After seventeen months of House Republican’s refusing to pass immigration reform, President Obama followed the example of every president since Eisenhower, using his legal authority as president to take action on immigration. Thursday night, the President announced executive action to give nearly 5 million people the opportunity to gain temporary legal status in the United States, allowing them to come out of the shadows without fear of being separated from their families.
The plan’s centerpiece is a deferred action program for immigrants who have lived in the US for at least 5 years and have citizen or lawful-permanent-resident children. It also expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program so that people over 30 can be eligible for relief and moves up the year of arrival for eligibility, making 300,000 more people eligible for DACA. In addition to providing legal status to millions of people with strong ties to their communities, the President’s plan reforms immigration enforcement priorities so resources are focused on removing national security threats and serious offenders and ends the controversial Secure Communities program.
Here are 5 ways these measures will improve the lives of LGBT immigrants:
1) LGBT citizens and lawful permanent residents no longer need to live in fear that their parents will be deported. LGBT undocumented immigrants aren’t the only ones hurt by our broken immigration system. US citizens are hurt when their loved ones are deported. The President’s plan not only prevents separation of these families, it also allows parents to work legally, improving economic outcomes for the entire family.
2) At least 200,000 undocumented LGBT immigrants are now eligible for lawful presence. An estimated 10 percent of DACA recipients identify as LGBT. The President’s plan will make an estimated 300,000 more people eligible for DACA, in addition to the estimated 1.7 million people already eligible under the original requirements.
3) Undocumented LGBT immigrants married to U.S. Citizens won’t have to risk years of separation from their spouses before they can apply for a green card. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples were unable to access immigration benefits available to different-sex couples. Even after the Windsor decision made it possible for all legal marriages to be recognized under immigration law, obstacles still remain. Some undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens can’t file for a green card without first returning to their home country, sometimes for years. This is particularly risky for same-sex couples since nearly 80 countries criminalize being LGBT. The President’s plan clarifies that these situations qualify for hardship waivers, saving same-sex binational couples from years of painful separation.
4) Prosecutorial discretion will protect many LGBT people from being detained and deported. By not prioritizing deportation for illegal re-entry, LGBT people who were deported and returned to the US will not have to fear being stuck in a revolving door where they are deported again simply for returning. For LGBT immigrants like Viviana, a transgender woman who has been deported to Honduras 5 times after seeking protection in the United States from persecution at home, this provision can be lifesaving.
5) Ending Secure Communities prevents police profiling of LGBT people from ending in deportation. 73 percent of LGBT people report encountering police in the last 5 years. Under Secure Communities, police would hold immigrants until Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked them up. This cooperation between law enforcement and immigration enforcement meant high rates of police profiling of LGBT people put LGBT immigrants at risk of being detained and deported as well. In the case of Duncan Roy, a gay British film producer, his bail request led to being held in jail for three months because of an erroneous immigration hold.
While we should celebrate these reforms, the President’s relief plan is only a first step. Any immigration benefit derived from familial ties leaves out many LGBT people whose families are frequently not recognized under the law. Policies are needed to recognize LGBT families, in immigration and also in our asylum and refugee systems.
Finally, permanent and wide-reaching reforms like legalization and a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants can only be accomplished through legislation. The President took the first step, but it’s up to Congress to pass legislation to fully protect LGBT immigrants.
Sharita Gruberg is a policy analyst with LGBT Progress.