Q: Why are LGBT groups working on immigration issues, and what does the recent debate about comprehensive immigration reform have to do with the rights of LGBT individuals and families?
A: We often hear that our immigration system is broken. But too few people understand how this terribly broken system disproportionately harms many hardworking LGBT people and people living with HIV. As immigration reform comes to the forefront of national debate, proposals and plans aimed at repairing and overhauling the immigration system must include critically important protections needed by millions of hardworking Americans, including LGBT people and HIV-affected people. For instance, reinforcing family unity has long been a fundamental tenet of sound immigration policy: Family unity and the support networks it engenders contribute to a stable community and healthy society. Accordingly, immigration law has long recognized that a U.S. citizen’s foreign-born spouse should be granted immigration protection and relief. Without such immigration relief, families can be ruthlessly torn apart. Far too many people in the LGBT community are enduring this nightmare because bi-national same-sex couples now are denied these family unity protections. Truly comprehensive immigration reform must promote and protect family unity and equality by recognizing the rights of bi-national same-sex couples.
Immigration reform should also be informed by the experiences of LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants, who are especially vulnerable. Many transgender, gender-nonconforming and HIV-affected people flee to the United States to escape persecution. Many of these victims depend on our asylum and immigration laws for protection and relief.
Immigration reform must create a path to legalization and U.S. citizenship. There are about 418,000 undocumented lesbian, gay and bisexual immigrants in the United States today. Without this path to legalization, LGBT immigrants will remain trapped in a double closet — afraid of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity, and afraid of disclosing their immigration status. The threat of deportation creates significant public safety risks, because immigrants are more likely to be targeted for acts of violence. Undocumented victims of hate crimes and discrimination are often without redress because they are reluctant to seek justice out of fear of arrest and deportation. Undocumented witnesses are also hesitant to come forward to help investigate and resolve crimes. Fear and hiding pose serious public safety risks for entire communities.
The threat of deportation also creates public health risks. For example, immigration status can present a significant barrier to HIV testing, medical care and treatment because undocumented people often are afraid of accessing hospitals. By creating a path to legalization, we can make it safer for people to get tested for HIV and to access lifesaving HIV treatment. Because HIV testing and treatment are important steps to helping curb the HIV epidemic, immigration reform can help protect public health. In this way too, bringing people out of the shadows by creating a path to legalization benefits every American, regardless of sexual orientation, immigration or HIV status. If you feel you have been discriminated against based on your sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status, please contact our Legal Help Desk at www.lambdalegal.org/help.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is a staff attorney for Lambda Legal, the national organization that works to secure full civil rights for LGBT people.