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Event Report- The LGBT Undocumented: Who they are and what’s at Stake in the Immigration Reform Battle

March 20, 2013

On March 8, the Center for American Progress hosted a panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants.  The event doubled as the release of two reports:

·         A Williams Institute (UCLA) report estimating the number of undocumented LGBT individuals living in the United States, including a demographic analysis

·         A Center for American Progress report addressing the challenges and disparities facing undocumented LGBT immigrants

The panel featured four speakers: Jose Antonio Vargas, Founder of Define American and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist; Gary Gates, Williams Distinguished Scholar of the Williams Institute at UCLA; Michael Jarecki, Principal at the Law Office of Michael R. Jarecki; and Maya Rupert, Policy Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  Winnie Stachelberg, Executive vice President for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress, provided introductory remarks, and Angela Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, moderated the discussion.

Gary Gates provided an overview of the Williams Institute’s findings, starting with several caveats.   Due to limited data on sexual minorities and undocumented immigrants, the statistics found in the report are estimates based on multiple data sources and conservative numerical assumptions.  Since measures rely on self-identification, the report likely underestimates the actual number of undocumented LGBT immigrants; the level of LGBT identification among the immigrant population, a group which already feels stigmatized, is lower than that of the normal population. 

Two hundred and sixty seven thousand undocumented immigrants reported an LGBT identity.  They were more likely to be males (67% versus 57%) and under 30 years old (49% versus 30%).  Seventy one percent of LGBT-identifying undocumented immigrants are Hispanic , and 15% are Asian.  This compares to 77% and 11%, respectively, of the entire undocumented population.  There are roughly 25,000 binational LGBT couples (one partner is a citizen, the other is not), one-fourth of whom are raising children.  There are about 10,000 undocumented LGBT couples (neither partner is an American citizen), half of whom are raising children.  These individuals are extremely vulnerable to current immigration laws, which can result in families being separated.

Michael Jerecki discussed how current immigration law affects undocumented LGBT individuals and what should be changed as immigration policy is reformed.  For binational couples, the foreign national cannot currently be sponsored by the citizen partner because their relationship is not legally recognized.  Additionally, under current legislation, when an individual flees her home country due to sexual persecution, she has just one year to apply for asylum.  If she fails to do so, she must explain why.  He argued that this small timeframe often prevents those who would normally qualify from obtaining asylum

Jerecki also highlighted the unique hardships faced by undocumented LGBT individuals in detention.  There is a stigma surrounding reporting sexual abuse in prisons, especially same-sex abuse.  This leaves the LGBT population, who are at the most risk of becoming victimized, at a disadvantage.  Gender identity is not taken into consideration when making cell assignments.  If a transgender individual is viewed as needing “protection” from other inmates, he or she is often simply put into solitary confinement, which is otherwise used as a punishment for misbehavior.  Although the 2012 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was designed in part to alleviate some of these disparities, discrimination still occurs.  Jerecki contended that detention should be reserved for those who pose a legitimate threat to society rather than as a prison for undocumented immigrants with minor legal violations.    

Maya Rupert believed that the authors of the Williams Institute report did an excellent job laying out policy recommendations.  She echoed Jerecki’s concerns about the necessity of improving the current detention system, and pointed out that there is currently no federal law preventing job discrimination against LGBT individuals.  She argued that legislation must encompass both employment protection and discrimination.

Jose Antonio Vergas’ story serves as the introduction to the Williams Institute’s report.  Vergas, who is both gay and undocumented, described how growing up, he always felt the burden of his “two closets”: one for his sexuality and the other for his immigration status.  As a teen, he decided that he would come out as homosexual and was surprised by the receptivity of everyone but his grandfather, who felt as though he had ruined their plan: come to the United States, marry an American woman, and gain citizenship through marriage. 

Vergas didn’t come out as undocumented until two years ago.  He described himself as a “walking uncomfortable conversation” in this “fascinating age of intersectionality,” and encouraged more individuals to embrace their complexity so others will be forced to accept it.  Vergas argued that LGBT men and women are leading the movement for the rights of undocumented youth, a fact which is grossly underreported.   He concluded that “you don’t have to be gay to care about gay issues and you don’t have to be undocumented to care about undocumented issues.”

The panelists agreed that immigration reform is a major, often overlooked component of the fight for social equality.  They were optimistic that the knowing the number of undocumented LGBT individuals in the United States would inform any new immigration legislation.   


Kayla McAlindin

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

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