By JORGE GUTIERREZ & PAULINA HELM-HERNANDEZ
What has been a topic of rancor for Congress in recent months has, in the last couple of weeks, become inevitable: President Obama will take executive action to provide administrative relief to undocumented immigrants. And while this administration has exerted its authority in strengthening protections for LGBTQ people in areas like education, housing and healthcare, concern remains on whether and how inclusive the immigration executive order will be for the estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBTQ adults and our families living in the United States.
In particular, efforts to legitimize certain kinds of undocumented immigrants from others, we fear, will result in the exclusion of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ undocumented community.
In February, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) called on President Obama to bring an end to deportations in a speech to the House of Representatives. He said, “Even if this body doesn’t act, the president can stop deporting non-criminal detainees. If somebody has violated our criminal laws, they should suffer the consequences of their crimes.”
Although Polis’s sentiments are in the right place, his misguided views don’t take into account how the criminal justice system often works to criminalize large portions of LGBTQ people.
For example, the Secure Communities program—which allows federal immigration authorities to identify “criminal” immigrants—and other efforts that deputize local law enforcement to function as immigration authorities, paired with unfair raids and dragnet operations has fostered bias and profiling in law enforcement.
LGBTQ people, especially transgender women of color, are frequently caught up in these programs. LGBTQ people face higher rates of criminalization and incarceration due to their involvement in underground economies. When many laws and policies fail to clearly protect LGBTQ people at work, many members of our community are forced to turn to criminal activity in order to get by. For example, more than half (54 percent) of respondents in a national survey of 6,500 transgender people have had some kind of contact with police. And 46 percent of those respondents indicated feeling uncomfortable seeking help from police.
Programs like Secure Communities and other immigration enforcement policies threaten this already frail relationship between undocumented LGBTQ people, immigration authorities and law enforcement. That is why organizations like ours—Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (Familia: TQLM) and Southerners on New Ground (SONG)—have been on the front lines of these fights.
It is time to move beyond a binary conversation of “criminal vs. non-criminal” immigrants, and recognize that the survival decisions put in front of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants only range from bad to worse. From driving without a license, to using aliases to secure employment, to taking on high-risk jobs that often leave us sick, injured or disabled — these decisions have forced many of us into corners that criminalize our existence and deem us unworthy of redemption.
Polis and others have failed to see this connection. But the Obama administration has an opportunity, through this executive order, to avoid protecting some undocumented immigrants at the expense of others. To be clear, a fair and just executive order ensures that no undocumented person is marginalized, punished or deported because of survival decisions they’ve been forced to make.
Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and Southerners on New Ground are working to ensure that those who are most affected by new policy are at the helm of the conversation—that we are here to voice the realities that remain unspoken.
We are in a position to move the needle forward against the criminalization of our communities, and administrative relief can be a modest step forward. As movement and progressive organizations in a position to advocate and weigh in on this issue, we need to ensure that those most affected and criminalized have an opportunity to advocate for ourselves and we must.
As President Obama embraces the social, political and cultural equality of LGBTQ people here and abroad, we urge him to do right by all LGBTQ undocumented people in the United States and provide real safety and security for all of our families.
Jorge Gutierrez is national coordinator for Trans Queer Liberation Movement and a queer undocumented immigrant activist from Nayarit, Mexico. He grew up in Orange County and graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a bachelor’s in English.