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Chicago forum discusses LGBT immigration reform

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Thursday Feb 18, 2010
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LGBT immigration reform was the topic of conversation for some 50 activists who gathered at the Center on Halsted on Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 16, for a discussion forum sponsored by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Strength in Unity Coalition. In addition to addressing the needs of gay and lesbian couples who are unable to sponsor their partners for citizenship while heterosexual couples can, forum panelists and attendees spoke on myriad concerns at the intersection of immigrant and LGBT rights.

Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley was on hand at the forum. He spoke tentatively regarding the likelihood of LGBT-inclusive immigration provisions passing the House and Senate before the year’s end. He said lawmakers were increasingly cautious to take on issues deemed controversial and he noted apprehension on the part of some immigration activists who view the inclusion of LGBT families in reform legislation as "throwing gasoline on the fire" for immigration opponents.

"While I’m optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform will pass [soon,] I’m pessimistic it will include GLBT people," Quigley said.

While many at the forum criticized Quigley’s frank words on the bill’s chances for passage this year, others pointed out any immigration reform would benefit gay and lesbian people, particularly undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship, access to health care and educational opportunities. Tania Unzueta of Amigas Latinas encouraged activists to move forward in their support of reform, even without the protections for bi-national couples.

Other panelists, including Latinos Progresando executive director Luis Gutierrez and Yasmin Nair of GenderJUST, spoke to the importance of coalition building, as progressive activists of every stripe, whether straight, gay or otherwise, fight together for reform. Nair, who spoke of a progressive history of fighting battles against the HIV travel ban and other legislation, said such coalitions have deep, even if forgotten, roots within LGBT activism--and the Obama administration lifted the ban last year after more than 20 years of activism.

Eric Berndt, supervising attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center’s National Asylum Partnership on Sexual Minorities, encouraged forum attendees not to forget about the plight of gays and lesbians seeking refuge from oppression in their home countries. He cited examples of Pakistani and Lebanese asylum-seekers encountering homophobia during their application processes.

A French-American couple and Jackie Frett, a member of PFLAG whose son had recently married his Australian partner in Iowa, all spoke emotionally to their families’ hardships dealing with their limited options for citizenship and living situations.

"It’s not fair and I want to know why this is still happening," Frett said, while choking back tears. "It’s tearing my family apart, I’m sick of it and I want it to change."

The topic of LGBT immigration reform has been an emotional and multi-faceted one for proponents since Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced comprehensive legislation last December. At that time, LGBT activists criticized the bill for excluding a provision that would have extended protections for same-sex bi-national families, a proposal included in an earlier incarnation of the measure.

Earlier this month, sixty members of Congress joined the fight for LGBT-inclusive immigration reform. Led by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Quigley among others, the lawmakers signed a letter in support of the passage of the Uniting American Families Act. According to U.S. Census data analysis, an estimated 36,000 gay and lesbian bi-national couples nationwide would benefit from the act’s protections.

"No one should be forced to choose between the person they love and the country they call home," the letter read. "It is time that our immigration laws kept families together instead of tearing them apart."

The bill, which has been introduced in various forms dating back to 2000, has never made it to the Senate or House floor, though it came before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for the first time last June. Gutierrez, long heralded as a champion of LGBT rights, said evangelical and Catholic opposition to the gay protections dissuaded many of his colleagues from co-sponsoring the act.

But despite these difficulties, several panelists emphasized that, emotions aside, the key to passing the legislation remains a numbers game. It is a game contingent on crafting messages that resonate with lawmakers and their constituents alike.

Rick Garcia, policy director for Equality Illinois, noted the importance of contacting lawmakers directly with visits and phone calls, in addition to creating coalitions that sometimes reach outside activists’ traditional comfort zones.

"It’s not enough to be right, we have to play the game better than our opponents," Garcia said. "We have to be louder, stronger and more clever than our opponents and I believe that we can be. If we play this game better, we will see truly comprehensive and inclusive reform, maybe not this year, but some day."

The conversation on LGBT-inclusive immigration reform and progressive coalition building continues at the Rudy Lozano Library on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 5 p.m.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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