Immigrating While Trans – Navigating Legal Barriers and Discrimination

| May 15, 2013 | Comments (0)

Trans and immigrant communities are both faced with similar challenges, especially in attaining adequate documentation to move through the world freely and safely. There are many parallels between these struggles:

  • Both trans and immigrant communities experience unemployment due to broader social stigmas and pervasive employment discrimination.  In most states, neither have legal protection against that discrimination.
  • Many trans people and immigrants have to work underground—often in a dangerous and unprotected work environment. As a result, many are forced to work under the table or in street economies—where they’re often put at risk of nonpayment, or of physical danger.
  • Both trans people and immigrants are in the headlines daily, and media depictions are frequently limiting, negative and inaccurate.
  • Since neither trans people nor undocumented people can easily access accurate documentation, they’re cut off from key things that we’d often consider to be basic human rights.

For trans immigrants, these challenges multiply and create a unique set of additional hurdles.

Immigration Policies

The United States has established many national immigration policies and regulations that harm the most vulnerable people. The gay and lesbian community has been no stranger to this: it was not legal to immigrate to the US as an openly gay person until 1990, and bans on HIV positive individuals were in place until 2010. 

Currently, there is no law expressly prohibiting transgender people from visiting or immigrating to the United States, but gender identity and presentation can often play a significant role in a person’s ability to immigrate.


Getting all of your documentation in order is a challenge for most transgender people. The steps to changing one’s legal gender marker are often complicated, expensive, and time consuming. This becomes a bureaucratic nightmare for transgender immigrants, who may be put into legal and physical danger if they cannot obtain the documents that reflect their identities. 

In April of 2012, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a new guiding document regarding the status of transgender immigrants. While USCIS regulations claim that trans immigrants can obtain documentation reflecting in the “outward, claimed and otherwise documented sex of the applicant, ” it is often unclear what is meant by “otherwise documented.”

This lack of clarity means that often (but not always) trans people are required to show proof of transition-related surgery in order to get documents that accurately reflect their identities. Additionally, trans immigrants must navigate outing themselves – failure to disclose one’s birth name and assigned gender could be interpreted as an attempt to commit fraud and lead to a visa application being denied.

While these new regulations removed some barriers, there are still many roadblocks ahead for transgender immigrants. It can be prohibitively difficult for trans immigrants to apply for citizenship with a legal gender marker that does not match their identity. This can create an impossible process that subjects trans immigrants to harassment by government officials, endangerment, and unpredictable legal repercussions.


Additional Barriers

Those who are unable to gain access to transition-related medical care may find it almost impossible to acquire official recognition of their gender identity.Without identity documents affirming both citizenship status and gender identity, trans immigrants find their ability to take care of basic needs severely restricted. Without identification, it can be impossible to:

  • travel
  • visit government buildings
  • find employment
  • access housing
  • make purchases
  • apply for school
  • get health insurance or health care
  • drive a car
  • access food stamps and other services
  • … or anything else that requires an ID!
Supporting our communities
At this critical moment in national politics we have an opportunity to show solidarity and highlight the struggles of trans immigrants. To learn more about immigration and find ways to get involved, visit our partners at Causa

Check out the Transgender Law Center and Sylvia Rivera Law Project for more information and resources for trans immigrants.

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Category: News: Transgender Justice

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