Why LGBT People Must Demand Immigration Reform

Kate Kendell, Executive Director & Noemi Calonje, Immigration Project Director

There is a large battle looming in Washington over legislation to reform our nation’s immigration laws. This coming Sunday, March 21, many LGBT immigrants, their families, and allies will march in support of immigration reform. Now is the time for us, as LGBT individuals, families, and communities, to understand why immigration reform is so critical.

Every day our immigration laws tear apart LGBT lives and families, including those of hundreds of thousands of undocumented LGBT immigrants. The stories of undocumented LGBT people are not always highly visible in our movement, but their existence and struggles are very real. They face crushing burdens that expose them to severe discrimination in virtually every aspect of life, from education to employment. In addition, current immigration laws cruelly deny same-sex bi-national couples any way to protect their relationships and stay together in this country. In many different ways, the impact of our dysfunctional immigration system on LGBT people is harsh. For instance, the current system:

1. Imposes an arbitrary deadline for LGBT immigrants fleeing violence. For years, LGBT individuals fleeing the threat of violence or death in their country of origin have been able to apply for asylum in the United States. Prior to 1996, individuals could file for asylum at any time. But in 1996, Congress imposed a punishing deadline requiring an asylum applicant to file within 12 months of entering this country. This one year bar has jeopardized the lives and safety of countless LGBT people. Many of our asylum clients arrive in the U.S. penniless, deeply traumatized by violence and abuse, deeply closeted, and with little or no access to legal information. In the midst of this shock and trauma, expecting them to find the resources to apply for asylum and to seek out necessary legal representation, is grossly unrealistic and unfair.

2. Fails to treat same-sex couples equal to heterosexual couples. Currently a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident in a heterosexual marriage may petition for his or her foreign-born spouse to immigrate lawfully to this country. That same right, however, is denied to same-sex couples. Nineteen other countries allow their citizens to sponsor same-sex partners for immigration benefits. Shockingly, the United States does not. This is a shameful state of affairs. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, even same-sex couples who have been legally married in U.S. states or foreign countries are not able to immigrate based on their marriage. Every day we hear the pleas from desperate couples forced to choose between the partner they love and the country they love. We have witnessed first-hand families torn apart and partners hauled away and deported with no legal recourse or hope for reconciliation. There are an estimated 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples in the U.S. and they all live under threat of losing the person they love. This outrageous inequality is intolerable.

3. Relegates LGBT people to dangerous detention centers where abuses are rampant. The detention of immigrants is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in this country. Every year thousands of immigrants, including thousands of children, are relegated to long stays in detention centers scattered throughout the country. These detention centers are not well-regulated and many have a track record of extreme negligence and abusive conditions. LGBT people have been especially vulnerable to these harsh conditions. In one notable example, detention center staff failed to provide vital medications to Victoria Arrellano, a transgender woman inmate with AIDS. Victoria’s cellmates pleaded and protested for staff to take her to the hospital, but after days of severe, unattended illness, she died. Once immigrants are sent to a detention facility it is virtually impossible for them to maintain contact with family, friends, or their lawyers who were in the midst of advocating for them.

4. Leaves LGBT immigrants vulnerable to homophobic and transphobic family members. Many immigrants gain legal status through family-based immigration. A U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident can petition for certain relatives, such as children and parents, to immigrate lawfully to the U.S. Sadly, many LGBT immigrants are excluded from this benefit due to family rejection. In many instances, we have seen how family members with legal status will withhold sponsorship to punish an LGBT family member for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

5. Undermines laws intended to protect LGBT people from workplace discrimination. In communities with large immigrant populations, it has been exceedingly difficult to enforce laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination because so many victims and witnesses lack legal status. LGBT workers who are undocumented and suffer harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity are often fearful to file a complaint. Many victims and witnesses are afraid to step forward to report such discrimination, due to the risk that they might be reported to U.S. authorities. Taking advantage of this dynamic, abusive bosses act with complete disregard for anti-discrimination laws and other worker protections. We have heard from clients subjected to sexual and physical assault who did not complain out of fear they would be deported.

6. Closes off higher education for talented, young LGBT immigrants. For many LGBT people, college is an opportunity to forge our independence. While in college, we come out, build a community, pursue our passions, and get an education that opens career doors and increases our economic independence. Many gifted, undocumented LGBT young adults are forgoing college because they do not have the legal status to pursue higher education. This leaves undocumented LGBT immigrants, like other undocumented youth, stuck in low-paying jobs and unable to enjoy the life-changing opportunities that often come with college.

7. Perpetuates a politics of fear that leave all minority groups vulnerable to irrational demonization. Fear poisons politics and distorts our system of governance, threatening LGBT communities as much as immigrant communities. Anti-immigrant fear-mongering is driving a wedge between our country and its commitment to basic fairness and justice. Likewise, LGBT people know all too well how hate and fear are blunt tools that have proven too effective at the task of demonizing entire segments of our diverse country. The passage of immigration reform will signal a resounding rejection of wedge politics. Immigration reform is an opportunity to affirm our national commitment to dignity, equality, and fairness for all.

It is critical for LGBT people to become involved in the push for immigration reform. A comprehensive immigration reform bill is still taking shape in Congress. Various provisions have been placed on the table and are being debated for inclusion in the larger reform package. Key elements proposed include a pathway to citizenship based on presence in the U.S. and contributions through employment and other service, removal of the one year bar on seeking asylum, renewed judicial review to ensure a day in court for immigrants facing deportation, and improved standards at detention centers.

Already at this early stage it is apparent that provisions that are especially important to LGBT people and our families face strong opposition. The provision to treat same-sex couples equally to heterosexual couples, commonly referred to as the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) provision, is already a critical point of contention. Now more than ever it is up to us to press our case for immigration reform. No one will carry our water for us. We must step up, speak up, and lead.

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