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Protecting undocumented immigrants and Dreamers is a queer rights issue

by Aaron C. Morris, Executive Director


Originally published in Openly on September 22, 2023.

In 2012, an undocumented immigrant from Indonesia named Rio Djiwandana began his studies at Georgetown University. During his first semester, he enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Then President Barack Obama had just launched DACA, which temporarily prevented the deportation of immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. These young people are also known as ‘Dreamers’.

During his second semester, Djiwandana came out as gay.

On the face of it, these two events in Djiwandana’s life may seem unrelated. But as an attorney who has spent almost all of my career representing LGBTQ+ immigrants, I know that the intersection of immigration status, sexual orientation, and gender identity matters a great deal.

At the same time Djiwandana was in college, I represented a young man from Indonesia in his asylum claim. He had been beaten so severely for being gay that he now lives with a permanent disability.

For both of these men, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented LGBTQ+ people, securing permanent immigration status is a queer rights issue.

Most LGBTQ+ DACA recipients have expressed concern for their physical safety if they get deported. The majority were born in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These are countries where they may face unconscionable abuse, including forced conversion therapy, sexual assault, and brutal violence because they are queer.

Most LGBTQ+ DACA recipients also fear similarly heinous abuse for their family members. And while asylum may be an option for some, it is expensive, uncertain, and can take years to achieve. Dreamers and other undocumented individuals need another solution.

Without one, the end of DACA could trigger human rights violations against queer Dreamers that are astonishingly broad in scope. If we consider the narrowest definition of Dreamers (DACA recipients and DACA-eligible individuals), this group includes more than 80,000 LGBTQ+ people.

If we look at the actual number of Dreamers (all individuals who were brought to the U.S. as minors, only some of whom are DACA eligible), we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ people. Even more when we consider their families. As such, protecting and empowering Dreamers is central to the fight for queer rights in the United States.  

Last week, a federal judge ruled that DACA is illegal. And even as he acknowledged the nationally significant contributions of young immigrants with DACA, his decision is a blow to their stability, and their ability to continue to contribute to the success of the United States.

The ruling is a glaring reminder that the program was never a permanent fix for Dreamers. Issued under executive authority, it was prone to legal challenges, and has now been batted around in the courts for years. Dreamers, their families, and other undocumented people need and deserve a lasting, comprehensive solution.

The judge stayed most of his decision pending appeal. For now, not much has changed for people with DACA. But an appeal is coming.

Congress and President Joe Biden must pass a lasting solution for Dreamers and other undocumented people. It is not only the right thing to do, it also happens to be wildly politically popular. A strong bipartisan majority of the nation supports a pathway to citizenship for these young people.

Congress must also pass a clean bill. Any legislation that helps Dreamers but blocks refugees and asylum seekers from accessing protection in the U.S. will cost queer lives.

For hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ Dreamers, the U.S. is home. It’s where they grew up, came out, went to school, got jobs, and started families. Uprooting them now will not only devastate communities across the country, it will put queer Dreamers in grave danger.

These young immigrants were brought to the U.S. for a better life, and in the process, they made the country a better place for all of us. Dreamers and other undocumented people deserve nothing less than permanent protection, and they are counting on us to make that dream a reality.