It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I learned about what it meant to be “undocuqueer,” or an undocumented queer person.
While for most of my life I was able to recognize the shame, anxiety, and fear faced daily by both undocumented and LGBTQ+ individuals, it never occurred to me how these two identities could come together to expand feelings of exclusion. Within my bubble of K-12 education and middle-class suburban news cycles, it was no surprise I learned little about the history and emotionally-charged struggles of undocumented LGBTQ+ individuals.
My hope is to properly address the reasons why mental health issues are magnified for undocumented and queer individuals and how we can both individually and collectively legitimize and help change negative undocqueer experiences.
Some quick facts
The amount of foreign-born individuals residing in the United States is currently over 45 million. If you were to include immigrants and their US-born children, the number would be approximately 85 million people.
How many of these people live undocumented?
An estimated 11 million of foreign-born individuals in the United States are undocumented, making up about one-fourth of the total immigrant population. Mexicans and Central Americans make up about two-thirds of the undocumented population. The remaining third are mainly from Asia and South America.
And how many of these undocumented immigrants are also queer? Out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, around 267,000 to a half-million are estimated to identify as LGBTQ+.
That’s a lot of people, forced to balance the compounded emotional challenges of living as both undocumented and queer.
A brief history of “undocuqueers” in the US
Despite the only recent popularization of the term “undocuqueer,” activism began as early as 2001, when a queer and undocumented woman named Tania Unzueta was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to testify for the DREAM Act. Unzueta’s scheduled testimony showed that from early-on in undocumented immigrant reform and protest, undocuqueers were part of the conversation.
However, due to the 9/11 attacks, Unzueta never made it to Capitol Hill to testify. The DREAM Act didn’t make it either.
The DREAM Act: a dream
The DREAM Act stands for the “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors” Act. It proposes to give undocumented minors in the US a path to permanent residency. However, while the Act has been introduced before Congress numerous times since the early 2000s, it has never passed.
Every time the DREAM Act has failed to pass, the undocuqueer community has been denied security and stability for their mental health struggles.
The legislation that actually passed: DACA
The only major action taken to support undocumented immigrants occurred when former President Barack Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, using a presidential memorandum. DACA created a way for undocumented individuals to gain temporary status in America. That is until it was rescinded by the Trump Administration in September 2017. After ending DACA, Trump gave Congress a six-month period to decide on a replacement. Congress deadlocked without a bipartisan agreement, resulting in a new Republican-led legislation that Democrats strongly disapproved of due to its reductions in family-based immigration and the diversity visa program.
Although DACA has been reinstated under the current Biden administration, the process has been slow and no changes have been made to improve the almost decade-old system. Unfortunately, change has been desperately needed, because in both the Obama and Biden administrations, DACA has not considered the specific challenges of undocuqueers.
The DREAM Act isn’t a miracle solution for undocuqueers
If the DREAM Act is eventually passed, it won’t change the fact that many undocumented and queer individuals lack health professionals, educators, counselors, etc. that understand their unique challenges and position in society. If mental health issues and solutions aren’t specifically addressed in new legislation, the emotional stability and wellness of undocuqueers will not improve.
Where did the term “undocuqueer” come from in the first place?
The term “undocqueer” began to be used publicly thanks to the work of Julio Saldago, a Mexican-born artist who, like many undocqueers, was an activist for the “DREAM Act” that desired a platform for undocumented queer people.
He created the “I am Undocuqueer” project, which featured the drawings and quotes of numerous undocuqueer individuals, with a focus on how these individuals faced systemic oppression and social discrimination for not one but two identities. Since then, the Undocqueer movement has focused on media utilization to create a platform and fight for the recognition of undocuqueer struggles – including mental health struggles.
Undocuqueer mental health: it starts with intersectionality
In order to fully understand the challenges of undocuqueer identity, you have to first understand the concept of intersectionality.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is the idea that social categories, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc, intersect to create systems of privilege and oppression in society.
Because an undocuqueer individual possesses two minority social identities that are frequently discriminated against and that each faces specific histories and societal reactions, the impact of living as each identity is amplified in a new and detrimental way.
No place in the mainstream
People who fall in between overlapping identities often don’t have a true place in any of their communities. This is a major issue arising from intersectional identity.
So how does this apply to undocuqueers? The mainstream LGBTQ+ discourse can feel alienating to undocqueers, who can’t fully share in LGBTQ+ legal milestones.
Since the late 20th century, there has been a place for LGBTQ+ folks in the media. Protests forming after the Stonewall Riots of the late sixties led to political and social battles that developed into the landmark decision of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which legalized gay marriage.
As a young white LGBTQ+ individual, I was always able to see myself in the fight for gay marriage. For me and my family, the legalization of gay marriage was a major step that solidified to me real change in the LGBTQ+ movement.
However, while these legal wins were monumental, they hardly impacted a large segment of the LGBTQ+ community who faced further legal hurdles on the path to mainstream rights.
How the media lacks representation of undocuqueers and LGBTQ+ people of color
Simply put, the mainstream media links LGBTQ+ identities to the middle-class and consumerist culture. The gay rights movement seen in news cycles and media, in general, is directed toward gaining the acceptance of white, cisgender, young, and well-educated males. But the LGBTQ+ community encompasses more nuance than what we usually see. For instance, LGBTQ+ people of color are more likely to be homeless, are at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, are more likely to be incarcerated, and are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than their white peers.
The impact of isolation
A lack of representation of less mainstream LGBTQ+ identities leaves folks within the community vulnerable to feeling isolated. Without a place in the current LGBTQ+ movement, undocumented queer people are left feeling disenfranchised from a community that should be made for them.
With this in mind, there is no question why undocuqueer individuals would feel heightened stress and mental health issues.
Minority stress: what is it?
The Meyer minority stress model was developed in the early 2000s as a way to explore the chronic stress that gay men experience, living in a society dominated by hetero norms and institutions. Over time, the Meyer minority stress model has grown to encompass more than solely the white gay man. The model is now used to define the internalized homophobia and perceived stigma faced by all queer individuals. It also aids in outlining the stressors undocuqueers face.
Young undocuqueers often need to financially support both themselves and their families. This is a large burden on any young person, but is especially amplified when undocuqueers also face intense emotional and societal struggles outside of their financial well being.
Told at a young age to hide
Oftentimes, young undocumented individuals are taught to hide their status as undocumented. Being taught at a young age to hold a certain shame of who you are creates a feeling of isolation that is only expanded upon by the added pressure of choosing whether or not to hide your queer identity.
Lack of safe spaces
Spaces that are commonly used by LGBTQ+ individuals to feel safe and comfortable as themselves tend to exclude undocumented individuals by not taking into account how a person’s race and/or undocumented status can make a place made for LGBTQ+ people, such as a gay bar, feel unsafe.
Undocuqueer individuals live in constant fear of being the targets of criminalization and incarceration, not to mention deportation. America continues to emphasize anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant laws and policies year after year, many still serving as remains of the Bush and Trump administrations.
DACA, whether or not it’s in practice
While DACA did provide some security to undocumented individuals prior to 2017, undocumented individuals had to live with the reality that DACA could be terminated at any time by the government without notice. The very act of applying to DACA allowed the American government to know of the undocumented individual and to have control of their life, which is already enough of a stressor for any person. The fact that DACA was always unstable, and that it was actually terminated by the Trump administration in 2017, says volumes for the fear and uncertainty undocuqueers who applied to DACA dealt with on a daily basis. Even now, with DACA being reinstated, nothing has changed with the unstable structure of the system or the slow and continuously detrimental speed of government workers involved in aiding people who applied to DACA.
The Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, excludes undocumented immigrants from accessing health insurance through any marketplaces under the act. Without surprise, policies implemented under the Trump administration only lead to more undocumented individuals turning away from healthcare programs, including US-born children who qualify for Medicaid and CHIP. To pile on, undocumented individuals, specifically undocuqueers, often are employed in low-wage jobs that are less likely to offer any coverage.
Higher HIV rates
Undocuqueers are more susceptible to contracting HIV. Much of this has to do with both the lack of testing and awareness. Even when places have highly accessible tests and free condoms, like Los Angeles County, undocuqueers are often not aware of how to access these resources due to language barriers. In addition, an undocumented person who contracts HIV is much less likely to have health insurance that will cover proper treatment. The pressure of handling the effects of HIV, finding treatment, and potentially having to out yourself to your family and community weighs heavily on an undocuqueer individual at any age.
Fear of deportation
Because undocuqueers live in fear of being deported, they are much less likely than a documented queer individual to seek mental health services. So while their identities as undocuqueer continually put them at a disadvantage that could be aided through therapy, counseling, antidepressants, or any other mental health professional help, they are extremely unlikely to get the help they need.
Family stress: religion and cultural anti-LGBTQ+ traditions
Oftentimes, stress from within the family plays another large role in the mental health of undocuqueers.
The majority of undocumented individuals are from Mexican and other Central American countries. Strong colonial Catholic roots in this region dictate the ideal family life, which is supposed to be between a man and a woman who both adhere to the “natural” roles of masculinity and femininity.
Much of this view stems from the strong cultural value present in many Latinx households known as “machismo.” Machismo is the word given to the idea that men and women should follow rigid traditional roles, with emphasis on the idealized masculinity of the “man of the household.” From a young age, boys are taught to be tough, aggressive, and unemotional, while women are taught to live for men and their needs.
I don’t think I need to explain how these cultural views don’t fit into the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals. Finding a place in a family that values a traditional male and female-founded family leaves many undocuqueers either unable to come out to their own family, or without a real way to find acceptance from the ones they love.
A transgender and gender-nonconforming focus
An important thing to remember when considering undocuqueer mental health is that the LGBTQ+ community is far from uniform. Therefore, even the undocuqueer community, itself, is very diverse.
The truth is, our society has not collected enough data on the wellbeing of undocumented transgender people and transgender immigrants. When LGBTQ+ issues are discussed, we hear little about how transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals are impacted, regardless of their sexuality.
Gender expression and identification need to be considered when discussing policies for and rights of undocuqueers.
Being undocumented can significantly impact access to specialized care that trans and NB individuals vitally need.
The lack of healthcare options for undocumented transgender or gender non-conforming individuals often prevents an individual from getting the surgery, hormones, and/or professional help they need to feel secure and happy in their own body and life.
When transgender and gender nonconforming undocuqueers do get help from mental health or medical professionals, these professionals may not be educated on the undocqueer experience.
Why is an experienced professional especially important for undocumented, queer individuals? For one, it is imperative for transgender or gender nonconforming clients to be called by their preferred name and gender pronouns; this is rarely a given. Additionally, health professionals must seek to provide the correct medical help that the individual desires; many professionals make assumptions about the mindset or goals of undocuqueer individuals.
Without a professional who understands and respects the needs of transgender and gender nonconforming undocuqueers, it is unlikely the individual will be able to make real mental health improvements.
Mental health improvements for undocuqueers will only begin when undocumented individuals have secure paths to citizenship and can feel safer in their communities.
The proposed DREAM Act would provide the thousands of undocuqueers a roadmap to citizenship. The act, like DACA, establishes a way for undocumented individuals to gain temporary residency. But unlike DACA, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented individuals to work towards becoming citizens if they meet certain requirements. With the DREAM Act being approved by the House of Representatives on March 18, 2021, there is some hope for a brighter future.
Another route to securing the eventual citizenship of undocuqueers is to amend DACA. Given the challenges the DREAM Act will face on the Senate floor, it may be easier to amend the already in-use DACA system.
Even if the DREAM Act passes, more work to do for undocuqueers
Legal proposals like the DREAM Act do little to nothing to address mental health in general, let alone that of LGBTQ+ individuals within the undocumented community. While legal action is slow and often unhelpful, undocuqueer access to mental health services can be achieved informally, via anonymous peer support.
New and improved approaches to undocuqueer mental health must begin with further research on mental health disparities between non-queer and queer undocumented individuals, as well as between undocuqueers and documented queers. If I haven’t been clear enough, undocuqueers are an immensely understudied group–they cannot be helped by medical and mental health professionals if these professionals do not understand the issues and challenges undocuqueers face.
Another important way to elevate undocuqueer mental health is to increase access to safe spaces. Locating and becoming a part of inclusive communities can give undocuqueers a crucial, safe, comfortable outlet – something we all need, but which may feel harder to come by within this intersectional identity.
How to get involved, whether or not you are undocuqueer, yourself
Both undocuqueers and supporters of undocuqueer mental health need to utilize social support groups, and use their own platforms to speak out against undocuqueer discrimination.
Social media has become the most prominent and effective outlet for spreading awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and depictions of diverse populations of the LGBTQ+ community.
However, speaking out may not be an option for undocumented queer folks. Personal visibility for undocuqueers often results in criminalization, surveillance, and/or discrimination. Undocuqueers may risk their family lives and their residence in the United States by sharing their truth openly and publicly. Therefore, documented allies can play a major role in creating public support for undocuqueer rights.
Mental health change for undocuqueers starts with a community. From there, we can start to make the changes that really count.
Looking for more help? Undocuqueer organizations…
- United We Dream
- National Immigration Law Center
- Bienestar Human Services
- LGBTQ+ Advocacy & Training Program at Penny Lane Centers
- LA LGBTQ+ Center
- Lifeworks LA
- Los Angeles Gender Center
- The Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project: United We Dream
- Transgender Law Center: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Immigration Equality, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, Rainbow Railroad, Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project
- End Trans Detention
- GSA Network