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Obama’s immigration action not enough for LGBT advocates

President Barack Obama announce action on immigration in a speech late Thursday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Obama inspired reactions from one extreme to the other on Thursday over the executive action he announced on immigration, but the sentiment expressed by many LGBT groups is somewhere in between.

In a 15-minute speech delivered that evening in the East Room of the White House, Obama announced his administration will take action on its own because Congress has refused to act on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

“I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common sense law,” Obama said. “But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as president — the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me — that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.”

As outlined by Obama, his action consists of three major components: 1) providing additional resources at the border to stem the flow of illegal crossings; 2) making it easier for high-skilled immigrants to stay in the United States and contribute to our economy; and 3) allowing relief for deportation to millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in the country.

The third prong of his plan, and the most contentious, will allow an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants to live in the country temporarily upon registration without fear of deportation, provided they’ve been in the United State for more than five years; have children who are American citizens or legal residents; pass a criminal background check; and pay taxes.

According to a pool report, a crowd of people outside the White House gates shouted after Obama’s remarks chanted “Sí se pudo,” (Yes we could). Footage on CNN shows them holding American signs and flags that say “Gracias Presidente Obama” while others carry “United We Dream” signs.

But Obama insisted Congress must act to make adequate changes to the country’s immigration system. The U.S. Senate last year passed a compromise bill with bipartisan support that would enhance border security and provide undocumented immigrants in the United States a path toward citizenship, but the House never took action on the legislation.

“I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution,” Obama said. “And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary. Meanwhile, don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a dealbreaker on every issue. That’s not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn’t shut down our government again just because we disagree on this.”

Legislative action will be a tall order to fill now that Republicans will soon control both chambers of Congress following their major wins on Election Day and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has already accused Obama of “poisoning the well.”

In a video message just before Obama’s speech, Boehner suggested Obama was taking action outside of his authority by changing the way he’s enforcing immigration law.

“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own,” Boehner said. “That’s just not how our democracy works. The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he’s sure acting like one. And he’s doing it a time when the American people want nothing more than for us to work together.”

But Obama’s supporters in Congress praised him and said the House should follow his suit by passing legislation before time runs out at the end of the 113th Congress.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress, said the refusal of the House to take up immigration legislation more the 500 days after action by the Senate demonstrates the need for executive action.

“Given the fact that House Republicans have failed to act on the bipartisan Senate reform bill, they can’t expect the president to do nothing and the president should not accept the status quo,” Baldwin said. “I remain committed to finishing the job on bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform but until we can achieve that goal, I support the president keeping his promise to take action and do what he can legally do to fix our broken system.”

A common theme among defenders of Obama in the face of suggestions by Republicans he’s acting unlawfully is that every president since Dwight Eisenhower has used on executive authority to change the implementation of immigration law.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s action will millions of immigrants in the United States, including those who identify as LGBT.

“Millions of undocumented immigrants who have been waiting in perpetual fear for far too long will finally have relief thanks to the strong leadership of President Obama,” Griffin said. “Administrative relief from deportation for thousands of LGBT people who want nothing more than pursuing happiness and living openly, honestly and without fear of deportation is an important interim step. It’s now up to Congress to do its job and pass comprehensive, lasting immigration reforms.”

According to a March 2013 report from the Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, 267,000 of the undocumented immigrants living in the United States identify as LGBT. About 71 percent of undocumented LGBT adults are Hispanic and 15 percent of undocumented LGBT adults are Asian or Pacific Islander, the report says.

But the reaction among many LGBT advocacy groups was more nuanced. The groups say granting relief only to immigrants who have familial ties to the United States unfairly impacts those are LGBT because they’re more unlikely to have children or be recognized as parents in the state where they live.

Moreover, LGBT immigrants are also much more likely to be excluded from relief because of a minor criminal record. For example, more than one in four transgender undocumented immigrants have had to commit low-level infractions, such as prostitution, shoplifting or turnstile jumping at some point in their life, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Other concerns are related to immigration detention facilities, where advocates say LGBT undocumented immigrants often face discrimination and harassment.

Aaron Morris, legal director for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said his organization welcomes the relief under Obama’s action, but believes LGBT immigrants will be left behind.

“The president’s choice to require formal familial ties to qualifying citizens and lawful permanent residents appears to exclude LGBT immigrants from accessing legal protections,” Morris said. “Our priority moving forward is to ensure that immigration law recognizes LGBT families and protects LGBT immigrants from deportation to homophobic and transphobic countries.”

Pabitra Benjamin, organizing director for the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, said Obama’s move “will have tremendous impact” on LGBT immigrants who hail from Asia and the Pacific Islands, but more action is needed.

“We were dismayed that the President did not include the parents of DREAMers, create a new non-familial category for LGBT immigration or access to health care for undocumented immigrants,” Benjamin said. “NQAPIA will continue to work with the administration through implementation, as well as the Congress, and to address these issues.”

Similar concerns that relief won’t be extended to LGBT undocumented immigrants in the United States were expressed by Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

“Millions of people will sleep a bit more easily tonight because the president is taking action to help fix our broken immigration system,” Carey said. “And there are many who do not get relief such as: undocumented immigrants who don’t have any close U.S. citizen/resident relatives or whose family relationships with U.S. citizens/residents are not recognized — this includes thousands of LGBTQ families — and people who are being abused or vulnerable to abuse in immigration detention centers.”

In May, Carey was among the 27 protesters who were arrested for blocking an intersection near the U.S. Capitol in a demonstration intended to show support for immigration reform.

Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, also said more work is needed to protect LGBT immigrants while in immigration detention facilities.

“Many LGBT immigrants have fled life-threatening persecution because of who they are and who they love, to make this country their own and contribute to its success,” Keisling said. “Once here in the U.S., they are subject to horrific conditions in immigration detention, and the constant fear of deportation to face further violence or death.”

Concluding his remarks, Obama recognized the wide diversity of immigrants in the United States and emphasized the nation is “and always will be a nation of immigrants.”

“And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship,” Obama said. “What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”