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LGBTQ immigrants talk about waiting on 2 life-changing Supreme Court decisions

Three immigrants on identifying as LGBTQ, living with DACA status, and the change they’re seeking.

A person holds up a graduation mortar board that says on its top, “Dreams without borders #Daca strong.”
Demonstrators gather in front of the United States Supreme Court, where the Court is hearing arguments on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on November 12, 2019.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

For José Alonso Muñoz, the prospect of coming out as queer to his friends wasn’t nearly as difficult as coming out as an unauthorized immigrant. A so-called “DREAMer” who arrived in the US as a child, he was told to conceal his immigration status for fear of facing deportation, and that fear stayed with him into adulthood until he felt he couldn’t be silent any longer.

“When Trump was elected, it was a pivotal moment for a lot of people,” he said. “For me, it became really important to be able to share my story and to be able to tell the stories of other people, specifically LGBTQ folks.”

This Supreme Court term is especially pivotal for DREAMers like Muñoz who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.

On Monday, the justices issued a landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, finding that federal law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, a hard-won victory for activists.

On Thursday, it issued another momentous decision for immigrants on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has allowed almost 670,000 unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers who arrived in the US when they were children to continue to live and work in the country without fear of deportation. President Donald Trump tried to terminate the program, barring new applications from tens of thousands of other immigrants who would be eligible until legal challenges are resolved. The Supreme Court ruled that Trump may not immediately terminate the program.

Vox spoke to several LGBTQ DREAMers between Monday’s decision and Thursday’s. For them, Bostock marked a moment to celebrate and mobilize — and gave them hope that the public would have rallied behind them had Trump ended DACA.

But for some, it was also a reminder that the fight for their rights hasn’t ended yet — at the Supreme Court, in public policy, and in LGBTQ communities where people of color have not always felt welcome.

Three DREAMers shared what it was like to grow up as unauthorized immigrants in the US, what the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock means to them, and what they fear about an adverse ruling in the DACA case.

José Alonso Muñoz

José Alonso Muñoz came to the US from Mexico when he was 3 months old and received DACA status in 2013, when he was 22. He’s now the national communications manager for United We Dream, an organization that advocates for DREAMers, and lives in Washington, DC. He identifies as queer.

Jose Munoz poses in a T-shirt that says, “Pride was a riot.” The soles of his sneakers are rainbow-colored. Courtesy of José Munoz

What life was like before DACA: I had to pay out of pocket for college. I was able to get a couple of scholarships, but back in 2008, financial aid for undocumented students wasn’t around at the time. And so it was actually really hard to go to school because it was just too expensive. I went to school on and off — I would go for a year and then I would have to take a year off because I couldn’t afford to go back, and I worked in a restaurant to save money. When DACA came around, it allowed me to go back and finish school.

Why he previously avoided talking about being an unauthorized immigrant: I came out to a lot of my friends when I was maybe 19 or 20. I actually was a lot more open about being queer than I was about being undocumented. Growing up, there were a lot of conversations that I had with my parents about what it meant to be undocumented — that I could be deported — when I was really young, maybe like 9 or 10. I think that was very pervasive even into adulthood, which made it harder for me. I didn’t actually meet another person who was undocumented outside of my family until my senior year of high school.

What the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock means to him: I had been following it and the death of Aimee Stephens back in May. She was clearly such a trailblazer, and I think for me, it’s just a reminder of how, as LGBTQ people in the United States, our fight has been really led by trans people. It’s important to be able to celebrate this moment as a victory while also recognizing that, for trans folks, specifically black trans people, there’s still so much work that needs to be done to ensure that everyone is able to live and thrive without fear.

It’s such a great reminder that so many of us have such intersecting identities. LGBTQ people are undocumented. Black folks are DACA recipients.

What will happen to him if the Supreme Court strikes down DACA: I grew up in Minneapolis. That’s where my family is. What the Supreme Court decides doesn’t change that. I’ve been feeling really inspired over the last couple of weeks, actually, to see how folks have been taking to the streets. It’s a reminder about how folks are winning victories all across the country, whether it’s the victory that the Supreme Court helped to deliver around employment nondiscrimination, whether it’s DACA, whether it’s what we’re seeing from the Black Lives Matter movement. People who are most impacted are the folks that are having the solutions for us and that are going to push us toward the change that we deserve.

Cynthia Garcia

Cynthia Garcia came to the US in 2003 from Mexico when she was 16 and received DACA status in 2013. She is now a deportation defense hotline manager for United We Dream and lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She identifies as queer.

Cynthia Garcia poses for a headshot with a rainbow-colored bracelet. Courtesy of Cynthia Garcia

What life was like before DACA: When I enrolled for college before DACA came into the picture, one of the biggest discouragements was that, every semester, I had to sign an affidavit of intent, which basically said that I was disclosing that I was undocumented and that the school I was attending was not responsible for me. That was uncomfortable, to say the least, and so after three semesters, I decided not to finish my college journey.

There is a level of uncertainty that comes from being undocumented. It doesn’t feel that way when you just identify as queer. I came out as an openly queer woman back in 2007, in my junior year of high school. When I came out, I had to do a lot of internal work and get the acceptance of my predominantly conservative family.

Coming out as undocumented was different. Outside folks were like, “Well, why haven’t you fixed it? You could have waited in line” — almost like a dismissal of what it really means to be undocumented. I was old enough to know the struggles that my parents went through to bring us on a visa, coming from a rural, low-income community.

The doors DACA opened for her: In 2017, when I started being more proactive with a local nonprofit that supported folks in adjustment of status and DACA applications, I found I was beginning to develop more of a leadership role. I started hosting “Know Your Rights” presentations for the community. And so I fell in love with the idea of giving power back to people to decide how they respond to the immigration enforcement they are facing.

What the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock means to her: For me, Monday’s ruling was a hopeful one, as a DACA recipient and someone that identifies as LGBTQ. It gave me hope that we can potentially have a positive decision when a DACA decision comes before they end their session.

I think I also had conflicted feelings around how, even in LGBTQ spaces, I struggle a little bit finding visibility and really understanding why is it that queer spaces don’t see the full humanity of undocumented immigrants, or don’t feel so welcoming for people of color. For someone in Oklahoma City like me, the majority of the queer spaces that exist currently are very white and male. So even for women who are [people of color], they are still toxic environments.

I think we have to actively reshape the narrative around how queer people still have privilege in this country when the systems are based on racial inequity. White people need to do the emotional work to make sure what is considered progressive spaces of queer people are not just anti-racist, but pro-black, pro-people of color, pro-immigrant.

Tony Choi

Tony Choi came to the US at age 9 from South Korea and received his DACA status in 2012, when he was 23. He currently lives in Hackensack, New Jersey. He identifies as gay.

Tony Choi poses in a Tom Steyer 2020 sweatshirt. Courtesy of Tony Choi

The doors DACA opened for him: Before getting my DACA, I was working at a takeout restaurant and getting paid $5 an hour. After DACA was announced, I immediately got a job with a local nonprofit helping other Korean-Americans like me get their DACA status, and that led me to everything I’ve done. I worked for the Women’s March. I worked on a presidential campaign for Tom Steyer — something that even most citizens can’t say they’ve done. DACA has gotten me to amazing places.

I do have a sense of guilt because DACA is no longer open to younger people and a certain subset of millennials, like Jose Antonio Vargas, who’s a really great friend of mine. I do have a deep sense of guilt that those protections don’t exist for folks like them.

What it would mean if he had to go back to Korea: I contemplated going back to Korea when I was younger. But there is no marriage equality in Korea and virtually no protection for LGBTQ workers. And there’s mandatory military service for all men below the age of 40. It’s not a friendly place to be openly gay or queer. I’m very scared of what could happen to me in the Korean military.

Korea isn’t a place I’ve been since I was 9. All my life is here. My family is here, and we’re a mixed-status family — there are members of my family who are US citizens who depend on me to provide for them. I contribute toward my mother’s rent. If I’m gone, who will support them? It would be an immeasurable harm.

In the LGBTQ community, there’s a concept of chosen family aside from our biological families. We get our support and nourishment through the people that we choose to have around us, and I would be losing my entire chosen family on top of losing everything else. I’ve lived my life as an out, queer person for the last 10 years, and if I hadn’t been able to do that, I would be so alone and isolated.

How he views recent progress on LBGTQ and immigrant rights: It always feels like these battles are never won at the same time. I see LGBTQ rights advancing while immigrants’ rights have stalled since 2012. I don’t think there have been any significant immigration policy victories since the announcement of DACA. I really wish it could progress in tandem.

I never had high hopes in the political process. Conservatives have a majority in the courts. My fate is now in the hands of Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. But I do have high hopes for directly affected people like me to be able to effect change. I think the Supreme Court is taking notice that the election is in five months. I genuinely do think all of the recent social upheaval has been a major contributing factor in them delaying this particular decision [in the DACA case].