The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which processes asylum applications, received 198 petitions from Iranians last year of which 91 were granted. But it's unclear how many, if any, were based on an individual's sexual orientation because the agency does not track those statistics.
Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which advocates for gay and lesbian asylum seekers, said the group handled more than 200 cases last year, including several from Iran.
"We see an artificially deflated number of cases from the Middle East because the opportunity for single, Arab men to get here after 9/11 is very low," she said. "But we do see them."
The extension of asylum to individuals such as Abdollahi has critics, however, who warn that the system is prone to fraud and abuse, employing too loose a standard to ensure protection of a worthy few. Two recent high-profile cases in Washington State and Pennsylvania exposed rings of asylum seekers appealing for and receiving asylum based on phony claims of persecution and sexual orientation.
Still, Abdollahi, who dreams of being a social worker in his Michigan community, says he's confident, with the help of his pro bono attorney, that a judge will look favorably on his case.
"The two vectors in his case, like most glbt asylum cases, is 'are you who you say you are, are you gay?' and the other piece is 'how bad is it in the country you left?'," said Tiven.
A judge will decide whether the accumulated record of human rights abuses in Iran and testimonies from Abdollahi and his friends about his sexuality are incompatible and sufficient reasons to allow him to stay.