President Barack Obama is expected to make a move on immigration reform in the later months of this year, after he delayed plans to issue executive orders until after the Nov. 4 midterm elections. The president may extend deportation relief to potentially millions of undocumented immigrants. But some groups fear that relief may leave out the undocumented who are also lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
One of the most hotly anticipated, and politically polarizing, moves the Obama administration is considering involves expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was launched by executive order in 2012. Undocumented immigrants who arrived to the U.S. as children can get a reprieve from deportation under DACA. Several reports have speculated that Obama could extend that protection to family members of DACA-eligible immigrants, or even undocumented parents of U.S. citizens.
But the idea of a formal family relationship requirement for relief concerns some groups who say LGBT communities have a much harder time establishing formal family ties. “LGBT people didn’t have access to marriage equality for so long -- and in some cases, still don’t have that,” said Aaron Morris, legal director for Immigration Equality, an organization that provides legal assistance to LGBT immigrants. “For families, it can be really complicated to have a formally recognized document that proves you are a child’s mother or a spouse of an individual.”
There are an estimated 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants in the United States. Immigration Equality, along with around a dozen other LGBT activist groups, sent a letter to the White House in August to prod the administration to expand any potential deportation relief beyond just those with formal family ties.
“We urge you to expand affirmative relief through a second track for individuals who have strong, long-standing ties with their communities as demonstrated through long-term residency,” the letter read. “This flexibility recognizes that certain types of equities – such as marriage and child-rearing – are significantly harder for undocumented LGBTQ immigrants to have accumulated since their arrival in this country or during recent legal developments in the past few years.”
The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling overturning a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act opened several new pathways for people in same-sex binational couples to bring spouses and children into the United States (provided one partner is a U.S. citizen). But many of those benefits are still limited to those living in states that recognize same-sex marriages.
Morris said another major concern was protections for immigrants who come from countries that persecute LGBT people. Staffing more asylum officers and increasing privacy for LGBT immigrants were both measures the Obama administration could take to increase those protections, he said. “Right now, a lot of paperwork we send [to embassies in foreign countries] for married couples makes it obvious they are the same sex,” he said. “It has caused a lot of extreme nervousness among families because they don’t want a homophobic country to know they’re same-sex. We want to ensure their privacy and safety.”
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department are reportedly sending in their final recommendations this week on actions the president should take on immigration reform. But the administration has largely stayed tight-lipped about when these actions would come about and what they might look like. Last week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed rumors that the administration was looking to potentially double its stock of green cards, and said Obama had not made any final decisions about the measures to take.
Immigration advocates, meanwhile, have been visibly angry at the administration’s delays, saying that immigrant families would continue to face fear of deportation and separation the longer the president waits to act.
“We need him to do it, whatever the package is, the day after the midterms,” Morris said. “Every day that goes by we’re hearing from LGBT people who are being deported.”