmakers on the receiving end of Tuesday’s protest. Before visiting the offices of Reps. Cassidy, Chaffetz, Goodlatte, and Boehner -- none of whom agreed to meet with the advocates -- approximately 75 members of immigration and LGBT equality groups stood outside the White House, calling on President Obama to halt deportations.

Though widely regarded as “The First Gay President,” having done more for equality than any administration in history, Obama disappointed many in the LGBT community when he said he would delay executive action on deportation policies until after the midterm elections. José isn’t confident November will bring much change.

“He’s postponing and postponing, and it affects his credibility,” said José. “I felt really disappointed because I know from first hand what it feels like being in a detention center facing deportation. In the LGBT community, we come to this country because we face real threats in our homes. Deportation can mean a death sentence for us.”