A Double Minority, Portraits of Transgender Immigrants
Jaan Williams, a transgender U.S. citizen, was not able to sponsor residency for his wife, Priyanka Oberoi – who came from India to the U.S. on a student visa – because some documents still identified Williams as a woman.
But since the Supreme Court decision that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June, any U.S. citizen is now able to sponsor their partner's residency, regardless of their gender.
No doubt this was great news for an estimated 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants, and for 28,500 LGBT binational couples legally married in the U.S., according to figures from the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
But it was also celebrated by Williams and Oberoi, who are among an estimated 15,000 to 50,000 transgender immigrants living in the United States, including those partners are U.S. citizens.
The striking down of part of DOMA follows a series of advances for LGBT immigrants’ rights, including the 2011 inclusion of undocumented immigrants who have a same-sex U.S. partner among those considered low priority for deportation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); and the establishment of guidelines to award asylum to LGBT people. And since 2012, a series of guidelines has made it easier for transgender immigrants to change gender identity in immigration documents.
Yet despite these advances, transgender immigrants continue to fight for equal rights in a number of areas.
A survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NLGTF) in 2011 revealed that undocumented transgender immigrants are at greater risk of experiencing discrimination and violence when it comes to work, housing, and health care.
Thirty-nine percent of undocumented transgender workers reported losing their job due to discrimination, compared with 26 percent of transgender Americans.
In addition, 25 percent said they had been physically abused in their workplace, and 19 percent suffered sexual abuse, three times more than the average transgender participants.
In addition to lack of job security, transgender immigrants tend to have lower incomes. Fifteen percent of transgender workers earn less than $10,000 a year, and those who are also undocumented immigrants are more likely to earn this amount (18 percent), according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Transgender undocumented workers are also more likely to earn less than $20,000 per year (39 percent) compared to 27 percent among the average transgender person.
As immigrants who are dependent on work visas, transgender undocumented workers are susceptible to abuse -- and often afraid to report it because of fear of discrimination and the threat of deportation.
Given their limited options, some are forced to work illegal jobs such as prostitution, in order to survive.
Homelessness – due to discrimination, violence, family rejection, and poverty –affects four percent of undocumented transgender immigrants, compared to the 1.7 percent homelessness rate for transgender people, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
Some 36 percent of undocumented transgender immigrants have no health insurance, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The figure is surprisingly lower than the 59 percent of the overall undocumented population, according to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress (Living in Dual Shadows: LGBT Undocumented Immigrants), particularly considering that the undocumented are denied access to health programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, as well as the new health insurance markets of healthcare reform.
When it comes to immigration laws, transgender individuals fleeing persecution in their home countries aren’t always able to get asylum here.
Although the United States offers the possibility to apply for asylum to individuals persecuted in their country of origin because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, some of these claims are denied, while others miss the one-year period to request this protection.
As a result, many get caught in an immigration limbo.
'Everything is fine until I say I'm a transgender woman'
Arianna Inurritegui-Lint, 41, a native of Peru, always felt different and unhappy. Even after accepting being a gay man, Inurritegui-Lint used to wonder, "Why am I not happy?"
A graduate of law school in Peru, Inurritegui-Lint visited the United States to study English and go on vacation. Eventually she decided to make a new life for herself here and to go through with her transformation from male to female.
"The transgender girls drew my attention, but they are very frowned upon in Peru," said Inurritegui-Lint. "I wanted to come to the U.S. because it is spoken of as the land of freedom where you can be yourself."
She arrived in 2000 with a tourist visa and stayed after it expired.
"Despite having a career, as an illegal immigrant I came to have the same problems as those who clean bathrooms and floors," she said.
Determined to save money to get legal status in this country and to carry out her transition, she saw an opportunity in what she describes as the fetish and fantasy that many people have with transgender women, and began working as an “escort” in New York.
"I felt very bad because I wasn’t used to that, but it was a springboard to make my change," said Inurritegui-Lint. "I didn’t feel discriminated against [as an escort], and I didn’t feel like a fool going to apply for a job and then having them tell me I had to cut my hair."
With her transition already underway, she started a new life in Florida when she was granted withholding of removal (which protects her from the threat of deportation without the benefits of legal residency or asylum). She also legally changed her gender to female.
"Now I work for the government but I can’t apply for Medicaid, or financial aid to continue my studies," said Inurritegui-Lint, who also is not allowed to leave the country to visit her father, whom she has not seen for years.
But she says she still feels "forced to deceive" people.
"Everything is fine until I say I'm transgender," said Inurritegui-Lint. "I would like to have the freedom to say who I am without feeling discriminated against."
She is referring to the discrimination she faced at work, where she was unable to get promoted until she filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission -- and won.
It is the same discrimination she faced as a victim of domestic violence. Police were initially going to arrest her abuser, but when she told them that she was a transgender woman, they let him go.
"Still, I keep working to have an opportunity for a better life," said Inurritegui-Lint, who along with Bamby Salcedo, is co-president of [email protected] Coalition, an organization that works on transgender Latino immigrants’ issues. "We want to be honest and to be given a place in society, to live in peace and be respected."
A woman in a detention center for men
Bamby Salcedo, 44, came to the U.S. about 25 years ago, after crossing the border illegally, and fleeing the poverty and discrimination she faced in her native Mexico.
"I didn’t have the privilege of having a visa because I did not have the resources," Salcedo said. "I had to go through the mountains and go through hardships along with other immigrants."
She began her gender transition at 19 years old, two years after arriving in Los Angeles in the ‘80s.
"Back then I was helpless. I knew no one, and my only recourse was the street," said Salcedo. "I did sex work, I got involved in drugs."
When she came to this country, she did not apply for asylum within the one-year period individuals have to apply. After 20 years of living here, she received a visit from immigration officials at her home, and was arrested and placed in deportation proceedings.
Pending a decision on her case, Salcedo was taken to a detention center for men and forced to shower with them, which she described as a terrifying and degrading experience.
"I was really scared. I didn’t know what could happen to me, I was so vulnerable to the inmates and also to the guards," said Salcedo.
She tried to tell the detention officers that her life was in danger, but that plea was ignored, and she faced the consequences -- she was physically and sexually assaulted and was put in solitary confinement.
Although a judge eventually decided that she should not be deported, Salcedo did not receive the benefit of asylum. Instead, she was granted withholding of removal. While this has allowed her to stay in the U.S. and work with a permit that must be renewed every year, she can’t travel outside of the country, or ever apply for permanent residency.
"I can’t apply for financial aid either, to further my level of education," said Salcedo, who currently works at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and is co-president of [email protected] Coalition.
This year, she was the subject of a documentary called "Transvisible," which she describes as "a small narrative of what has been my life, to inspire other people who are going through what I went through."
One of the lucky ones
Paola Coots, 41, from Monterrey, Mexico, considers herself one of the "lucky ones."
She came to the United States in 2004 on a tourist visa, not knowing that she could apply for political asylum. But when she went to an LGBT center in San Diego, they not only informed her of this but a pro-bono lawyer helped her through the long process.
"Immigration took about four years to authorize my political asylum, when other people got it in a few months or a year," Coots said.
While she waited, she was not permitted to work. Luckily, she had a partner who supported her financially.
"Had it not been for that, I don’t know what I would have done," said Coots.
Unlike other transgender immigrants who have been stuck in the immigration limbo of having withholding of removal, she now has her precious green card.
"When processing my visa there were some problems because I did it as a woman, but with a man's name," Coots said. "When I obtained political asylum they gave it to me with a male name, but female gender; later I changed my name."
Now she works for a nonprofit organization, which she prefers not to name, as she believes she was discriminated against when being considered for a promotion.
"Because of being transgender they always gave me dumb excuses, but when they needed help to cover other positions they sent me to do it," Coots said.
She considers herself lucky to have gotten a green card, and is now part of [email protected] Coalition, where she helps other transgender immigrants.
LGBT activists are fighting for immigration reform that includes a series of protections for transgender people and greater opportunities to improve their living conditions.
But they know that neither immigration reform, nor a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants, would be sufficient to achieve equality for transgender immigrants.
In order to achieve full equity, they say, other legislation must be passed that directly addresses the discrimination they face in employment, housing, and health care – and it is sure to be a long road.