Covering LGBTQ Immigration Issues


Immigration issues are sure to appear prominently but the intersections with LGBTQ issues are often ignored.

According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, there are an estimated 267,000 undocumented people who identify as LGBTQ. Yet, stories about LGBTQ immigrants are often not included in general coverage about immigration. Additionally, many U.S. born LGBTQ people have documented and undocumented family members, partners, or friends and are therefore impacted by the decisions made regarding immigration policy. 

Many leaders in the immigrant movement are also LGBTQ advocates. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American, is well-known as both a gay man and an undocumented man. In his film Documented, Vargas shares that, although he came to the U.S. as a young boy, he did not qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA to defer deportation for young people who meet certain age, residency, education, and criminal history criteria.

DACA, instituted in 2012, only applies to young people who arrived in the U.S. after June 15, 2007 and were under 31 years old as of 6/15/12 amongst other requirements. DACA authorizes those under this order to work, study, and live in the country without fear of deportation. DACA does not provide permanent immigration status and requires an annual renewal process with fees and other requirements.  DACA does not afford recipients in-state tuition, access to health care or any other benefit.

In 2014 the Administration worked to expand DACA and a program for the parents of DACA recipients called DAPA. LGBTQ immigration advocates and many LGBTQ groups working on immigration issues were hopeful that these expansions would help millions be able to work and live without fear of deportation, but the expansion is in litigation. Most recently a Federal Appeals Court upheld an injunction against the program with the case not likely to be heard before the 2016 election.

Some LGBTQ undocumented people in same-sex relationships were able to marry their citizen partners and regularize their status through that path, although, in some cases, it meant having to leave their partners for quite some time and apply for citizenship from their country of origin. However, LGBTQ undocumented people who are single or those in a relationship with a non-citizen partner, continue to share the precarious conditions of non-LGBTQ undocumented people in the country along with discrimination they face for being LGBTQ.

Many LGBTQ immigration advocates have worked hard to spotlight the precarious situation of transgender women in detention. Many transgender people are forced to leave their countries of origin to escape violence and or social ostracism. Within detention, however, they often face perilous situations. According to the Center for American Progress 1) transgender women are disproportionately detained in immigration centers, 2) are often housed with men, 3) are disproportionately victims of sexual assault and harassment, 3) are not provided life-saving medication, 4) are often put in solitary confinement and are less likely to win their asylum cases if they are detained.

Spotlight: Covering LGBTQ immigrants: Sample stories

During the upcoming election and as a result of continued pressure by activists, immigration policies are being discussed in media both in English and Spanish-speaking outlets.This tip sheet is intended as a tool for media outlets wishing to cover the topic in an inclusive way. There are an estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBTQ immigrants in the United States and estimated 11 million undocumented people in the country as a whole. The undocumented population in the United States is diverse and the policies that impact their lives also impact all people living in the United States.

Despite recent legal gains, LGBTQ people are still not protected in the areas of employment, housing, health care access, education, and public accommodations. For those LGBTQ people with non-citizen status, these concerns are often exacerbated.

Employment: In most states, federal employment policies prohibit workers who do not have documentation from working. Most state labor codes do not extend wage and safety protections to undocumented workers and, if they do, many undocumented workers do not  know about resources available and rightly fear retaliation. This is a reality that many LGBTQ people face, in addition to the discrimination they face due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.        

Sample StorySulma Franco is an undocumented Guatemalan lesbian who was given sanctuary in an Austin church because she feared being deported to her native country where she had faced abuse. She was in the process of applying for a U-Visa, a designation that would allow her to live and work in the U.S. with authorization granted to survivors of violence, but due to an error by her attorney, she was denied, detained, and put under a deportation order. Franco had obtained a food truck license with her partner, but as a result of the deportation order, she could not return to her business.

HousingThe Fair Housing Act does not explicitly protect people who face discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity, although the federal office has a policy of applying LGBTQ-inclusive protections and some states have passed anti-discrimination legislation. Unfortunately, the lack of explicit protections makes it possible that someone may be denied housing simply for being who they are. Although the Fair Housing Act does prohibit discrimination based on national origin, several jurisdictions have passed, or attempted to pass laws that penalize landlords who rent units to undocumented people which can lead to profiling people who seek to rent units. Undocumented LGBTQ people face both the reality of housing discrimination because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, as well as discrimination because of immigration status. 

Health Care Access: A UCLA Labor Center study found that more than half of the 550 immigrant youth interviewed failed to get needed healthcare in 2013. 96% of the youth cited lack of access to health insurance and the cost of care as the reasons for their lack of care. If youth are also LGBTQ, added disparities in healthcare access due to stigma and discrimination increase their chances of not receiving adequate care.

Education: As of this writing, there are 20 states that allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition either because the states passed laws in their legislatures or because their public university systems passed regulations to allow this. The difference can be staggering for students, including those who are LGBTQ, who do not qualify or live in the other states -- the difference between paying $84 per credit to $325 per credit, for example. If they are not able to pay in-state tuition, some students cannot afford to continue their studies. Arizona lost a battle to deny in-state tuition to DACA recipients in May 2015

Driving: Some states allow DACA recipients to get a driver's license but others do not. In Oregon, for example, a video was made to alert voters to the Safe Roads for Oregon measure to point out the challenges that people in Oregon face because they didn't have access to a driver's license, whether because they were undocumented, transgender, or both. In the end, the measure didn't pass and so, as people say in the video, they take risks daily when going to and from work, school, or just when running errands because the state denies them the ability to do this without risk of deportation and the safeguard of insurance. Many LGBTQ advocates, in Oregon and elsewhere, have worked to call attention to the importance of having access to a driver's license.

Detention: Advocates point to several concerns regarding LGBTQ immigrant people in detention:

  1. that they are not provided access to health care,
  2. that those who are HIV+ are not always given their medication and privacy,
  3. that protocols are not followed to prevent instances of prison rape,
  4. that transgender prisoners often do not have access to life-saving medication and that
  5. transgender people are often  misgendered during detention and placed with the wrong populations.

Detainees who are LGBTQ are exposed to increased discrimination due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Many immigration detention centers are run by a private corporation and detainees are not guaranteed representation. In that private immigration detention system, there continue to be reports of abuses, particularly by transgender detainees. The federal government's guidance that prioritized only those who were convicted of crimes for immigration detention is not being consistently followed, according to some reports..

According to a Fusion investigation, on any given night 75 transgender immigrants find themselves in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention -- 90% are transgender women and 10% are transgender men.

Terms to avoid:

Incorrect: Illegal

Preferred: Undocumented

GLAAD is part of the Drop the I-Word coalition of organizations and individuals urging media not to refer to individuals as "illegal immigrants," or as "illegals." Just like "homosexual," the term "illegal immigrant" has clearly been used by some, for political gains, in order to demonize and scapegoat immigrants. The word carries a negative connotation that many immigration advocates find deeply dehumanizing.

The term is also imprecise because it doesn’t adequately describe the various kinds of systemic circumstances in which undocumented individuals find themselves. For example, some people entered the United States with a visa that later expired. Others arrived without any documents. Some were brought to this country by parents and had little choice in deciding their immigration status.

Advocates also argue that it’s inaccurate because, while the act of entering the country without inspection is a federal misdemeanor, the status of being present in the United States without a visa is not an ongoing criminal violation. ‘Illegal immigrant’ therefore implies that a person’s existence is criminal.

The Associated Press, the Washington Post and other media organizations have agreed not to use defamatory terms to discuss undocumented people. The New York Times, after much internal discussion, did not ban its use but asked reporters and editors to consider alternatives.

Pitfalls to avoid

The Center for American Progress has published reports that can be used to debunk common myths and misreporting related to immigration.

  1. Immigrants, both documented and not, come from a variety of countries. There are no official counts of the undocumented population but there are trusted estimates that puts the number at 11 million
  2. Some LGBTQI people may be fleeing persecution in their native country and therefore should receive asylum. At the same time, in those countries, there may be LGBTQI groups fighting for rights and recognition. It's important to not discount the efforts and achievements of the latter when writing about the former.
  3. Though a country may have passed legislation that is favorable to LGB people, this does not impact the conditions for transgender people in that country and should not be conflated.
  4. Sometimes undocumented people may choose to have their identity protected in media because they have immigration cases pending that might be affected by what is reported about them.

Quick terms

DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order issued in 2012 allows for stay of deportation, but does not provide permanent status.

DAPA: Deferred Action for Parents of DACA recipients, an executive order issued in 2014 allows for a stay of deportation for parents of DACA recipients, but does not provide permanent status. The executive order is currently stayed and in litigation.

Resources for journalists:


Return to