On Tuesday, the Senate voted to begin debate on the bipartisan “Gang of 8’s” Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act which offers common-sense immigration reforms that secure the border, eliminate unconscionable immigration backlogs, and, most importantly, provide the more than 11 million undocumented people living in the United States a pathway to earned citizenship.
Unfortunately, the bill does not provide relief to same-sex binational couples because of Republican obstructionism. Senator Leahy has filed an amendment that could expand protections for some same-sex couples, and if passed that could be a positive step toward equality. But even without the amendment, the underlying bill does contain a number of important benefits for LGBT immigrants. Let’s break them down:
A pathway to citizenship for the more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants who identify as LGBT. Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., more than 267,000 adults identify as LGBT. The actual number of LGBT individuals this bill would benefit, however, is much higher since this number does not include undocumented LGBT children or adults who do not openly identify as LGBT. For the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 63 percent of whom have built lives here for a decade or more, a road map to citizenship provides an opportunity to earn a living wage, pursue higher education, preserve family unity, and to finally live without the constant threat of deportation.
An expedited path to citizenship for DREAMers. Young, LGBT, undocumented activists have been at the forefront of organizing for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. DREAMers, as they are commonly known, were brought to the U.S. by their parents as children and have spent most of their lives in the U.S. going to school and serving in the military. The bill would allow them to apply for green cards within 5 years of obtaining Registered Provisional Immigrant status, instead of the 10 years it takes for other undocumented immigrants, and the fines are waived. The provisions for DREAMers are particularly important for LGBT individuals since 49 percent of undocumented people who identify as LGBT are adults under the age of 30.
Removes the one-year filing deadline for LGBT asylum seekers. The one-year filing deadline requires asylum seekers to file an asylum application within one year of entering the U.S. This is a particularly onerous requirement for LGBT asylum seekers, many of whom do not realize they are eligible for asylum based on sexual orientation or gender identity or, due to persecution in the nearly 80 countries that have laws criminalizing homosexuality, do not feel comfortable coming out to a government official so soon after arriving in the U.S. Since the filing deadline was introduced in 1996, more than 79,000 asylum applications have been rejected solely because of this arbitrary deadline.
More alternatives to detention, where LGBT immigrants are routinely mistreated, harassed, and abused. LGBT detainees are at increased risk of abuse and mistreatment when placed in immigration detention. A complaint filed by the National Immigrant Justice Center describes “systematic and severe abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in immigration detention,” specifically sexual assault by guards and other detainees, denial of medical care to HIV-positive individuals, denial of hormone treatment to transgender individuals, and frequent harassment by guards and facility personnel. By explicitly requiring the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to establish secure alternatives to detention in each field office and by broadening the definition of mandatory detention to include methods such as electronic ankle bracelets, the bill allows LGBT immigrants to remain in immigration custody without physically being in detention.
Ban on solitary confinement meant to ‘protect’ LGBT detainees. On any given day, 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement, nearly half of which are kept for 15 days or more at a time. Solitary confinement is regularly used for LGBT detainees in an effort to “protect” them from the prevalent sexual assault they experience, but in normal cases these methods are reserved as a means of punishment. The bill explicitly prohibits the use of solitary confinement based on many categories, including solely on the basis of an immigrant’s sexual orientation and gender identity. If the bill becomes law, this will become the third time gender identity has been codified in federal law, after the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act
Sharita Gruberg is a Policy Analyst for the LGBT Immigration Project at the Center for American Progress.