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March 08, 2013

Gay Rights, Immigration Reform Closely Linked for Some

by Kate Woodsome

Immigration and gay rights activists in the United States are both fighting for greater freedoms and protections, but what they don’t often see, advocates say, is that the two causes are intertwined.

There are an estimated 904,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adult immigrants in the U.S. today, 30 percent of whom are undocumented, according to a new study published this week by the California-based Williams Institute.

Mexican-born Jorge Gutierrez, an organizer with the immigrant youth network United We Dream, says building coalitions between the gay rights and immigration reform movements is crucial.

“Equal rights doesn't mean just equal rights for same sex partners. It means standing up for queer immigrant workers,” he said at a forum discussing the new report at the Center for American Progress in Washington. 

Gutierrez, who came to the U.S. illegally when he was 10 years old, said he was fortunate enough to have a mother who supported him after he came out as gay, but not everyone is as lucky.

“What happens when an LGBT undocumented youth comes out to their parents and he or she gets thrown out of the house?” he asked, suggesting the immigration and gay rights movements could work together to propose a new pathway to legalization for this group.

Changing the game

Undocumented immigrants under the age of 31, like Gutierrez, got a boost when U.S. President Barack Obama passed a memorandum last year deferring the deportation of some individuals who immigrated illegally to the U.S. as children.

Gutierrez and other activists now want that two-year reprieve to become a path to citizenship, and to include further protections for LGBT immigrants.

It’s a controversial movement with strong opposition from critics who say granting anything like amnesty will only encourage more illegal immigration.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out as undocumented in an essay published in The New York Times two years ago, says the LGBT community, especially the “big money” groups in Washington, needs to be more visible addressing issues of immigration.

“You don't have to be gay to care about gay issues. You don't have to be undocumented to care about undocumented issues,” said Vargas, who is gay. “We're living in this fascinating age of intersectionality … where ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status are all coming to a head.”

A vulnerable class

Immigration lawyer Michael Jarecki said he hopes that crossroads will help the undocumented LGBT immigrants in the U.S., which he described as an extremely vulnerable class.

“When they suffer sexual violence, they don’t have a place to report this,” Jarecki said, adding that if these individuals are detained for immigration violations, for example, their gender identity often is not respected or understood.

“Prisons want to jail according to birth gender instead of gender identity,” he said.

In that situation, Jarecki noted, a transgender individual will often need protection from other inmates, so they will be put in solitary confinement.

Undocumented LGBT immigrants face other challenges, including discrimination in the workplace, poor access to reproductive healthcare, and an often confusing asylum application process, which has to be completed within a year of arrival in the U.S.

Jarecki said people who flee persecution for their sexuality in their home country might not be able to learn about the U.S. asylum provisions or be able to come out to themselves that quickly.

“They might have been beaten, traumatized,” he said. “This could be a lifelong process, if not a one year process.”

Making them count

Gary Gates, who authored the Williams Institute study, says the actual number of undocumented LGBT immigrants in the U.S. is probably higher than the quarter-million he recorded.

He said people living illegally in the U.S., or who have not publicly identified their sexuality, are less likely to report their status. But he said someone needed to start the tally so that their issues could begin to be addressed.

“I have a very strong belief that in this country, a lot of things don't count unless people are counted,” Gates said.