Some version of immigration reform is almost certain to pass within the next year. President Obama, Republicans and Democrats alike are all strongly supportive of the idea and have each offered formidable, bipartisan proposals. If successful, this will be the first major change in U.S. immigration law since President Reagan’s signing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986.
But as we are presented with the rare opportunity to reform our system, we must ensure that we do so in a way that works for all, and that we continue our conversations after an agreement is reached. Doing so will mean accounting for the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people within comprehensive immigration reform and entering a discussion on the realities they face.
Leading up to the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, immigrant and LGBT activists made groundbreaking history. They joined forces and proved the effectiveness of intersectional advocacy. Together, they passed immigration and marriage equality measures in a number of states, and they ensured immigrant and LGBT rights remained a central focus within our national political discourse.
More importantly, they reminded us that these two groups are deeply tied to one another. Many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States identify as LGBT. Some of them are married to same-sex partners in states where they are legally permitted to do so, but are left “with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love,” as stated by White House spokesperson Shin Inouye in a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Yet many more of them are like the countless others who came to the U.S. in search of better opportunities and broader freedoms. They not only came with the hope of finding a job or receiving an education, but with the aspiration to freely and safely express themselves and their love for others without fear of persecution.
Sadly, violence and discrimination remain a familiar reality to LGBT people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Hate crimes and persecution against this group are rampant, as noted in a recent statement by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which calls upon states to enact legislation and protective measures for LGBT people. Many are further persecuted on the basis of their gender identity, race, class, disability, and HIV status.
Yet far too often, LGBT immigrants from Latin America encounter a reality in the United States that is strikingly similar to the one they fled. LGBT people of color in this country, many of whom are immigrants, face markedly higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, HIV infection, incarceration, and hate crimes. As undocumented immigrants and LGBT people, they are denied a series of rights and protections that most of us enjoy freely.
The U.S. is in the midst of a unique moment where policymakers and advocates agree on the need to reform our laws and to strive toward creating a more just and equitable society. We must seize this opportunity to search beyond the complex and meaningful challenges of immigration reform and to also take into account the broader need for social equity.
This is a unique moment to ensure that regardless of immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity that the framework is put in place that allows all people living in the U.S. to have the rights and protections they need to freely and safely pursue their dreams.