Can President Obama Save Uganda’s Oppressed Gays and Lesbians?

Chatham House has an illuminating and disturbing report on the domestic and regional politics of Uganda’s anti-LGBT oppression. Bottom line: pressure from the West to stop the nation’s brutal anti-homosexuality bill — which mandates a life sentence for gays and lesbians - might only foster bigoted actions in the short run.  Equality for LGBT people is regarded by many Uganda elites as “colonialist decadence.” Now, that’s decadence I can believe in!

But what to do? At this point, the administration’s best option is to order the US Embassy in Kampala to start processing LGBT Ugandans for humanitarian parole. According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, humanitarian parole can “bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.” USCIS may grant parole temporarily “to anyone applying for admission into the United States based on urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit for a period of time that corresponds with the length of the emergency or humanitarian situation.” Humanitarian parole does not bring with it immigration status, although it is very rare for parolees to return their country of origin.

Of course, there is one obvious threshold question: how would the Embassy determine whether someone is actually threatened?  The best first approximation would be to consult with NGOs inside Uganda who serve the population.  (Full disclosure and kvell: I’m proud to be working with the American Jewish World Service, which has close ties with many NGOs in Uganda that do this work, and which has developed a major campaign around LGBT and women’s rights.).

This would obviously be an imperfect way of identifying people at risk of incarceration, but in many ways, this is a feature, not a bug.  Two decades ago, Larry Lessig wrote an important article on “The Regulation of Social Meaning.” The law, Lessig, can at times change not only what is prohibited or allowed, but the meaning of actions. For example, before anti-discrimination laws, lunch counters that wanted business from African-Americans would be pressured into segregating from the local Conservative Citizens Council.  But after the Civil Rights Act, the owner of the lunch counter — who did not need to be a saint, but rather just someone out for a buck — could respond to such pressure by saying, “Oh yeah? And are you going to pay my legal bills when I’m sued?” The meaning of an integrated lunch counter changed after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Back to Uganda.  It would be salutary to see thousands of Ugandans claiming to be LGBT if they thought it would get them into the United States.  The very ambiguity of who is LGBT and who is not could do some work in reducing anti-LGBT sentiment in the country.  We might call it a Spartacus moment:

And oh yes — allowing humanitarian parole in these circumstances could save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.  Note to the President: No Congressional authorization necessary.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

2 thoughts on “Can President Obama Save Uganda’s Oppressed Gays and Lesbians?”

  1. Could AJWS poll some of those groups? I am not against this as an option but I have *no idea* if this is the best thing for people there to actually do. And practically, coming here would make it rather hard for them to ever go home, wouldn't it? Emigrating might be pretty traumatic too. I am not sure what should be done, though I don't see any harm in having it as an option I guess.

    I don't remember that we ever colonized Uganda, but a lot of times I turn out to be wrong about stuff like that. We did a lot of stuff during the Cold War.

    PS- the title. Eesh. This whole US saving everyone thing. It doesn't get me excited anymore. As Madeline Kahn once sang, "let's face it, I'm tired."

    1. Former British colony.

      I spent several weeks there in 2010, a beautiful place and friendly people. Such a shame.

      I'd guess the Ugandan elites split between the younger and well-traveled ones who are more likely to realize this is bs, and the rest. I know a small number of the former, but am no expert on the matter.

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