Undocumented LGBTs face double hardship, hostile legal system

Julian* was 10 years-old when his parents left the corruption and poverty of their native country in Southeast Asia for the hope of a better life in the United States.

He graduated college and went off to build a promising career in the competitive information technology field. Meanwhile, he came of age and out of the closet as a gay man to his friends and family and enjoys their love and acceptance. Today, he works and lives in Chicago with the hope of one day becoming a citizen, but because he’s gay, he’ll face greater difficulty until federal law changes.

Julian’s life feels almost complete, he says, except he doesn’t have a way of becoming a legal resident, much less an American citizen, under the country’s current immigration law.

His sister Sophia married her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, and eventually received a Green Card. She then sponsored their parents, who have lived in the Chicago area for more than 20 years. But that is not an option for Julian. Even if he enters a civil union with a male partner in Illinois, it will not prevent a possible deportation. Although a U.S. citizen could help a spouse become naturalized, federal law only recognizes legal unions between men and women.

After more than two decades of working for and earning his American Dream, he’s afraid of waking up to a very different reality: having to move to a country he vaguely remembers and where he doesn’t intimately know anyone.

“It’s unfortunate, but there’s not much I can do unless there’s a change in the legislation,” he said.

President Obama’s recent executive order to give undocumented youth a path to work visas does not apply to Julian because he’s 32 (the age limit for the new policy is 30). He is one of and estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

As long as the combination of the Defense of Marriage Act and a lack of a national DREAM Act exists, Julian and thousands of other LGBT undocumented immigrants have little to expect.

The DREAM Act, which has been stalled in Congress for years, would give young immigrants a path to citizenship if they have no criminal records and complete at least two years of higher education or military service, while DOMA, enacted in 1996, bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states where they’re legalized.

“The good news is there are numerous legal challenges pending in federal courts around the country challenging the constitutionality of DOMA,” Michael Jarecki, a U.S. immigration and nationality attorney, said last week at a workshop to train advocates on LGBT immigration issues. “A positive decision in a DOMA challenge will likely undo the harm that the law imposes in the immigration context.”

About 36,000 same-sex binational couples lived in the United States in 2000 — 1,800 in Illinois alone, according to the Census Bureau, and that number has likely grown over the last 12 years.

In addition to the current immigration law, Julian’s story has another layer of difficulty because he was granted a social security number and a Illinois ID as a teenager that allow him to work and live a relatively normal life. But under the eyes of the immigration system, he’s broken a few laws.

After 10 years of working for several companies in downtown Chicago, Julian is still cautions when dealing with employers.

For example, when the opportunity to travel abroad to represent his company arouse, he had to decline citing “travel restrictions issues.”

Luckily, his employer didn’t question Julian further.

Immigration reform advocates say people like Julian fall through the cracks of a broken system in desperate need of reform. Other more conservative voices view them as lawbreakers and insist they should be deported to their country of origin.

Federal government data found about 490,000 undocumented immigrants living in Illinois in 2010. Some eventually become lawful permanent residents through marriage or other family bonds, the most common way immigrants obtain legal status.

Since immigration law can be a tricky territory for the average person, some gay and transgender immigrants are not immediately aware they are eligible for some kind of right to remain in the U.S., LGBT immigration advocates say. And once they reach certain legal thresholds, it becomes almost impossible to obtain such rights, such as asylum.

“The spirit of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 is family unification,” Jarecki said. “But LGBT families do not qualify under DOMA.”

Despite all of this, Julian still looks forward to the day the nation he calls home recognizes him as a legitimate citizen.

“One day,” he said.

*Julian is a fictional name to protect his anonymity.