Petitioning to come to the United States as a foreign national is complicated. There’s visa paperwork, quotas in many cases, and lengthy wait times. One misstep could mean a lengthy separation from your loved ones.
And that’s just for straight people.
As pro-reform interest groups prepare to fight for their specific priorities in pending immigration reform legislation, LGBT activists aren’t standing on the sidelines.
“There is a shared struggle among the immigrant and the LGBT communities,” said Steve Ralls of Immigration Equality, an organization that offers legal aid to LGBT immigrants. “There is a growing recognition that if we can get fair immigration reform through Congress we can work on a lot of issues together moving forward.”
Gay rights activists say there are several fronts in the immigration fight – from specific provisions for gay Americans and permanent residents seeking to bring a non-citizen partner to the country, to protections for undocumented LGBT individuals, to a broader call for equal rights.
“We’re investing in immigration reform because it is a social justice issue and we have a responsibility to advocate for the kind of world we want to live in,” said Maya Rupert, policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “But beyond that, there are LGBT people who are going to be directly impacted by every provision in the ultimate legislation, so we have to make sure that it’s being done in a way that is inclusive and conscious of their needs.”
That means both legal and undocumented immigrants, Rupert said.
The number of LGBT immigrants is difficult to count, but researcher Dr. Gary Gates of UCLA’s Williams Institute used existing Census, Gallup and Pew Research Center data to calculate it. Gates estimates that about 900,000 LGBT immigrants live in the United States. About two-thirds of those are documented – meaning that they are naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents or holders of a temporary visa. One-third – about 267,000 – are undocumented according to the estimate.
For documented LGBT immigrants, a key provision that activists have focused on is the inclusion of legislation called the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) in a final comprehensive reform bill.
Currently, a U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident can petition for a visa for a foreign-born spouse – but only if the spouse is of the opposite sex. That applies even if the same-sex couple is legally married in another country or in a U.S. state that recognizes gay marriage.
UAFA would make same-sex spouses or permanent partners of U.S. citizens eligible to petition for a family-based visa.
(If the Supreme Court finds the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional this summer, same-sex binational married couples will likely be able to apply for visas based on their relationship, regardless of where they reside.)
Activists point to an ally in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, an original Senate sponsor of the UAFA legislation and the head of the panel that will first review a draft immigration bill. The White House also specifically included the provision for same-sex immigrant permanent partners in a January fact sheet outlining the president’s priorities for reform.