Sarah Houston, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, recently wrote an article for the AILA Law Journal and reflected on the process and topic, answering questions from AILA’s Danielle Polen:

What about this issue felt timely and important to you?

I read about the now-famous “Rainbow Caravan” in newspapers just weeks before starting my first year at UVA Law, but I never dreamed that it would come to shape and define my future legal career. In August 2017, the Rainbow Caravan – a group of transgender women and gay men from Central America – captured the world’s attention when they joined together and traveled to the border between Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona. Only a year later, as a member of UVA’s Immigration Clinic, the distant news story became a part of my life; I met Victoria,* a transgender asylum seeker. Victoria single-handedly changed the way I saw immigration law and my place within this system. She was one of the fiercest, strongest, most resilient woman I had ever met.

The summer before I met Victoria, I worked as a legal intern at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). I vividly remember the day that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided Matter of A-B-, a huge setback for the rights of LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers and a facial departure from well-established asylum law precedent. There was a palpable sense of sadness and anger among the immigration advocacy community that day.

As I began working with Victoria to draft her asylum application, I immediately started to look for resources that would help me navigate Matter of A-B- in light of the specific obstacles that transgender asylum seekers face. Although there were helpful resources about Matter of A-B-, I could not find any that specifically focused on transgender claims or provided specific tips on how to craft an asylum application that both defended against this new precedent and affirmatively distinguished transgender claims from others. I began to research the history of transgender claims in U.S. immigration law; the more I searched, the more I realized that transgender men and women had been placed in a minority  “sexual orientation box” that did not adequately capture the nuances of their individual lived realities. It soon became clear that the existing resources were insufficient to help transgender asylum seekers; there was a gap that needed to be filled.

Did anything surprise you as you researched and wrote about this issue?

The research that I conducted for this article has led me to look deeper into detention conditions for transgender women once they enter the United States. There is a hidden epidemic within U.S. immigration facilities that continues to go unaddressed, as trans women and men are abused—both physically and psychologically.  I hope for a future in which transgender women and men, persecuted and attacked for their gender identity, can find a haven from violence on U.S. soil. Unfortunately, that simply is not the case today.

By focusing on both the unique legal obstacles and detention conditions that transgender individuals face, immigration attorneys and advocates can uphold the UN Declaration of Human Rights, even as our own government ignores its tenets.


AILA members – the full law journal is available to you free for download. Non-members may purchase the journal. Submissions for the upcoming Spring Edition are due soon – more information is available here: