Rally Together ‘Immigration, LGBT rights not separable’
NY Blade, April 17, 2006
‘Immigration, LGBT rights not separable’
The New York Blade
By KERRY ELEVELD
Apr. 17, 2006
As immigrant rights protests swept the nation last week, New York LGBT organizations joined and estimated 125,000 protesters April 10 at City Hall to support immigrant equality. The Audre Lorde Project, Empire State Pride Agenda, Immigration Equality, Queers for Economic Justice and the Queer Immigrant Rights Project were among a number of LGBT rights groups that marched.
Trishala Deb, a program coordinator for The Audre Lorde Project Inc. (ALP), said the organization has had an immigrant rights program for about five years. "Some of the groups that are turning out here are part of the network of 35 LGBT people of color organizations in this city that we regularly partner with," Deb said of the LGBT contingent at the rally. "So many of those groups have immigrants in their base—I would say probably 80 to 90 percent of those groups have a really strong immigrant membership," she added.
A study of the 2000 Census by demographer Gary Gates at the Williams Project on Sexual Orientation and Law at UCLA found that about six percent of the 594,391 same-sex unmarried partners counted in the census included one citizen and one non-citizen. That translates to about 36,000 same-sex couples who are bi-national living in the United States. The census numbers likely represent a severe undercount since many immigrants and gays and lesbians hesitate to report as such. Even so, a larger percentage of same-sex couples (6 percent) reported as bi-national than different-sex unmarried couples (5.2 percent) or married (4.6 percent) couples.
That so many LGBT people in the country are immigrants or are coupled with immigrants seemed lost on Jasmyne Cannick when she penned an April 4 op-ed piece for the Advocate titled "Gays First, Then Illegals" that pitted immigrant rights against those of the LGBT community.
"Sen. Edward Kennedy got it right when he said, ‘There is no moving to the front of the line,’" wrote Cannick, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and a board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT civil rights group. "Immigration reform needs to get in line behind the LGBT civil rights movement, which has not yet realized all of its goals."
Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which fights for the rights of LGBT immigrants, said she was very disappointed with Cannick’s piece. "I’ve seen lots of letters to the Advocate, and they were all making the same point, that she presents a totally false dichotomy, and that for many of us, immigration rights and LGBT rights are not separable," said Tiven, who was part of one LGBT contingent at the rally.
William Dobbs, a New York attorney and veteran activist, said he was impressed with the energy around the nationwide rallies and hoped more gays and lesbians would stand in solidarity with the immigrant community. "Rights for immigrants may not be on the short list of the gay agenda but there are plenty of LGBT immigrants, and a community that is serious about social justice needs to be paying attention to that," said Dobbs, who was a member of ACT UP and, more recently, a spokesperson for the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice.
Beth Greenfield who is Time Out’s gay and lesbian editor attended the rally because of her frustration and embarrassment over the injustices that hard-working immigrants face. "I have been to many LGBT rallies and marches and protests in my life, and I felt it was time to make some connections, and to put my energy into something that went beyond my queer world," said Greenfield, adding that Cannick’s comments smacked of someone who is not oppressed but privileged. "The way to make changes is to band together, not alienate each other," she said.
Trishala Deb of ALP said Cannick’s comments were emblematic of a bigger issue. "This administration is the most divisive administration that we have seen in a long time. It’s a very dangerous administration," Deb said. "I think they’re using a lot of different kinds of scapegoats to take attention away from the war in Iraq, the failing economy, and the effects of globalization on people in this country. So it’s really easy to scapegoat immigrants."
LGBT rights and immigrant rights have several practical points of convergence beyond disenfranchisement. First, U.S. immigration policy essentially bars HIV-positive individuals from getting a green card or even a temporary visa unless they meet very strict criteria for a waiver. Also, since LGBT immigrants cannot legally marry their partners, they do not have a path to legalization afforded to straight couples. "Most people immigrate to the United States based on a family-based petition, and because our relationships aren’t recognized by the federal law, there’s no way for us to take advantage of those immigration benefits," said Immigration Equality’s Rachel Tiven.
Tiven said her group is trying to build support for the Uniting American Families Act, which was reintroduced in Congress last year by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). "Immigration Equality has been helping educate people all over the country, including members of Congress, about the UAFA, which would allow a US citizen or green card holder to sponsor a same-sex partner for immigration benefits," said Tiven, adding that this would only require a small change in current immigration law.
The UAFA currently has 95 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 10 co-sponsors in the Senate, and Tiven said Immigration Equality will be making a strong push forward over the next couple of months.
"All the attention on immigration is extremely helpful in the big picture––people are thinking about immigration law, they’re aware of what the issues are, they’re thinking about what’s fair and what’s not fair," she said. "When we speak to a legislative staff person or a constituent writes a letter, as opposed to having to start from square one on both the immigration issue and the gay issue, the attention toward immigration enables us to hit the ground running in that conversation and to talk about who’s being left out of the comprehensive immigration reform—namely, same-sex couples."
Immigration Equality is also releasing a report called "Family Unvalued" on May 2 that was co-written with Human Rights Watch. "This is the first time that Human Rights Watch’s LGBT program has done a domestic report," Tiven said. "It’s about discrimination against same-sex bi-national couples in the United States and the human rights abuse of being forcibly separated from your partner, essentially because you’re gay." Tiven said the two groups are planning a congressional briefing and press conference to really focus Congress’ attention on the bill.