Thursday, September 6, 2007

Immigrant Advocates: LGBT Groups Aren't Doing Enough

The immigration debate within the movement for LGBT rights continues as this article I wrote for EDGE earlier this week. Blogger Jasmyne Cannick sparked widespread outrage last April with her assertion that equality for LGBT Americans should come before equality for immigrants. The movement almost universally condemned her comments but the door remains ajar for accusations of hypocrisy on this issue. Its leaders are quick to point out that they care about LGBT immigrants and LGBT bi-national couples but their own record on these issues, one can conclude, indicates otherwise.

Less than six weeks after an HIV-positive Mexican transgender woman died in federal custody, a forum that included a prominent member of Congress took place in New York that illuminated the plight of LGBT immigrants and bi-national couples.

The forum took place at the LGBT Community Center in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, Aug. 28. More than 150 people attended the event, which was co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and the New York-based group Immigration Equality. New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler [D-Lower Manhattan] was among five panelists who called upon the federal government to lift what they maintain are unfair and discriminatory laws.

"Unfortunately same-sex couples who are committed to spend their lives together are not recognized as families under current federal law," Nadler said. "The law should never be unnecessarily or gratuitously cruel."

Nadler wrote the proposed Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) that would allow gays and lesbians to sponsor their foreign-born partners to immigrate to the United States. He reintroduced UAFA earlier this year. U.S. Sen. Patrick Lahey [D-Vt.] followed suit in the Senate. All of the Democratic presidential candidates support UAFA.

Opponents maintain the bill would provide a back door to legalize marriage for same-sex couples. Some even claim UAFA opens the door to increased fraud. HRC Senior Counsel Cristina Finch quickly dismissed these arguments. "It’s an excuse," she said at the Aug. 28 meeting. "It has something to do with homophobia and not seeing our relationships as the same as heterosexual couples."

Gay Men’s Health Crisis Assistant Director for Research and Federal Affairs Nancy Ordover agreed. She co-chairs the Lift the Bar coalition that seeks to end the long-standing ban on HIV-positive immigrants from immigrating into the country. President Bush announced on World AIDS Day last December that his administration planned to review this policy.

Ordover delivered a blunt assessment of the White House’s announcement. "It didn’t do anything for HIV-positive immigrants," she said. "Nor did it promise to."

The immigration debate remains an issue with which the movement for LGBT rights continues to struggle. Immigration Equality remains at the forefront of efforts to highlight LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants while the HRC, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force are among the national organizations that have devoted resources and even staff to advocate for these causes.

Bienestar, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and Equality California were among the organizations that joined the Mexican American Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF) and other pro-immigrant organizations at a vigil in Downtown Los Angeles late last month to pay homage to Victoria Arellano, 23, who died in a Southern California federal detention facility. Her family and fellow detainees claim Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) denied her necessary HIV medication. She was the third detainee to die at the San Pedro facility since 2004.

An ICE spokesperson confirmed to EDGE in a previous interview that more than 60 others have died in its detention facilities since 2004. Arellano’s family plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal law enforcement agency.

Some within the LGBT rights movement, such as Glenn Magpantay of the Gay and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) maintain that gay groups have failed to advocate on behalf of LGBT immigrants. "On the whole, our community has done squat on immigrants and LGBT immigrants," he told EDGE after the New York forum. "Gay immigrants are at the door of our community. We need to stand up and speak out."

Argentina-born filmmaker Sebastian Cordoba agreed. His documentary "Through Thick & Thin" chronicles seven bi-national LGBT couples who share their personal stories about their struggles with the American immigration system. Cordoba, who now lives in Brooklyn, hopes his film sparks renewed interest and activism in the LGBT movement. "This is something Americans should be fighting for," he said.

George Wu, of the Washington-based Asian American Justice Center, and MALDEF Staff Attorney Eric M. GutiĆ©rrez agreed as they answered audience questions during the forum. GutiĆ©rrez conceded these issues often pose challenging questions. Activists within both the LGBT and immigration rights movements need to put aside their differences if they hope to secure significant changes to the current immigration system, he said: "We need to join forces. At some point you have to stop saying that’s us and that’s them."

Ordover also embraced this message. "If it’s not good for immigrants, it’s not going to be good for LGBT immigrants or HIV positive immigrants," she said.

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