Marching toward LGBT immigration equality

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So how does the debate on immigration affect the LGBT community? That was what the assembled LGBT media, who had gathered at the Desmond Tutu Center in New York City, addressed last weekend. We heard from a variety of immigration reform advocates.

Matt Foreman, best known as the former executive director of The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, put together a compelling program that hopefully will get the attention of gay media and the community to focus on an issue about to take center stage in the national debate — once healthcare passes Congress or passes into the history of dead legislation.

Here are some simple and yet powerful facts. Immigration is an LGBT issue since both groups have been used by the right wing as wedge issues. Immigration was used to keep gay people out of the U.S. until 1990. Currently, foreign partners of LGBT people have no right to stay in the U.S. after their tourist or worker’s visas expire, meaning they can be deported.

The best example of how an LGBT couple could be forcefully separated was demonstrated in the most compelling and emotional segment of the program.

In support of immigration reform, a march from Miami to Washington, D.C., is now underway by people who support reform and those it affects, called “Trail of Dreams.” Some of the participants are undocumented immigrants, those in this country without the proper paperwork — which doesn’t necessarily mean someone who just came across the Mexican border. Present at the conference via video-chat from Atlanta — where the marchers were last Saturday — were Felipe and Juan, a gay couple marching to obtain their dream to stay in the U.S. Both were brought to this country by their parents as minors and grew up here. This is the culture they know. Juan is a legal U.S. resident and whose family is originally from Colombia. But Felipe, whose family is from Brazil, has been here since he was 14 and is not a resident. Now 23, he and Juan can be separated by a knock on the door by immigration officials at any time. Yet they are participating in this march openly, holding hands as they walk from town to town. As the group of reformers walks, they stop in towns to discuss the issue with media and officials. They have also met with law-enforcement officials who, along with elected officials, often use illegal immigration as a political weapon. Each day, they wonder when and if Felipe will be detained.

Most of the other marchers are not gay, and Juan and Felipe had to educate them on LGBT issues. The pair said it took a while for the other marchers to warm up to them, but as they shared common concerns and worries, they bonded.

Let me be clear. I have not seen such bravery in the LGBT activist community such as this in a very long time. These men are literally putting their lives and relationships on the line for what they believe and because they do not want to hide anymore. That is the essence of the LGBT struggle for equality.

Of course, this compelling example is only one way immigration reform affects our community. Since 1994, about 1,000 LGBT people have applied for political asylum in the U.S. because they feared persecution in their home countries because of their sexual orientation. How big of a problem is that? Forty-nine countries around the world either have laws that allow death (eight) or imprisonment for LGBT people. Think Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Kenya, the religious police in Iraq and the dangerous homophobia of Jamaica as examples.

Immigration is our fight, and if you don’t think so, wait until you hear the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, with tears in their eyes, decrying the fact that immigration reform will allow sexual perverts and criminals into our country. “Sexual perverts” is code for gay. And it’s more than code: It was the wording the U.S. immigration department used to keep LGBT people from becoming citizens until 1990.

That same year, Felipe was 3 years old. Little did his mother ever expect that, 20 years later, he’d be marching across America for equal rights. There is nothing more American than that.

Mark Segal is PGN publisher. He can be reached at [email protected].