By Josh Inocéncio
Originally from Puerto Rico, Raed Gonzalez has crafted a career here in Houston as an immigration attorney dedicated to defending immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Over the last 18 years in Texas’ largest city, Gonzalez has argued and won three Supreme Court cases (all pro-bono) that have fundamentally changed how courts interpret immigration laws in the United States. In addition to those successes, Gonzalez has cultivated an inclusive firm that welcomes LGBT immigrants, and particularly transgender individuals who still experience severe discrimination both in their home countries and in the U.S. legal system.
But Gonzalez didn’t always practice immigration law. After finishing his law degree at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, he moved to Houston to study and practice health law. While he initially sought out medical-malpractice cases (largely because many people in his family were doctors), he ultimately decided to pursue a legal career that offered more “personal satisfaction.”
His lucky break came when the law firm he worked for presented him with an asylum case that they believed wouldn’t go anywhere—and was scheduled to be heard in court the next day. “This is a real case,” Gonzalez recognized after reviewing the details. Over the course of an evening, he studied and prepared what he needed to defend a Lebanese immigrant seeking to stay in the United States.
“I fought and fought and fought, and I won. When [the court told the immigrant] he had won, he just looked at me and started crying. He stood up and hugged and kissed me on both cheeks,” remembers Gonzalez. “‘Thank you for saving my life,’ he said. I never realized what I could do as an immigration lawyer.”
From that moment, Gonzalez only took on immigration cases, working at several law firms around Houston before eventually opening his own. “I started five years ago with a desk and a part-time secretary, and now we have 12 attorneys,” he says. “We’re not afraid of fighting.”
While Gonzalez represents immigrants and refugees from all over the world, he estimates that around 80 percent are from Latin American countries—mostly Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. These nationalities have thriving communities in the Houston area, and they have all experienced unwarranted vitriol this year from the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, Donald Trump.
“I’m really expecting a sweep [this November],” says Gonzalez, predicting not only a Hillary Clinton win for the White House, but also a win for Democrats in the Senate and the House.
While Gonzalez argues that President Obama’s executive actions in 2014 were “perfectly legal,” he emphasizes that the former Secretary of State will need cooperation in both congressional chambers to effectively pass immigration reform.
“We should be prioritizing criminals and terrorism and all these threats to Americans,” Gonzalez says, instead of going after people on the street corner who own a taco stand, pay taxes, and have three children who are U.S. citizens. In his experience, the main reason that people move here to work and support their families is “because the economy in their country is dying.”
Alternatively, if Gonzalez’ electoral predictions don’t hold and Trump wins the presidency, the prospects for undocumented immigrants living in this country will be grim. “He will never be able to accomplish [many of his campaign promises], but he’s talking to the ignorant and the people who don’t know the law,” Gonzalez reassures, dismissing his talk of a border wall or the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants. “But,” he warns, “there’s going to be a lot more enforcement, because [immigration] offices aren’t going to have discretion to decide which cases to prioritize.”
On the other hand, Trump’s candidacy has provided a kernel of hope as more and more immigrants are seeking to naturalize so they can vote in November. Gonzalez’ office even offered free consultations to facilitate the rise in citizenship requests.
But regardless of which candidate wins this November, there are still challenges within the U.S. legal system for LGBT immigrants. While the situation for gay and lesbian immigrants has drastically improved now that the Supreme Court recognizes same-sex marriage, there are still hurdles for orphaned children in need of caretakers who are being brought across the border by gay uncles and lesbian aunts. However, according to a recent New York Times report, even this has improved as asylum qualifications for Central American refugees have expanded to allow more caretakers and guardians to remain with refugee children.
Sadly, the discriminatory practices toward transgender immigrants haven’t abated as much. “It’s very tough to educate an immigration judge about the particular threats and challenges of the [transgender] community,” Gonzalez says. Even worse, he adds, is that immigration judges frequently do not distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity, treating them the same without attention to the unique prejudices against transgender people.
For example, in 2006, an immigration judge treated defendant Edin Carey Avendano-Hernandez, a transwoman from Mexico, as if she were a man, even though she had transitioned. Avendano-Hernandez entered the U.S. as an undocumented worker but was deported after injuring someone while driving drunk. Because she committed a felony, she was jailed and deported. Then she returned to the United States to seek asylum from transphobic violence in Mexico. Last year, in the opinion for Edin Carey Avendano-Hernandez v. Loretta E. Lynch written by Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen of the Ninth Circuit, a panel found that not only did the immigration judge in the previous case use incorrect pronouns, but also that the Board of Immigration Officials “erred in assuming that recent antidiscrimination laws in Mexico have made life safer for transgender individuals, while ignoring significant record evidence of violence targeting them.”
As this case demonstrates, there is a lingering misconception that because many Latin American nations, like Mexico, are improving governmental policies for LGBT rights, those communities now enjoy greater stability. The opposite is frequently true, as greater legal protections have actually provoked a violent backlash against gays, lesbians, and particularly transgender people.
Yet, with opinions like Judge Nguyen’s, the legal culture in the United States is changing. “Many LGBT immigrants are unaware that the law can protect them,” Gonzalez says. “They come from countries where this is a sin, where everybody has rejected them because of religion and they are afraid to come out.”
With these realities in mind, Gonzalez has strived to create a space where everyone feels welcome—especially since some law firms still discriminate against LGBT immigrants.
“We have to treat everybody equally,” he adds. “It’s all about equality. It’s right there in the Constitution, and nobody wants to read it.”
Josh Inocéncio is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine, a playwright, and a freelance writer. Read all of his OutSmart articles at outsmartmagazine.com/author/josh-inocencio.
Make It Official, Texas!
Affordable legal services for the transgender community.
San Antonio lawyer Justin P. Nichols, a member of the LGBT community, increased his activism for transgender rights during the fight to pass San Antonio’s equal-rights ordinance protecting sexual orientation and gender identity. Soon after the San Antonio City Council passed their version of a measure similar to Houston’s failed ordinance, Nichols and his firm launched “Make It Official San Antonio,” to provide pro-bono legal services to transgender individuals seeking to legally change their names. While lawyers often charge upwards of $2,000 for that service, Nichols realized that, given the achievements over the years, there is no longer a reason to charge so much.
“Initially, it was pro-bono for young people, and I realized it isn’t that hard,” Nichols remembers. “We can do this inexpensively. These small legal maneuvers do not need to be cost-prohibitive for our community.”
The San Antonio campaign received such an overwhelming response from the transgender community in Bexar County that Nichols has created “Make It Official Texas,” which now serves trans individuals all over the Lone Star State. While clients outside of Bexar County must still travel to San Antonio and pay a $500 filing fee, Nichols’ efforts have significantly eased a once-arduous process for transgender Texans. And the good news is that Nichols can even assist clients born outside of Texas.
“I never expected it to be such an emotional process,” Nichols relates. “I’m a better advocate for transgender rights because of these clients.”
There are a few remaining hurdles, especially the Texas Vital Statistics’ constant quibbling over “gender” and “sex” on birth certificates, but Nichols is successfully wading through these legal intricacies. And for clients who qualify, it is even possible to waive part of the $500 filing fee. In addition, Nichols’ firm sometimes serves as a miniature travel agency, providing low-cost housing options and even arranging group accommodations to further limit hotel and gas expenses. Thus far, he has experienced incredible success with clients throughout Texas.
On the web page for Make It Official, which is located on the Nichols Law Firm website, prospective clients can download all the necessary paperwork that they will need to bring to San Antonio in order to change their legal names.
“Houston is starting to pick up really fast,” Nichols muses. He encourages Houstonians unfamiliar with his services to come to San Antonio as soon as they are able.
“To the trans community: you already are who you are; let’s just go through the process and get the paperwork done,” he admonishes. “We want to make this process as smooth, affordable, and accessible as possible.” —Josh Inocéncio
To contact the Nichols Law Firm about a legal name change, visit thenicholslawfirm.com/makeitofficial.php or call the firm at 210.354.2300.