REPORT: 267,000 LGBT People Are Undocumented Immigrants

Jose Antonio Vargas has very publicly come out as both gay and undocumented.

Today the Williams Institute at UCLA released estimates that, for the first time, provide an estimate of the number of adult undocumented immigrants that identify as LGBT living in the United States today. Specifically, Gary Gates of the Williams Institute estimates that there at least 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants living inside the U.S. Out of all 904,000 LGBT immigrants in the United States, approximately 30 percent (267,000) are undocumented, while 70 percent (637,000) are documented. Williams’ analysis further shows that LGBT undocumented immigrants are more likely to be male, more likely to be younger, less likely to be Hispanic, and more likely to be Asian compared to the general undocumented population.

It’s worth noting that Williams’ estimate provides a “floor” or lower-bound estimate of the LGBT undocumented population. Williams’ analysis only captures adult undocumented immigrants (those that are older than 18) and includes a conservative estimate that accounts for the reluctance of LGBT undocumented people to self-identify and disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Building on Williams’ analysis, a new report from the Center for American Progress unpacks the demographic characteristics, disparities, and particular challenges facing LGBT immigrants. Specifically, LGBT people find themselves at the intersection of two marginalized populations — the LGBT population and the undocumented population — that make them among society’s most vulnerable. For example, looking specifically at income insecurities, the median income for undocumented immigrants is $14,000 less than the median household income for U.S. born residents. For their part, same-sex couples make $15,000 less per year than families headed by an opposite-sex couple. Statistics are even more dire for transgender workers, 15 percent of whom make less than $10,000 per year. Considering these statistics, it stands to reason that earnings disparities are even starker for someone who is both LGBT and undocumented.

CAP’s report also highlights a number of other challenges facing LGBT immigrants:

  • Family Separation for binational same-sex couples: The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits and protections to legally married same-sex couples, acts as a barrier to family reunification and an individual’s ability to sponsor a same-sex spouse or partner for residency.
  • Detention Conditions: LGBT undocumented immigrants face a multitude of issues when faced with mandatory detention, ranging from discrimination, harassment and physical violence to segregation and denial of medically necessary services for HIV-positive and transgender detainees.
  • Asylum Standards: Under current immigration law, immigrants seeking asylum must file within one year of entering the United States, otherwise, the threshold for gaining asylum is significantly higher. This arbitrary deadline belies the fact that many LGBT asylum seekers, who may come from countries where they have had to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity for risk of persecution, may not be prepared in that time span to come to terms with their LGBT identity.

Given the sheer number of undocumented immigrants that identify as LGBT and the complex issues they face, a path to earned citizenship is a critical component of advancing LGBT equality. The Obama Administration has already leveraged its administrative authority to give reprieve to LGBT immigrants and detainees. Now it’s Congress’ turn to act. In addition to passing immigration reform with a path to earned citizenship, there are other important policy recommendations that, if enacted, would alleviate many of the challenges facing LGBT undocumented immigrants:

  • Inclusion of the United American Families Act and the DREAM Act in Immigration Reform. Including provisions of the Uniting American Families Act would extend spousal sponsorship privileges to U.S. citizens and permanent residents with same-sex spouses and committed partners. Including elements of the DREAM Act would create an expedited path to citizenship for eligible youth, many of whom identify as LGBT.
  • Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Discriminatory immigration policy is one of the many reasons that DOMA should be repeal. DOMA denies the federal government the ability to treat families headed by same-sex couples equitably.
  • Modify Detention and Asylum Standards to address the issues facing the LGBT Immigrants. The United States maintains the largest immigration detention system in the world. There should be an expansion of alternatives to the expensive practice of detention that would be a cost-effective way of monitoring the undocumented and protecting vulnerable populations—such as LGBT immigrants—from mistreatment in detention. 

Our guest blogger is Christopher Frost, intern for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.