Op-ed: One Thing President Obama Can Do Now to Help LGBT Undocumented People

America's immigration system is broken, and many LGBT people are affected by that.

BY Ana Ma and Matthew McClellan

September 05 2014 4:15 AM ET

Two of the most pressing civil rights issues facing our nation today are fixing our broken immigration system and achieving equality for the LGBT community. And those who live at the intersection of this battle, who just happen to be members of the undocumented LGBT population, are among the most vulnerable individuals in our country.

In more than one third of countries around the world, it is a crime to be LGBT. Thousands of people every year are arrested, harassed, and even murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many LGBT immigrants have fled to the United States to escape this persecution, and sending them back to their countries of origin would gravely threaten their health and safety.

Once in the United States, undocumented immigrants are forced to hide in the shadows for fear that they will be detained or deported. For LGBT immigrants who have had to hide who they are throughout their lives, this isolation is especially acute. While only Congress can implement comprehensive, lasting immigration reforms, the president has the power to mitigate some of their suffering.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has provided much needed relief to hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth since it was enacted in 2012. DACA allows these young people to come out of the shadows and live fully within their communities, and it allows the Obama administration to instead focus its resources on those who have been convicted of violent crimes and pose a threat to their communities. The president should expand deferred action to include a broader range of people, including those who may face additional hardships if returned to their country of origin. Furthermore, the president needs to act quickly.

Affirmative relief will reduce the number of people that could be detained, but the administration must also improve the deplorable conditions for those who are still subject to detention. LGBT immigrants also experience particularly abysmal conditions in detention. LGBT detainees are routinely and inappropriately placed in solitary confinement “for their own protection.” They suffer staggering levels of abuse and harassment, and they are often denied access to appropriate medical care. Therefore, proper safeguards must be in place to ensure equal treatment and physical safety while in detention. If LGBT immigrants cannot be detained safely, alternatives to detention must be an option.

While the president can — and must — act to mitigate these problems, he can only provide temporary relief from a much larger, systematic problem. Only Congress can truly reform our broken immigration system. It has been more than a year since the Senate passed bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform, and since then, the House of Representatives has refused to consider the legislation. The country cannot wait indefinitely for the House to act. Until Congress does its job, President Obama must step in to provide whatever relief he can so that we are not subjecting a segment of the undocumented community to suffer even more acutely.

ANA MA is the chief operating officer and chief of staff of the Human Rights Campaign.
MATTHEW McCLELLAN is the executive director of the National Council of La Raza Action Fund.

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