The modern gay rights and current immigration movements may seem like two dissimilar issues; however, the two issues have much more in common than what initially meets the eye. The push for human dignity, respect, and equality under the law are dominant themes underlying both minority movements. And, with a large population of gay immigrants seeking refuge in the United States, the LGBT community cannot afford to shy away from ever present immigration concerns.
The United States has historically opened its doors to those seeking a better life, but as times have changed, so too has America’s stance on immigration. Today, immigrants hoping to join America’s melting pot are not always met with welcoming arms, a sentiment all too familiar to many LGBT individuals.
As the push for equality on both fronts moves forward, Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of Washington, D.C.’s Center for Community Change, believes the immigrant movement can take a page out of the LGBT book in noting, “I think the LGBT movement is one of the few progressive social justice movements that is really moving the country in the right direction. The work that the LGBT movement has done on every front, from legal and legislative to cultural, offers a good model for the immigrant rights movement.” One thing is for sure, the LGBT community has been extremely successful at garnering outside support. An increasing number of non-LGBT individuals have become passionate about standing up for LGBT rights. Arguably, this shift in attitude among straight allies is what has helped propel the LGBT movement forward. In the same regard, immigrants must work to garner the support of the non-immigrant communities in order to have a viable chance at gaining equal footing.
LGBT issues are not confined to naturally born LGBT citizens. LGBT immigrants face the same discrimination and abuse as any other LGBT individual. “LGBT People who are not legalized are often afraid to report hate crimes, fight job or housing discrimination, report police abuse, or stand up for their own civil rights, which will have an impact on all other LGBT people”, reports Kevin Cathcart, Executive Director of Lambda Legal. In addition, LGBT individuals in detention, especially transgender individuals, are oftentimes subject to brutal discrimination and abuse. Thus, as Bhargava points out, immigration needs reform because currently, “[p]roviding a path to citizenship is a gay issue. For so many LGBT people, it is the single most transformative thing that could be done to improve their lives.”
Just as LGBT issues are not confined to naturally born LGBT citizens, immigration issues are is not solely confined to immigrants. Although immigrants are more likely to have a same-sex partner located outside of the U.S. and are unable to petition the government for their partner to come to the U.S., immigrant couples are not the only ones torn apart by the current policy. Under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, U.S. citizens and legal residents may sponsor their foreign “spouse” for immigration purposes, but because under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage, same-sex partners are not considered “spouses” for immigration purposes. As a result, foreign born individuals comprising 50% of same-sex couples continue to face deportation, even in situations where a same-sex couple may be legally married under prevailing state law.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which includes the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which was reintroduced into the Senate this past June, looks to overturn the current policy. UAFA would not end DOMA. Rather, UAFA was purposefully drafted to circumvent DOMA. If passed, the legislation would allow U.S. nationals to sponsor their foreign-born same-sex permanent partners for citizenship. The Human Rights Campaign website (www.hrc.org) provides the following explanation of the bill.
UAFA defines “permanent partner” as an individual who is at least 18 years of age who is in a committed relationship with another individual at least 18 years of age who is not a first, second or third-degree blood relative, with the intent that this be a lifelong commitment.
The individual must be financially interdependent with his or her partner, cannot be married or in another permanent partnership and must be unable to enter into a marriage recognized under the INA with the partner.
UAFA will provide lesbian and gay individuals the same opportunity as different-sex, married couples to sponsor their partner. Like different-sex couples, there are requirements such as providing proof of the relationship — including affidavits from friends and family or evidence of financial support. As with current immigration laws for married couples, UAFA would impose harsh penalties for fraud, including up to five years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines.
The UAFA has been introduced into every session of Congress since 2000; however, the stand alone act continuously failed to garner majority support. Advocates of the measure hope UAFA will perform better this time around packaged as part of the overall immigration reform, but with little bi-partisan support, the Act will have a hard time navigating its way through Congress, especially since the Republicans have taken up defense of DOMA.
Although it would not end DOMA, UAFA’s passage would be a huge step forward for both the LGBT and immigration movements. And while indeed the two communities share common goals and face similar pitfalls as outlined above, one factor separating the two communities remains – the notion that the large wave of immigrants is comprised of socially conservative individuals who typically oppose LGBT rights. This notion, combined with the fact that many immigrants are supported by Catholic and evangelical churches, makes the idea of joining the two forces difficult. Nevertheless, Bhargava believes there is “tremendous openness in the immigrant community for the LGBT agenda.” With any luck, the two sides can merge common agendas and work together toward fighting discrimination and bringing about equality for everyone.