What Ending DACA Means for LGBTQ Dreamers

DACA has allowed thousands of LGBT immigrants improve their economic security and pursue higher education. They could lose protection under President Trump’s elimination of the program and risk being deported to countries where their lives are at risk.

A supporter of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals waves a flag during a rally at the White House in September 2017. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
A supporter of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals waves a flag during a rally at the White House in September 2017. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration will end protection from deportation for approximately 800,000 young immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This program provided temporary protection from deportation for Dreamers—the term popularly used to refer to people who would have been protected by the never-passed Dream Act. No new applications will be accepted and anyone whose protection under DACA expires on or before March 5, 2018, must have their renewal applications accepted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on or before October 5, 2017. Starting March 6, DACA recipients’ work permits and protections will expire at a rate of 1,400 people per business day.

Since the program was established in 2012, DACA recipients have been able to pursue higher education, participate more fully in the labor force, purchase homes and cars, and support their families. For DACA recipients who identify as LGBTQ, the program has perhaps meant even more. It has allowed them to openly be themselves, free from the daily fear of deportation. However, these opportunities, as well as the very lives of LGBTQ Dreamers, are now in jeopardy. The Trump administration’s rescission of DACA is the latest in a line of attacks against LGBTQ people and immigrants.

Characteristics of LGBT DACA recipients

One estimate from the Williams Institute suggests that around 36,000 LGBT people may be enrolled in the DACA program. While it is unknown exactly how many LGBTQ people benefit from DACA, new analysis* from an earlier survey by Tom K. Wong of the University of California, San Diego; United We Dream; the National Immigration Law Center; and the Center for American Progress sheds light on the impact DACA has had on the lives of young LGBTQ immigrants as well as the scale of devastation that rescinding DACA will inflict upon them. The survey was conducted from August 1, 2017 to August 20, 2017 and included 3,063 respondents in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Among the demographic items presented to respondents, a single item asked whether the individual identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Analysis of that question showed that 10 percent of respondents identified as LGBT. This proportion exceeds what has been reported among LGBT Millenials in the general population as well as the 4.4 percent population estimate of the number of undocumented young adults aged 18—29 who identify as LGBT. This is likely due to the sampling methods and suggests an increased willingness to disclose information about sexual orientation and gender identity among individuals who were also willing to disclose their immigration status to the government.The present analysis uses these data to learn more about the characteristics of LGBT DACA recipients and to understand the impact DACA has had on the economic security and education of LGBT Dreamers.

Like most Dreamers, most LGBT DACA recipients were brought to the United States at a very young age. Just more than half of LGBT DACA recipients were five years old or younger when their parents brought them to the United States. The average age of LGBT survey respondents today is 25 years old. More than half live in California, Texas, and Arizona and have a spouse, child, or sibling with U.S. citizenship.

Economic security and educational attainment among LGBT DACA recipients

LGBT people of color are more likely to live in poverty compared with their non-LGBT peers. DACA helped LGBT young people improve their economic security and meet their education goals. According to the survey, 76.4 percent of LGBT respondents reported that, with DACA, they have been able to earn more money and become financially independent. In addition, 94.5 percent of LGBT survey respondents are currently employed, compared with 55.8 percent who were employed before they received DACA. Not only were more LGBT people able to obtain employment with DACA, but they also obtained higher-paying jobs with benefits. Average hourly wages rose 73.7 percent, and 63.4 percent of LGBT respondents had jobs with health insurance or other benefits since receiving DACA. Among those currently in school, 92.8 percent said that with DACA they could pursue educational opportunities they previously could not, and 49.2 percent are currently enrolled in school with 77.6 percent pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher. Over one-third of respondents are already well-educated, as 36.2 percent of LGBT respondents reported that they currently hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

LGBTQ DACA recipients have spent their formative years in the United States, have formed deep ties in their communities, and are—for all intents and purposes—Americans.

DACA protects the lives of LGBTQ DACA recipients

Like many of the survey recipients, Marco Quiroga was brought to the United States by his parents when he was just 2 years old. In a press release from the True Colors Fund, Quiroga recently shared how DACA changed his life and the impact that rescinding DACA will have. Before receiving DACA, Quiroga struggled with the constant fear of deportation as well as with economic insecurity. After obtaining protection under DACA, he said he was able to “go from living as a queer youth of color experiencing homelessness to grow into a national movement leader for LGBTQ equity and racial justice causes.” He currently leads a fund to help recovery efforts for those affected by the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre.

For Quiroga and thousands of LGBTQ Dreamers in his situation, rescinding the program has, as he said, endangered the “ability to live with dignity and without fear of detention and deportation.” If Quiroga is forced to return to Peru, it is unlikely that he will be able to safely continue being a leader in the fight for LGBTQ equality. The U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report for Peru in 2016 noted that “LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] persons remained some of the most marginalized individuals in the country and frequently were targets of discrimination.” Ninety-five percent of LGBTI Peruvians reported to local nongovernmental organizations that they had experienced violence or discrimination because of their LGBTI status.

If LGBTQ DACA recipients lose their protected status, not only will they no longer be able to work and thrive in the United States, but they will also face deportation to countries they may not have set foot in since childhood and where their lives could be in danger. In much of the world, deportation is a death sentence for LGBTQ people. Same-sex sexual acts are criminalized in at least 72 countries; being gay is punishable by death in eight of those countries.

LGBTQ DACA recipients will be subject to persecution and unsafe detention

Persecution of LGBTQ people is not limited to countries that explicitly criminalize certain identities. For example, Mexico, the top country of origin for DACA recipients, does not criminalize LGBTQ people. In fact, its laws are relatively progressive. However, these laws are unfortunately not enforced consistently, so violence against LGBTQ people remains a major threat. Sixty percent of LGBT people surveyed by the Mexican government reported having known an LGBT person who was murdered within the three years of the survey. Asylum seekers from Mexico accounted for the second-highest number of asylum applications for people not in removal proceedings filed by Immigration Equality—the largest immigration service provider for LGBTQ immigrants. The next three most frequent countries of origin for DACA recipients—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—were also the most frequently occurring countries of origin among Immigration Equality’s clients who applied for asylum during removal proceedings.

This indicates that the countries from where most DACA recipients come are also among the most dangerous for LGBTQ people. While being granted asylum would confer permanent status for those whose lives may be in danger if they were deported, the legal requirement that asylum applications be filed within one year of arriving in the United States—outside of limited exceptions—means that many LGBTQ DACA recipients who have been in the United States for years may not be granted this protection.

DACA recipients are at even greater risk of deportation now than they were before the program was established in 2012. After the Trump administration announced its plan to rescind DACA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) posted frequently asked questions (FAQ) indicating that USCIS would not proactively turn over DACA recipients’ application information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless ICE could identify a national security or public safety threat or unless the individual met the criteria for the issuance of a notice to appear. A notice to appear would signal the initiation of removal proceedings or referral to ICE. However, DHS’s FAQ also notes that this policy could change at any time without notice.

Even without changing the policy, the category of DACA recipients whose information ICE could obtain may be very broad. Since President Donald Trump’s first day in office, the administration has shifted on who it considers an enforcement priority by expanding the definition of public safety threats to include practically anyone in the country without authorization—even those without a criminal record. If USCIS shares DACA recipients’ records with ICE, it will be easy for ICE to locate, detain, and deport people.

Before being deported, immigrants would likely spend time in a DHS detention facility. The horrific abuse that LGBTQ immigrants face in detention facilities is well-documented. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nonheterosexual people are more than twice as likely as the general population to be sexually assaulted while in confinement. From 2009 to 2013, 1 in 5 substantiated allegations of sexual assault in ICE detention facilities had a transgender victim. In addition to sexual assault, LGBTQ people in detention face verbal and physical abuse; prolonged solitary confinement; and the withholding of critical health care needs, such as hormone therapy or HIV medication.

Since President Trump took office, minimum protections for LGBTQ people in detention have been eroded. Furthermore, in its recent report to Congress, DHS stated that it expects the average length of detention time to double to 51.5 days based on its prediction that detention resources will be focused on people apprehended within the United States rather than recent arrivals at the U.S. border, whose cases take longer. This means that LGBTQ DACA recipients who are placed in deportation proceedings will be subject to worse conditions for even longer periods of time.

The Dream Act would provide Dreamers with a path to citizenship

Bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House to provide lasting protection from deportation for Dreamers. The bipartisan Dream Act, introduced in both chambers, would create a path to citizenship for Dreamers, resolving the fear and uncertainty that the Trump administration’s elimination of DACA has made a cruel reality.

Congress should pass the Dream Act in order to ensure that people who have lived in and contributed to communities across the United States for nearly their entire lives are not deported to places where their safety and lives are at risk.

Sharita Gruberg is the associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

*Author’s Note: Findings from the original survey data for LGBT DACA recipients is on file with Tom K. Wong.

Special thanks to Tom K. Wong, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, for his analysis of the survey responses from LGBT respondents.

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Sharita Gruberg

Former Vice President, LGBTQI+ Research and Communications Project