Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Queering Immigration: Perspectives on Cross-Movement Organizing

Tara is a 27-year-old transgender woman from Guyana. When she entered the United States at JFK airport in New York, she declared to immigration officials that she was escaping lifelong torture and recent rape in Guyana and was seeking asylum in the United States. To her surprise she was held in an immigration detention facility, chained, and denied hormone treatment. She was able to receive legal representation and was granted asylum after living in the detention center for three months. Even though Tara claimed that her gender identity was female, she was put in the men’s ward and subjected to intense verbal and physical abuse by other detainees and the detention officers.

Raul is a 38-year-old gay HIV-positive man from Brazil. He has lived in the United States for the last 15 years, first as an international student and then on a work visa. His work sponsored him for a green card and he was told that his application was approved. During the mandatory medical exam Raul was informed that he was HIV positive, and his application was instead denied. Since then Raul has lived in the United States illegally, and cleans apartments for eight dollars an hour in San Diego.

Atif is a 32-year-old gay man from Bangladesh. He has been a lifelong target of violent Islamic fundamentalists in his neighborhood for being effeminate and having a Christian boyfriend. After his boyfriend was murdered in front of him, his mother sold all her jewelry and bought him a plane ticket to New York. He arrived just days before 9/11. For years he has suffered from depression and addiction, and has been working at a Dunkin’ Donuts for an hourly wage of $5.75. He was picked up in an immigration raid and held as a detainee for five weeks. Upon his release he got in touch with a fledgling LGBT immigrant support group, and was able to obtain representation. His application for asylum was denied, but he was granted “withholding of removal” (he is allowed to live and work in the United States, but is never able to leave the country).

Tara, Raul, and Atif are among millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants living in the United States whose lives are caught between sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and exploitation of labor across global borders. Queers for Economic Justice estimates that there are over 1 million LGBT undocumented immigrants in the US who are in dire need of immigration reform.[1]

Immigration laws in the United States are largely based on two policy priorities: the reunification of “families,” and “merit.” Family ties are defined on the basis of the heterosexual nuclear family, leaving LGBT households and relationships largely outside the protection of immigration law. The ban on HIV-positive immigrants to the United States also created great hardship, as in Raul’s case. Many LGBT immigrants without “qualifying relationships” have been unable to obtain an HIV waiver, making access to treatment difficult, if not impossible.

After several years of on the ground organizing by HIV/AIDS organizations, such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and AIDS Action; LGBT rights organizations such as Queers for Economic Justice; Immigration Equality; and several leading national immigration policy organizations, the United States Congress passed the Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos Global HIV and Tuberculosis Relief Act, also known as the “Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.”[2] As a part of this act, which was signed into law by President George Bush on July 30, 2008, Congress agreed to remove the HIV ban language from the Immigration and Nationality Act.[3]

Relief to LGBT immigrants is sometimes made available to those applying for asylum. Following the case of Toboso-Alfonso in 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno issued an order allowing the granting of political asylum to those identifying as “homosexual” who are fleeing torture and persecution from their governments. The process can be very difficult, both practically and emotionally, but application must be made within one year of entry to the country. Further barriers were added with the passage of the REAL ID act in 2005, which gave discretionary powers to asylum officers and judges to demand any kind of proof of persecution from the applicants.[4]

Despite such difficulties and barriers, LGBT immigrants are not passive victims of torture, persecution, and abuse from the immigration system. LGBT immigrant rights organizations currently exist in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. LGBT Centers in larger cities like New York have created outreach efforts, English and Spanish-speaking support groups, and ESL programs for LGBT immigrants. However these efforts still remain on the margins of both the LGBT rights and immigrant rights movements. The immigrant advocacy movement places undue emphasis on heterosexual relationships and conceptions of normality in its efforts to gain basic citizenship rights. The mainstream LGBT rights movement tends to focus on those immigrants who are conjugal partners of US citizens. This leaves out the predicaments, for instance, of single people and those who do not define themselves within conventional, conjugal, marital relationships.

In my more than ten years of experience organizing in the LGBT movement in the United States, I have found immigration activism motivated largely by stories of the predicaments of binational couples. While important, these are not the only issues that LGBT immigrants face. It is especially important to realize that the focus on transferring immigration benefits to the conjugal partners of LGBT US citizens is not an immigrants’ rights issue per se, but is organized around concern for the rights for US citizens. Further, even if the proposed Uniting American Families Act (a singular act which seeks to allow LGBT US citizens to sponsor their foreign-born partners for immigration purposes) is passed by the US Congress and is signed into law by the new president, it has several legal limitations.

Most importantly, US immigration law, following the passage of immigration reform in 1996, requires a high income level for the US citizen or green card holder who is seeking to sponsor a “spouse” or “family relative.” Additionally, the sponsoring person is held responsible for all economic needs in case of illness or unemployment of the person they are sponsoring. Such high income requirements for sponsorship significantly limit the possibilities of low-income people to sponsor their partners. Finally, those immigrants who are currently undocumented will still face the ineligibility criteria when their partners apply to sponsor them for immigration purposes.

In an effort to highlight the work of LGBT immigrant rights organizers, and to create cross-movement dialogue in the wake of the “comprehensive immigration reform” that swept the nation in 2006-2007, I embarked upon the project of creating the first national “Queer and Transgender Vision Statement on Immigration Reform” in summer 2006. As the New Voices fellow for Queers for Economic Justice, I had been conducting meetings with LGBT immigrant rights organizers from across the country, and brought together a group of organizers from Love Sees No Borders in San Francisco, Chicago Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Immigrants Alliance (CLIA), Immigration Equality from New York, the Queer Immigrant Rights Project (QuIR) from New York, and Out 4 Immigration (O4I) in San Francisco. Together we inaugurated a six-month-long process, going back and forth while producing 19 drafts of the statement. Our work together revealed key areas of agreement and difference among the LGBT immigrant rights organizers.

Most of the organizers working on the vision statement agreed on several important reforms including lifting the HIV ban and the one year deadline for applying for asylum, repealing the REAL ID Act, resisting militarization of the US-Mexico border, reinstating in-state tuition fees for undocumented immigrants, and creating a humane, nonpunitive path for legalization for the estimated 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants in the country. There were some differences of opinion, however. The most contentious issue concerned the framing of specific legislation that would allow LGBT American citizens and green card holders to sponsor their conjugal partners. The legislation, known as the “Uniting American Families Act” (UAFA), is a policy priority of Immigration Equality and O4I. These two organizations, though deeply involved in the work of framing the statement, finally decided not to endorse the final version once the decision was made not to centralize the UAFA in the document. The other organizers decided to argue against privileging conjugal couples generally, whether straight or gay, as the locus of immigration benefits, while arguing for the recognition of the flexible kinship and friendship networks within which LGBT immigrants live and work.[5]

After we sent out the final document in February 2007, seeking endorsements from key LGBT and immigrant rights organizations, we were met with several rejections from national LGBT organizations. Some claimed that the vision statement was too broad and not sufficiently focused on LGBT-specific issues.[6] This signaled to us the narrow understanding of immigration reform and social change in general of the mainstream LGBT rights organizations. However, we saw an exciting number of endorsements from LGBT centers across the country, especially those in immigrant-heavy states such as Washington, California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas, and Arizona. Political formations such as Stonewall Democrats of Colorado and statewide LGBT lobbying organizations such as Equality Illinois and Equality Alabama also endorsed the statement. Unequivocal endorsements came from LGBT labor organizations such as Pride-At-Work (AFLCIO), LGBT anti-violence programs including the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, and LGBT organizations of color such as the Audre Lorde Project.

The immigrant rights movement turned out a more positive response to the vision statement overall. National immigrant rights groups including the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the National Immigration Project, the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Friends Service Committee, along with several civil rights and local immigrant rights organizations, endorsed the statement. However, more centrist Washington-DC-based immigration policy organizations declined to endorse it. Their main objections included our outright rejection of the proposed guest workers programs, the punitive process for legalization of undocumented immigrants, and the construction of the fence along the US-Mexico border. The vision statement process was an exercise in cross-movement organizing, helping to push the LGBT rights movement to broaden its conception of immigrant rights and pressing the immigrant rights movement toward a more progressive, humane, non-heteronormative vision of immigration reform. It helped us identify progressive allies from the two movements on issues of LGBT immigrants.

The debate on immigration reform and rights of immigrants rages on, especially in context of virulent attacks on immigrant mobility through statewide legislation such as SB1070 (PDF) in Arizona (otherwise known as the “show me your papers” bill) or the passage of federal legislation such as the “Secure Communities Act,” which calls for heightened collaboration between local police and federal immigration officials. The cross-movement organizing tactics and a wider vision of social justice offered by the queer immigration vision statement of 2007 can still be seen in recent organizing initiatives. Debates flourished around the DREAM Act among young activists organizing around the rights of undocumented students. The DREAM Act calls for legalizing children (those not born in the United States) of undocumented immigrants who are attending school in the United States. The passage of the DREAM Act is predicated upon three crucial requirements: 1) undocumented students who will benefit from legalization need to provide military service; 2) acknowledgement of the parents’ undocumented status, and; 3) age restrictions, such as fixing the upper age limit up to 23 for those applying for relief. The DREAM Act organizing efforts, including national sit-ins at Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson, Arizona, have largely been carried out by undocumented young people.

LGBT undocumented students have been a huge part of the sit-ins and national protests. Many of them popularized slogans such as “undocumented and unafraid,” and “double coming out.” However, the movement’s youth leaders remain sharply divided over their engagements with US state and legislative process. In a public letter to the DREAM movement, Raul Al-qaraz Ochoa (one of the lead organizers of the sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office) rescinded his support from the DREAM Act. Raul calls upon the activists (popularly referred to as the “dreamers”) to critically examine their demands and the ways in which their dreams were being “manipulated by Democrats.” He further criticized the unquestioned acceptance of military service and acknowledgment of the “illegal status” of their parents.[7] Raul ends his open letter by reflexively acknowledging his position as a person of color holding US citizenship status, and yet raising critical questions. He asks:

So if I support the DREAM Act, does this mean I am okay with our people being used as political pawns? Does this mean that my hands will be smeared with the same bloodshed the U.S. spills all over the world? Does this mean I am okay with blaming my mother and my father for migrating “illegally” to the U.S.? Am I willing to surrender to all that in exchange for a benefit?

His critique points out the limited nature of the legislative strategies being adopted by the immigrant rights movement, and forces the DREAM Act movement to reconsider the web of relationships within which undocumented students flourish (namely their communities of origin and communities of residence). Raul’s critique, much like the queer vision Statement of 2007, seeks to disrupt the uncanny assemblage of heteronormative family, global capital, and the increasingly militarized US nation-state in which LGBT immigrant bodies remain deeply enmeshed.

The queer immigration vision statement was not the first attempt to offer a fuller vision of immigration and sexual reform within present-day United States, nor is it the seminal one. The vision statement, much like Raul’s blog, departs solely from asking for recognition of certain kinds of bodies from the US state. Queering immigration calls for an examination of the power relationships which undergird the lives and aspirations of LGBT-identified immigrants, and in doing so humbly seeks to join larger struggles against global capital and violence against racialized, sexualized, and feminized bodies across geopolitical borders.

Appendix A

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  1. Personal communication with board members of the Queer Immigrant Rights Project and Love Sees No Borders. See also: Heather Cottin and Namwiinga Simwiinga-Khumalo, “Movement Announces May 1 Actions for Immigrant Rights” Workers World, 27 Mar. 2007. [Return to text]
  2. Henry Hyde Tom Lantos Bill. Accessed on 1/23/2012. [Return to text]
  3. For a discussion of the history of the HIV ban, see N. Ordover’s article in this volume. [Return to text]
  4. See Eithne Luibheid, Entry Denied; Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002) 152. See also, Queers for Economic Justice, The REAL ID Act and NY State Driver’s License Policies (PDF). (New York: Queers for Economic Justice, n.d.). Accessed on 12/21/2011. [Return to text]
  5. See Marta Donayre, “Nuclear on the Concept—‘Immediate Family’ Needs Redefinition” New American Media 17 Aug. 2006. Accessed on 12/21/2011. Similarly see: Yasmin Nair, “Gay Immigration and (In) Equality” Windy City Times 6 Jun. 2007. Accessed on 12/21/2011. [Return to text]
  6. National LGBT rights organizations that declined to sign on to the vision statement include the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian and Taskforce, Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation, and Lambda Legal. Subsequent conversations were held with the National Gay and Lesbian and Taskforce, following which the task force agreed to partner with QEJ and other members of the “Lift the Bar Coalition” to work on repealing the US HIV immigration ban. [Return to text]
  7. See Raúl Al-qaraz Ochoa, “Letter to the DREAM Act Movement: My Painful Withdrawal of Support for the DREAM Act” 18 Sept. 2010. Accessed on 11/09/2011. [Return to text]
  8. Queers for Economic Justice, “Queers and Immigration: A Vision Statement” (PDF). (New York: Queers for Economic Justice, 2006). Accessed on 12/21/2011. [Return to text]