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The Lives of Queer Dreamers Hang in the Balance

A clean Dream Act will save and protect LGBT lives

With Congress and Trump playing politics, LGBT immigrants brought here as children face terrifying futures.

Last week, 127 LGBT organizations and allied groups, including ours, demanded that Congress pass a clean Dream Act before the end of this year. The lives and livelihoods of an estimated 800,000 people, including over 36,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, depend on Congress acting now.

One of the 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries fighting for a clean Dream Act is 23-year-old Sheridan Aguirre of United We Dream. Aguirre was just a year old when his mother brought him to the U.S. from his birthplace in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.

While in high school, Aguirre said, he struggled with depression -- knowing that after he turned 18 he would be criminalized if he chose to continue living in the country he thought of as home. However, in June 2012, a day after Aguirre's 18th birthday, DACA was announced -- and his life changed forever. He could work, buy a car, rent an apartment, pay his college expenses, get a credit card, and support his family.

But most of all, he felt that he could finally be himself. He could come out as queer because DACA provided him with a lifeline: He knew that if he were rejected or kicked out by his parents, he would be OK. Thankfully, when Aguirre came out, his parents responded with love and acceptance, but for many of his friends, who became homeless after coming out as LGBTQ, DACA was vital to their survival.

More than 45 local LGBT community centers from 21 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the letter to Congress because Dreamers are an integral part of our communities. In a recent survey of DACA recipients, 10 percent of respondents identified as being LGBT. Over half were brought to the U.S. before kindergarten and have built successful lives here with the opportunities DACA provided.

Before DACA, only 56 percent of LGBT survey respondents were employed, and they were making an average of less than $10 an hour. After DACA, 95 percent reported being employed and hourly wages rose an average of 74 percent. Additionally, 63 percent now have jobs with health insurance or other benefits, while 78 percent of LGBT DACA recipients surveyed who are in school are pursuing a bachelor's degree or higher.

LGBT people, particularly LGBT people of color, face disproportionately high rates of poverty. It's important to preserve and expand policies like DACA that help address these disparities in our community.

But for LGBT immigrants, losing DACA doesn't only mean losing their ability to work and thrive in the U.S., it also means they are at risk of being detained and deported to countries where their lives are at risk. In one-third of the countries around the world, it's a crime to be LGBT. Even in countries where it's not explicitly criminalized, thousands of LGBT people are arbitrarily arrested, harassed, tortured, and even killed just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Deporting thousands of LGBT young people who have been able to live openly in the U.S. to countries where their lives are in danger is unconscionable.

Not only is passing the Dream Act the right thing to do, Americans from both parties want Congress to act. Despite ongoing Trump administration efforts to scapegoat and stigmatize unauthorized immigrants, a recent poll shows 86 percent of Americans support letting Dreamers stay in the U.S., including 75 percent of Republicans.

We joined our friends and allies as part of the National Day of Mobilization last week because Dreamers can't wait any longer. Every day of inaction means that 122 young people are losing their protections and their way of living. If Congress does not act immediately, 22,000 DACA beneficiaries, including thousands of LGBTQ people, who did not successfully apply to renew their DACA will be subject to detention and deportation. Terminating DACA could pull the rug out from under thousands of queer undocumented youth.

By choosing to pass a clean Dream Act, we are saying yes to permanent protection and a pathway to citizenship, and no to putting a target on the backs of hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants. With so much at stake for our country and our community, we can no longer afford to wait.

KATE KENDELL is the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. MARA KEISLING is the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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Kate Kendell and Mara Keisling