They consider themselves doubly marginalized — a vulnerable subset of an already maligned population.
Of the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally, more than 267,000 are LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — according to a 2013 report by the Williams Institute, a gender identity and sexual orientation think tank at UCLA. Many suffered persecution in their home countries because of their sexual identity and allege humiliation and mistreatment at U.S. immigration detention centers.
For years, many did not openly press their concerns, fearing that might derail comprehensive immigration reform that could benefit millions. But with such legislation dead in Congress, at least for now, and President Obama’s executive action to shield more immigrants from deportation stalled in the courts, that is changing.
Members of the LGBT community are increasingly at the forefront of the immigrant-rights movement, infusing it with a more in-your-face brand of activism.
The latest instance came June 24 when Jennicet Gutiérrez, a Los Angeles transgender woman who is in the country illegally, interrupted Obama as he delivered a speech at a White House LGBT reception.
“President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention,” she called out to the president. Moments later Gutiérrez, a founding member of FAMILIA TransQueer Liberation Movement, a Los Angeles-based immigrant rights organization, was escorted out of the room.
In May, about 50 LGBT people descended on Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C., demanding the release of transgender immigrant detainees.
The next day, five activists wrapped themselves in chains and refused to move from the middle of a major thoroughfare in Santa Ana, demanding for the release of immigrants detained at an LGBT-specific pod at the Santa Ana jail.
Immigrants without legal status and members of the LGBT community “both operate in closets and both experience greater empowerment from coming out of the closet and sharing their stories with the public, gaining support,” said Walter Nicholls, an associate professor of sociology at UC Irvine who researches social movements.
Earlier this year, Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a Guatemalan transgender woman who was in an all-male detention facility in Florence, Ariz., reported being groped by immigration enforcement staff and sexually assaulted by another detained immigrant for being a transgender woman.
In 2014, Marichuy Leal Gamino, a Mexican transgender woman, also reported being raped and put in solitary confinement at an immigration detention facility in Eloy, Ariz.
The Oakland Transgender Law Center helped organize #FreeNicoll and #FreeMarichuy — a campaign of rallies, acts of civil disobedience and letters to ICE officials that pressured immigration officials last year into releasing the two women.
Amid mounting pressure, ICE officials released new guidelines last week allowing transgender detainees to be housed in facilities that match their gender identity.
During a May campaign stop in Nevada, Hillary Rodham Clinton said transgender people should not be held by immigration officials at all because they are so vulnerable.
“I don’t think we should put children and vulnerable people into these detention facilities because I think they are at risk. Their physical and mental health are at risk,” Clinton said in response to a question about transgender asylum seekers.
In late June, 35 Democratic members of Congress joined the fray and sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, calling for the agency to stop the detention of LGBT immigrants.
“LGBT isn’t just a boutique issue,” said Isa Noyola, a program manager with the Transgender Law Center. “It’s now starting to be part of the mainstream.”
That wasn’t the case even five years ago, when Tania Unzueta started organizing around immigrant rights issues.
Unzueta and a group of young immigration activists decided to adopt the terminology and strategies of LGBT activists, orchestrating a “coming out” event where they publicly challenged the federal government to deport youths who were in the country illegally. It became known as the “National Coming Out of the Shadows Day.”
“To me, there was a very clear link at coming out as undocumented and coming out as queer,” said the 31-year-old from Chicago.
Still, Unzueta said she felt her “queerness was off message” and a possible distraction at a time when an immigration overhaul seemed plausible and immigrant rights activists were hoping for Republican support.
The movement’s political strategy, she said, was to push the notion of the “deserving immigrant” to win the hearts of more conservative congressional leaders.
“Undocumented youth are ‘good students, good workers’ and within that framework, a queer didn’t exist,” Unzueta said.
But in the last couple of years, several organizations have been created to address the needs of LGBT immigrants, and mainstream LGBT groups have increasingly taken up immigrant rights issues.
Earlier this year, Get Equal, a national LGBT rights group, joined the #NotOneMore campaign, which calls for a halt to all detentions and deportations.
Two years ago, the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank, hired Sharita Gruberg to head a new initiative that looked exclusively at the intersection of LGBT and immigrant issues.
“It’s taken time to get to this point. It hasn’t been easy to convince the immigrant community and LGBTQ community, and press that this particular constituency has very specific needs by having both identities,” she said.
Still, some leaders are proceeding cautiously. Unzueta said the LGBT community has to make the choice on how to frame the fight without alienating immigrants who may not identify with this particular group.
Another concern is that LGBT immigrants might be treated as a niche — with efforts on their behalf left to gay and transgender advocacy groups instead of mainstream immigrant rights groups.
Some LGBT leaders say their involvement in immigration issues became a priority only after numerous setbacks.
The LGBT community felt left out of Obama’s executive action, which would temporarily protect and give work permits to a large number of parents of U.S. citizens or longtime permanent residents.
They argued that it disproportionately excluded LGBT immigrants because it favored people with children or those in legally recognized relationships.
“The LGBT people were just put on the chopping block because we were told it was too hard to fight for them during the last executive action,” said Paulina Helm-Hernández, co-director of LGBT group Southerners on New Ground.
Those days are over, she said.
“They used to say never say undocumented or transgender because it will automatically polarize the conversation,” Helm-Hernández said. “But we’ve kept pushing the political line. We’re more aggressive and more tenacious.”