LGBT and HIV Equality Is at the Heart of Immigration Reform

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February 7, 2013
Staff Attorney Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

We often hear that our immigration system is broken. But too few people understand how this terribly broken system disproportionately harms many hardworking LGBT people and people living with HIV. As immigration reform comes to the forefront, proposals and plans aimed at repairing and overhauling the immigration system must include critically important protections needed by millions of hardworking Americans, including LGBT and HIV-affected people.

Reinforcing family unity has long been a fundamental tenet of sound immigration policy: Family unity and the support networks it engenders contribute to a stable community and healthy society. Accordingly, immigration law has long recognized that a U.S. citizen’s foreign-born spouse should be granted immigration protection and relief. Without such immigration relief, families can be ruthlessly torn apart. Far too many people in the LGBT community are enduring this nightmare because bi-national same-sex couples currently are denied these family unity protections. According to the Williams Institute, there are approximately 40,000 bi-national same-sex couples. Many of these families are raising children. Our current policy is tearing apart same-sex couples and their families. At Lambda Legal, we know this firsthand because we are fighting for the rights of these couples. This harm is discriminatory and wrong. Truly comprehensive immigration reform must promote family unity and equality by recognizing the rights of bi-national same-sex couples.

Immigration reform should also be informed by the experiences of LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants, who are especially vulnerable. Many transgender, gender-nonconforming and HIV-affected people flee to the U.S. after surviving rape, so-called “ex-gay therapy,” imprisonment, violence and other forms of persecution. Many of these victims depend on our asylum and immigration laws for protection and relief. At Lambda Legal, we know this firsthand because we are actively using asylum and immigration law to protect LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants. Yet many immigration officials do not have the training, expertise, cultural competency or sensitivity to address the needs of LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants.

Worse, while confined in immigration detention facilities awaiting asylum and immigration decisions, LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants are often denied access to lifesaving medical care, including hormone therapy and HIV medications. Immigration reform should reaffirm and strengthen asylum and refugee protections to ensure that our country is not forcibly deporting vulnerable victims to lands where they will be persecuted and tortured based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status. We also need to ensure that immigration detention facilities are addressing the medical needs of especially vulnerable LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants.

At a minimum, immigration reform must create a path to legalization and U.S. citizenship. Without this path, LGBT immigrants will remain trapped in a double closet—afraid of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity, and afraid of disclosing their immigration status. We cannot afford to have LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants living in the shadows. The threat of deportation creates significant public safety risks, because immigrants are more likely to be targeted for acts of violence. Undocumented victims of hate crimes and discrimination are often without redress because they are reluctant to seek justice out of fear of arrest and deportation. Undocumented witnesses are also hesitant to come forward to help investigate and resolve crimes. Fear and hiding pose serious public safety risks for entire communities.

The threat of deportation also creates public health risks. For example, immigration status can present a significant barrier to HIV testing, medical care and treatment because undocumented people often are afraid of accessing hospitals. By creating a path to legalization, we can make it safer for people to get tested for HIV, and to access lifesaving HIV treatment. Because HIV testing and treatment are important steps to helping curb the HIV epidemic, immigration reform can help protect public health. In this way too, bringing people out of the shadows by creating a path to legalization benefits everyone regardless of immigration or HIV status.

The movement for LGBT and HIV equality is part and parcel of a rich history and proud tradition of social inclusion. As President Obama noted in his second inaugural address, the struggle for fairness, equality and opportunity “guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” This is a powerful affirmation of the interconnected nature of our struggles. On behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, we invite the LGBT and HIV community to support comprehensive immigration reform and stand in solidarity as immigration reform opens a new chapter of American history. 

Read Lambda Legal's Immigration Fact Sheet for LGBT people and those with HIV.

If you have questions, contact our Legal Help Desk.