LGBT Community Sees Progress in Immigration Reform Despite Setbacks

The gay and transgender community is still an ally of immigration reform despite being dealt a heavy blow.

(From left) Shirley Tan, Jay Mercado, and their twin sons Jashley Mercado, and Jorien Mercado, of Pacifica, Calif., walk to Capitol Hill April 24, 2013, to lobby Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. Shirley is undocumented and Jay in an American citizen. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)
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When Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shelved an amendment that would give same-sex, binational couples the ability to sponsor their partners for green cards, it looked as though the fight for immigration reform would be missing a key ally - the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

[READ: Amendment for Gay Couples Threatens Life of Immigration Bill]

Luckily for Democrats in the Senate's "gang of eight" like Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that is not the reality.

"The Uniting American Families Act was something that we worked hard on. We think that it deserves a floor vote. We have encouraged them," says Crosby Burns, a policy analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. "But if you look at the forest behind the trees, even without UAFA, this bill has a lot of things in it that benefit the LGBT community."

The LGBT community did feel "abandoned" by some of their Democratic allies in the Senate when the amendment was rejected, but say the fight for immigration reform goes beyond a gay marriage crusade. They say other provisions in the bill are essential to advancing the cause of gay immigrants who are counting on comprehensive reform.

While it may be missing a provision to keep same-sex couples together, the Senate bill would provide a 13-year earned path to citizenship for more than 260,000 estimated LGBT immigrants who came to the country illegally, as well as give gay and transgender children who came to the country with their families a chance at a more expedient path to citizenship.

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Another key benefit of the legislation for gay immigrants is the elimination of a one-year filing deadline for those wishing to seek asylum. Under the current immigration system, an individual must be in the United States and then apply for asylum within a year. That law, experts say, disproportionately affects gay immigrants. They say that many immigrants miss the deadline because they are unaware that they can seek asylum if they have reason to believe they would be persecuted for their sexual orientation in their home country.

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, being gay is still a crime in nearly 80 countries around the world.

Another barrier is that many immigrants are scared to publicly expose their sexuality, especially those who continue to live in communities within the U.S. that may be more conservative. Many also fear retribution in their native country if they are not granted asylum and are sent home.

"It is not a natural inclination to declare to the government that you are gay or transgender," says Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Immigration Equality, a group that offers legal assistance to LGBT immigrants. "When immigrants do decide to apply, sometimes the one-year deadline has passed, and it is really difficult to overcome. This bill would change that."

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The Senate immigration bill would also protect LGBT individuals from automatically being placed in solitary confinement as they face deportation. Under current practice, immigrants in custody are often placed in solitary confinement if they are gay or transgender out of fear of being targeted for their sexual orientation. But experts say that has had a negative effect on the community.

"It's like they are being punished for being gay," Burns says.

An amendment that was added to the bill by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., limits when gay and transgender immigrants can be put in solitary confinement. Experts say the fact that this legislation passed out of committee shows progress.

"This is a bill that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted out of committee and it includes specific protections for LGBT immigrants," says Burns. "It would only be the third time that gender identity would be included in the federal code. It is pretty remarkable."