One of the most pressing causes in the gay rights movement is crossing over into the immigration debate, where activists are pushing for equal treatment of same sex couples in a comprehensive reform bill.
A report released Friday by the Williams Institute at UCLA calculated that out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be America today, 267,000 adults identify as LGBT. Another 637,000 LGBT adults were legal immigrants. Gary Gates, a scholar at the Williams Institute, said that the number was a conservative estimate based on cross-referencing survey data on undocumented immigrants, sexual orientation, along with data on married same sex couples. Gates’ remarks came at an event in Washington, D.C., debuting the finding that was hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress.
There are some issues gay and immigrant rights groups are looking to address that concern specifically LGBT immigrants, for example greater sensitivity towards gay and transgendered detainees taken into custody by ICE. But the dominant issue affects U.S. citizens and immigrants alike: the ability to sponsor one’s partner or spouse for a visa.
The Defense of Marriage Act, now under review by the Supreme Court, bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples. That means that the usual laws allowing citizens to bring foreign-born husbands or wives to America under a family visa don’t apply. The result is often that couples are forced into effective exile: the popular progressive blogger Glenn Greenwald, for example, lives in Brazil with his partner because only Brazilian law recognizes their relationship and grants Greenwald permanent residency.
According to the Williams Institute, the nation is home to an estimated 32,300 same-sex binational couples in which one spouse is an American and the other a non-citizen. According to Gates, more than half have children, meaning entire families face the prospect of being split apart if a foreign partner or spouse can’t find an alternative visa through work, school, or other family relationships — a process that can take years in the best of circumstances.
Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and activist who revealed in 2011 that he himself was an undocumented immigrant, said at CAP’s event on Friday that his grandfather was upset when he came out as gay in part because it closed off one possible avenue to citizenship.
“I ruined the plan,” he said. “The plan was to come to America, marry a woman, and get my papers that way.”
Immigration activists and gay rights groups want Congress to lay the groundwork for a post-DOMA world in the new comprehensive immigration bill by granting same-sex couples the same visa rights as any other couple. In addition to CAP, immigrant rights group United We Dream is running a specific campaign on behalf of the LGBT community.
“Undocuqueer leaders across the country are calling for a pathway for citizenship that doesn’t leave anyone behind,” Jorge Gutierrez, the UWD project’s coordinator, said in a statement. “We will not choose one issue over the other. Protecting the unity of our immigrant families and dignity of our LGBTQ communities is at the center of our organizing and advocacy efforts.”
President Obama is on board: His own proposal “treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner,” per a White House summary.
Whether it can get past Congress is another story. The bipartisan Senate group working on a bill has not committed to including protections for same-sex couples and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has derided the debate as a distraction.
“Which is more important: LGBT or border security?” McCain said at a Politico event in January. “I’ll tell you what my priorities are. If you’re going to load it up with social issues, that is the best way to derail it, in my view.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.