How can an undocumented immigrant survive living in the United States for more than 20 years without a work permit?
If you ask Rayita, he will say that it has not been easy. He has been in the United States for the past 21 years, and at various times he has worked in factories, cleaned apartments, and sold cosmetics to hair salons. He has sold empanadas on the street and ice cream at the beach. He has been a telephone company telemarketer, and a busboy and waiter at a number of restaurants. He has been on the catering staff of big-money events but says that as he has gotten older the phone has stopped ringing because event organizers want younger guys. His dream is to find a stable, better-paying job, but he knows it is impossible without a work permit. Yet he has never regretted having come to the United States.
The reason: Rayita is gay and, as limited as his opportunities have been in the United States, he claims there would have been absolutely no opportunities if he had stayed home in Colombia.
"I did get jobs at gay bars," he says, "but if you wanted to work for certain kinds of businesses or corporations -- I wasn't even able to apply due to my lifestyle. And the way I am, people felt too ashamed of me to offer me a job."
In the summer of 1993, at the age of 23, Rayita took advantage of a 90-day tourist visa to the United States and never returned to Colombia.
Rayita's story is not unique. In September 2014 the Pew Research Center released a study saying that even though the number of undocumented immigrants in the country had stalled at 11.3 million people, the median length of their residence in the United States had increased to almost 13 years.
In November, after Republicans regained control of the Senate and added to their House majority, President Barack Obama abandoned any pretense of the passage of a Democrat-led immigration bill and announced a number of executive orders meant to protect many of those immigrants from being deported, despite previously indicating he had no such authority.
He expanded the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants protection to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before their 16th birthday and were under age 31 as of June 2012.
He also announced that undocumented parents of U.S. residents or citizens would be protected from deportation as long as they had been in the country for at least five years.
The White House estimates that at least 5 million undocumented immigrants will be covered by those actions, but it is unclear whether the executive orders will go that far. Republicans are trying to find ways to prevent the executive orders from being effective. The hefty fees undocumented immigrants would have to pay to qualify might also be a deterrent.
What does that mean for LGBT undocumented immigrants?
In 2013, the Wlliams Institute estimated that in the United States there were 267,000 undocumented adult LGBT immigrants -- about 2.4% of the entire adult undocumented immigrant population.
Although most of the LGBT undocumented population tends to be younger compared with other immigrants, it is unclear how many would qualify for Obama's executive orders under DACA. Many undocumented LGBT immigrants have also come to the United States alone and have no naturalized family members who can sponsor them for immigration. This leaves many with few -- if any -- options to legalize their status.
Immigrants who can prove fear of persecution or death based on their sexual orientation can seek political asylum, but there is a one-year window for an immigrant to apply after entering the U.S.
In Rayita's case, he is very aware of the options available to him. He recalls being the subject of ridicule and abuse when he was growing up.
"On many occasions I [was] verbally attacked in the streets, at school, and in my neighborhood," he says. "They would throw stones at me and call me 'fag,' 'pigeon,' 'little flower,' 'butterfly,' [all derogatory terms for gays in Colombia], things like that, and from then on I was living in an environment where I would not even go out to do my errands."
Although he now realizes he might have been able to apply for political asylum, by the time he found out he had been living in the country for more than three years. The window had already closed.
More recently, a number of undocumented immigrants can now be sponsored for immigration through marriage to a naturalized same-sex partner in states that allow same-sex marriages.
Rayita, currently single, says that this is not an option for him. He says that in all the years he has been living in the United States, he could have easily found a female friend who would have married him and sponsored him for a resident visa. But he never did it because he didn't want to enter into a fraudulent marriage. Now that a person can be sponsored by a same-sex spouse for immigration purposes, he says, he won't marry someone he doesn't love just to get his papers.
He has never regretted the decision to stay in the United States, and for most of the 21 years he has been here, he has not felt the need to go back. However, he would return to see his mother, whom he supports financially from afar. She has had two heart attacks in recent years, but leaving the country would mean not being able to return and, consequently, not being able to support his mother.
Rayita has heard promises about immigration reform from three different presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- and each time he has gotten his hopes up, they have been dashed.
He says that living as an undocumented immigrant has taught him to be independent and take on life with audacity and tenacity. He sees these failed promises as setbacks. But he remains hopeful that whether it happens in this administration or the next, he will eventually find a legal way to become a U.S. citizen.