I've written about the problems of undocumented transgender immigrants living in the US before.

Transwomen Incarcerated

Trans legalities

Crossing Over - Documentary on transgender immigration

Transgender Heroes #4:  Ruby Corado

"I have never met a transgender detainee who hasn't experienced some kind of sexual harassment"


As you might notice, most of those actually concern the efforts of the federal government to remove transgender immigrants from this country.

Part of what has been lacking has been actual data about transgender immigrants.  So the National Center for Transgender Equality has striven to address that lack, releasing a new report last Friday, Our Moment for Reform:  Immigration and Transgender People.  To aid in the roll-out, BuzzFeed's Tony Merevick interviewed transgender immigrant and immigration advocate Johanna Vasquez.

According to estimates, in part from the Williams Institute at UCLA, immigration laws impact

--An estimated 15,000 to 50,000 undocumented transgender adults
--7,500 to 25,000 partners of undocumented transpeople…many of them US citizens
--9,000 to 30,000 children of undocumented transpeople…many of them US citizens
--Thousands more transgender DREAMers who arrived in the US as children and are still under 18.

Among a population that is highly marginalized, transgender immigrants are among the most vulnerable to discrimination and violence.  Our current immigration laws, together with the pervasive discrimination against transgender people, force transgender immigrants to live in dual shadows.  Our current system results results in trans people experiencing stark rates of employment insecurity, poverty, and health risk and inequity.
Often transgender immigrants have made the journey to this country to escape severe, life-threatening persecution on account of their gender status in their country of birth.  Because of that gender status, they often were forced into desperate economic straits.  Others arrived in the US with their families at a young age and have grown up in this country.

NCTE's report builds on a report from this past March by the Center for American Progress, Living in Dual Shadows.

It is more difficult to be an immigrant who is a trans person.  They treat you differently when you are detained.


Vasquez fled El Salvador at 16…half her life ago.  After missing the time deadline for applying for asylum and spending 12 years in the country, she was arrested and detained by authorities and placed in a facility in which she was beaten and sexually assaulted.  

[US Law allows individuals to claim asylum if they have a well-founded fear of persecution by the government of their home country based on their gender identity.  Thus, given the widespread persecution of transpeople worldwide, many of the undocumented transgender immigrants would qualify for asylum.  But most undocumented transgender immigrants have no idea this is so…and if detained are not provided legal counsel, and often will spend the day upon which their asylum deadline passes in detention.  Should that happen, the best they can hope for his a "withholding of removal", which unfortunately comes with the permanent ban from becoming a US citizen.]

Having no legal representation, she was deported back to El Salvador in 2009.  She immediately returned to the US, but was apprehended and placed in detention again, for seven more months, before being deported again.  She returned to the US again…but this time contacted a public defender, who won an order withholding her removal from the country.

You are put in a cell where you are by yourself and experience a lot of violence that straight people or cis[gender] people do not experience, but you experience when you are a trans woman.


Being transgender and undocumented creates serious barriers to employment security, housing, and health care.  Without legal status, undocumented transpeople are not authorized to do work legally in this country, so they are forced to turn to subsistence labor…which places them at extreme risk of exploitation…with no avenues for recourse.  According to the National Employment Law Project, a full 85% of undocumented immigrants report overtime rate violations.  Being transgender doubles the danger because of transphobia and bias, which contribute to force transgender workers into hostile work environments, if not in fact turning to illegal work activity such as sex work or drug dissemination.
Undocumented transgender workers were far more likely to lose a job because of being transgender, or to be forced to present in the wrong gender to keep a job, than transgender people generally.
While 7% of transgender people report being physically assaulted…and 6% sexually assaulted…at their place of employment, the percentages more than triple for undocumented transgender workers (25% physically assaulted and 19% sexually assaulted).  Partners and children of undocumented transpeople also experience discrimination in employment at higher rates (20% for both).

Undocumented transgender immigrants are are more likely to have a college-level or higher education, but 18% of them earn less than $10,000 per year and 39% earn less than $20K.

Undocumented transpeople are also more than twice as likely to be currently homeless than all transgender people (1 in 5 transgender people report  they have been homeless as some time…and 21% of undocumented transpeople have been evicted at least once).  And undocumented transpeople who sought help from a homeless shelter were even more likely than documented transgender people to be experience physical or sexual violence.

Recent data show that 59% of adult undocumented immigrants have no health insurance, compared with 15% of the general population.  Among undocumented transgender immigrants, 36% are uninsured…and that insurance more than likely discriminates against them in its coverage.

Under current law, individuals and families who are undocumented are excluded from accessing any health care programs that are even partly federally funded, including Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, and the new health insurance tax credits available starting in 2014.
Thus many transgender immigrants go without adequate health care….even those who are DREAMers.  Proposals in the House and Senate could extend the wait to see a doctor to a decade and a half longer.  This even though noncitizen transgender people report an HIV+ status more than twice the overall rate for transgender people and more than 12 times that of the general US population.  And a large percentage are unlikely to know their HIV status (17%).
We have a lot of trans people who are in this country specifically because they are trans people and they are simply not safe where they were and they come here and then they’re [still] not safe.  I’m sorry but that is what this country is for.  This country has always been a place where people can come to be safe.

There are immigrants in Congress.  That certain people are holding this up for political reasons just to keep people voting for them scared is just so un-American, unconscionable, inhumane, and bad.

--Mara Keisling, executive director of NCTE

For trans and non-trans immigrants alike, a pathway to citizenship would provide a legal certainty that they will not be deported or separated from their families or communities.  It would also allow them to provide for themselves and their families by being able to work legally and earn higher wages.  Creating a pathway to citizenship would also strengthen the economy as a whole.  The Department of Labor has found that the wages of immigrants with legal status increase by 15 percent within five years of gaining legal status.  These higher wages would flow through the economy consumer spending, as well as increased revenue for local, state, and federal governments.
They need the help of organizations and others because if they are doing this process on their own, then it’s very difficult and I had a very hard time for a while because I didn’t have the help of organizations.  When I suffered my second violation after being deported again, I almost gave up and I would advise someone else to keep fighting because if you are deported, you have given up.


Creating a pathway to citizenship will not make transgender immigrants or their families equal.  They will have to join the rest of us transpeople who face discrimination based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation in employment, housing, education, health care, credit, and public services and accommodations.

And repealing the one-year asylum deadline would go a far distance towards the call made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2011 that nations "must ensure that no one fleeing persecution on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is returned to a territory where his or her life or freedom would be threatened."

We must have immigration reform that doesn't exclude transgender immigrants on the basis of cost, employment discrimination, or a history of fleeing persecution.

--Julie Kruse, Policy Director, Immigration Equality

Originally posted to TransAction on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Voices on the Square and LGBT Kos Community.

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