Millions of undocumented individuals currently live in the United States who struggle to live, work and provide for their families. Among these individuals are young people brought to the U.S. as children. These folks struggle to find their place in a country that has demonstrated a growing fear and distrust of immigrants. For young LGBT immigrants, this struggle only amplifies the issues they already face as an often-marginalized group dealing with their own sexuality, identity and gender.
Yet, as the immigration debate rages on—now for over a decade—these young people find themselves as a political bargaining chip, leaving them feeling fearful of the future and their place in society.
Due to a lack of bipartisan congressional support behind the DREAM Act, President Obama issued an executive order as a last resort in June of 2012, creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA.
DACA has provided nearly 700,000 individuals with work authorization and protected them against deportation. Immigration attorneys have long warned of the risks involved with DACA because the president rather than Congress created it. Yes, it provided young people with opportunities they would not have otherwise had, but with no guarantee that it would last or that a less immigrant-friendly president would not use the information DACA recipients willingly provided against them.
We now find ourselves in the DACA worst-case scenario: with a president who calls the home countries of these immigrants “shitholes” and ending DACA during his first year in office. Upon ending the program in 2017, the president kicked the can to Congress to create a permanent solution for DACA recipients. However, this request remains a tall order for a do-nothing Congress split on its approach to immigration. The battle wages on, but stuck in the middle are the people whose livelihoods and security are uncertain. LGBT DACA recipients feel this uncertainty even more acutely.
The Williams Institute estimates that approximately 36,000 DACA recipients identify as LGBT and thousands more LGBT young people are eligible, but have not enrolled. In general, LGBTQ people of color are more likely to live in poverty as compared with their non-LGBT peers. DACA provided these individuals with the opportunity to become financially independent. The DACA program dramatically increased employment rates among LGBT young people, and allowed them to obtain higher paying jobs with health insurance. It also increased the number of people who sought higher education, overall lifting many undocumented LGBT individuals out of poverty.
Beyond the loss of these financial and academic opportunities, LGBT recipients will also lose protection from deportation. Consequently, their lives would change from openly living, working and studying in their communities, to moving back to the shadows to avoid deportation.
Deportation can be especially dangerous for LGBT individuals. The removal process alone can be harmful to LGBT individuals, as they are disproportionately victims of sexual assault and harassment in detention centers. Further, these LGBT individuals might be sent back to one of the 72 countries where same-sex sexual acts are criminalized, or eight countries where it is punishable by death. Even in relatively progressive countries that have anti-discrimination protections on the books, authorities do not always enforce the laws consistently, and violence remains a threat. A far greater number of countries do not provide the basic right of marriage equality either.
Sadly, the worst fears of many have come to fruition with the DACA program ending on March 5, 2018. The decision to end the program has faced court challenges, and advocates have had some success. As of this writing, both parties want a resolution for DACA recipients, but cannot agree on a deal. Conservatives seem amenable to an agreement, but also seek funding for a border wall and severe limitations to legal family-based immigration in exchange. Meanwhile, progressives refuse to tie a deal for DACA recipients to the border wall and other immigration proposals that would have dramatic effects on the immigrant community at large – many of whom are the parents of DACA recipients. Thus, the debate remains at a disappointing standstill.
While all DACA recipients face challenges ahead, the future for LGBT DACA recipients is even more troubling. Not only will they lose the economic opportunities they have worked so hard for, but they also have the added fear of being forced to return to a country they have never known, which would be unaccepting of them, or worse. Without a permanent resolution, these young people face dire consequences for decisions adults made on their behalf in bringing them to the U.S. in the first place.
We must continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform and for protections for these individuals. They are our community members, coworkers, activists, and friends, and to turn our backs on them now would demonstrate a tragic lack of humanity.