Immigration reform and the LGBT communityFeature Story, Bottom Highlights Thursday, August 15th, 2013
In the gloam of the Senate immigration debate, despite conservative Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s religious harrumphing about how any measure that included allowing bi-national LGBT couples the same opportunities as heterosexual ones have to apply for citizenship would derail reform, he, and many others, could not have possibly imagined what would happen Wednesday, June 26. “If this bill has something in it that gives gay couples immigration rights and so forth, it kills the bill. I’m done,” Rubio hissed. “I’m off it, and I’ve said that repeatedly. I don’t think that’s going to happen and it shouldn’t happen. This is already a difficult enough issue as it is.”
According to a study by the Williams Institute, there are close to 1 million LGBT adult immigrants, of which about two-thirds are documented and one-third are undocumented, and 32,300 LGBT bi-national couples living in the U.S. today.
Ironically, Rubio and his conservative brethren would be given cover by the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). By ruling that the law was unconstitutional, the five justices also opened the door to a kind of quasi-immigration reform by allowing the non-U.S. partner of a same-sex couple to apply for residency and petition for a green card. It matters not where the U.S citizen was born, lives or works. The federal government can no longer take into consideration the sexual orientation of the applicant. This effectively blunts any threat to immigration reform that conservatives in Congress saw as deal breakers.
And then, as if history’s thirst for consequence could not be sufficiently slaked, the U.S. Senate passed, by a lopsided 68-32 vote, an immigration reform bill that held out the promise of the American Dream for the approximately 11 million undocumented residents whose lives in the United States are lived amongst shadows and fear. In one week, the LGBT community and proponents of immigration reform saw the arc of progress bend ineluctably toward them.
Still, buried beneath all the glad-handing and jubilation, suffocating under the weight of a politically paralyzed nation is the DREAM Act, an oft-mentioned and only intermittently reported on bipartisan bill that could, legislatively speaking, carry the DNA of both immigration reform and the desire to be recognized by the state for a marginalized segment of the population.
The DREAM Act – an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors – is a bipartisan piece of legislation first introduced in 2001 by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) which seeks to provide conditional permanent residency to certain immigrants of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States as minors, and will have lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment. If they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning, they would obtain temporary residency for a six-year period. More importantly, as the DREAM Act’s portal passionately argues, “Over three million students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Most get the opportunity to test their dreams and live their American story. However, a group of approximately 65,000 youth do not get this opportunity; they are smeared with an inherited title, an illegal immigrant. The DREAM Act is a bipartisan legislation that can solve this hemorrhaging injustice in our society.”
The bill stipulated that anyone who entered the United States by age 16 or was no older than 25 and enrolled in a secondary or post-secondary education program or had a current application to a college or junior college and resided continuously in the United States for a minimum of five years would begin the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. And while a certain requirement here or a lowering of the age there was all show in the political jostle of D.C. politics, the misperception that states would be required to offer in-state tuition (when in fact the legislation merely stated states could offer in-state tuition) proved to be too much in a political-media environment often untethered from fact and antithetical to compromise which has contributed to its ongoing failure to become law.
But, despite the political machinations swirling around its intent, the DREAM Act’s passage wouldn’t just be a win for children whose only crime is to be caught in the crosshairs of a parent’s desire for a better life. But as Denise Serrano, the director of public affairs and civic engagement for San Diego’s LGBT Center, explains, members of the LGBT community would benefit as well. “The California Dream Act has had a tremendous positive impact on LGBTQ youth who were previously unable to receive state-funded scholarships for public colleges and universities. Students who meet the criteria (established in AB 540) can apply for and receive state-funded financial aid such as institutional grants, community college fee waivers, Cal Grant and Chafee Grant. We know that LGBTQ youth are at higher risk for homelessness, and when you factor in that many of the students that qualify for the California Dream Act are from immigrant families – which themselves can be undocumented or mixed-status households – that adds an additional layer of difficulty to staying in school and pursuing higher education. This is one tool that can help.” Denise added, “We also know that immigrants make positive contributions to the state’s economy and having a well-trained and skilled workforce is a boon for everyone.”
During an interview on a pundit cable show several years back, Howard Fineman, the American journalist and editorial director of the Huffington Post, had a brilliant response when one of the talking heads accused him of comparing apples to oranges. Howard, without missing a beat, replied, “Oh, I don’t know. They’re both fruit, they’re both round and they both have seeds.” It is that very same analogy which we can now use to thread immigration reform with same-sex marriage and, more broadly, LGBT rights in general. Both are hot-button issues for many Americans who tend to filter their views based on their cultural biases. We don’t want them coming to our country to take our jobs. Or, marriage is defined between a man and a woman. But our society evolved and reached a tipping point on same-sex marriage. Suddenly, it became clear that two people of the same gender getting married was not, in fact, a threat to opposite-sex marriage. And so it became possible for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide to rule favorably as state after state was legalizing the process.
So, too, are we in that same point on the arc regarding immigration? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released an analysis in June under the title: The Economic Impact of S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. It demonstrated the net positive gain Americans would feel by comprehensive immigration reform, including the DREAM Act. In other words, it would no more deleteriously impact what it means to be American than same-sex marriage would impact opposite-sex marriages. “We are hopeful that our elected officials will do the right thing by passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform. We need sensible immigration policies that recognize reality,” implores Denise Serrano. “Immigrants are already contributing members of our communities. They are a crucial part of our economic engine and the social fabric of our society. They are part of the future of our country. The obvious solution, and one that most Americans support, is to fix our immigration system so that everyone who lives here can contribute and participate fully and without fear.”
And fear, according to an article on Atlantic.com by freelance journalist Amy Lieberman, is exactly what propels many LGBT migrants to leave their homes and seek a better, less violent life in the United States. “The risks for transgender migrants, in particular, are greater than just the discrimination they face. Nearly 36 percent of transgender people who stayed in a migrant shelter in Mexico reported experiencing some form of violence, according to a 2013 study of 862 migrants conducted by the Mexican National Institute of Public Health. Meanwhile, 57 percent of transgender migrants who did not stay in a shelter reported violence.”
Friday, July 26, nearly 50 people gathered in the cavernous auditorium of the LGBT Center to hear Pedro Rios of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium speak. The subject? The state of immigration reform. But before his sought-after opinions were heard, Rios spoke about life along the border in San Ysidro where he was raised: the migrants walking through yards, not knowing if they were in California or Arizona; the anonymous and menacing vehicles parked out on the streets like something out of 1930s Germany monitoring everyone’s comings and goings; the random appearance of state and government officials knocking on people’s homes in the hopes of ferreting out the undocumented. The picture he painted, and the word he used to describe that picture, was indeed ‘dehumanizing.’ But, he argued, by ‘dehumanizing’ this group, it was easier to then make them the target of American bias. They were, after all, the other.
The LGBT community knows a little something about dehumanization. We have all faced it at some point. But the struggles we have had to overcome point not to defeat but to greater assimilation within the American fabric and our society has become stronger for it. Now, with immigration reform and the DREAM Act, Americans, who overwhelmingly support comprehensive reform, are prepared to make another leap forward on the arc of progress. The question is: will politicians, given the paralysis of the U.S. Congress, aid, stall or set back the potential that each of us has when we are freed from the constraints of bias?
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