‘Si Se Puede!’ Immigration is and needs to be a gay issue

May 22, 2006

Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications

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A statement from Matt Foreman, Executive Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

NEW YORK, May 22 — Let's see here…Iraq is a disaster and the treasury is hemorrhaging red ink to pay for it. Gas prices are soaring. Osama taunts us on videotape. Iran's going nuclear. Seven in 10 think the country's heading in the wrong direction. What do you do when you're in power and there's an election just around the corner? You trot out some old diversionary scapegoats once again.

Who would that be? Well, there's always us, of course. They've been ginning up their base on the backs of gay people since the Anita Bryant days. That's why we have Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist forcing a vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment and up to another 10 states putting anti-marriage/ anti-relationship-recognition-of-any-kind constitutional amendments on their ballots in November. But they need more.

So, they're reaching into their ugly bag of wedge tricks and are pulling out that tried and true issue — race. This time, it's couched in the cloak of the "immigration crisis." Hence, we've seen the spectacle of the House of Representatives passing a bill that would criminalize extending humanitarian assistance to undocumented persons and the construction of a 600-mile wall along the border with Mexico. How all of this will play out in the elections is unclear, but it's sure to be divisive.

When we put out a statement calling for humane immigration policies, we received thoughtful comments from people on all sides of this complex issue. Many said we should steer clear because this is not a gay issue.

We feel differently and here's why.

First off, there are many aspects of immigration that are undeniably "gay," such as the reality that at least 500,000 of the estimated 12 million undocumented persons now in this country are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Then, there's the fact that our bi-national couples cannot gain legal status for their partners like heterosexual married people. This is not some abstract or isolated problem. Our Policy Institute's analysis of 2000 Census data showed that more than half (51 percent) of men and over one-third (38 percent) of women in same-sex couples in which both partners are Hispanic are not U.S. citizens. Similarly, our 2005 survey of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT New Yorkers found that immigration was the top issue of concern.

And, it's personal. Many of us know of couples who have been torn apart by current anti-LGBT immigration policies or who refuse to be separated and live in fear. And now, the House bill would make it a criminal offense to "harbor" your partner. We also cannot forget that until the early 1990s, immigration officials banned homosexuals from entering the U.S. and that HIV-positive individuals are still barred.

That said, it would be disingenuous to argue this is the reason the LGBT community should get involved now. Barring a miracle, none of these LGBT-specific injustices will be addressed in whatever measure Congress produces. That means there are other reasons, and there are.

We need to recognize that the leaders of the forces of political and religious intolerance are not driven primarily by anti-gay animus, even though it often feels that way. Instead, under their frame, anti-choice, anti-environment, anti-welfare, anti-sex, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT philosophies not only fit together but are all intertwined. The immigration issue is a perfect example of how they do it. Both the Old and New Testament contain numerous admonitions to treat strangers from other lands well. (Failure to do so was the true sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.) How do you square that with the right's overwhelming support for "sealing" the border, increasing the capacity of detention facilities by tens of thousands and increasing penalties for those who hire undocumented persons? Presto: by pulling out biblical passages that say God demands that all people obey the laws of the state and the state's sovereignty is sacred. (Odd, these same passages don't seem to apply to laws that protect reproductive freedom. Oh, never mind.)

Those of us on the other side, however, lack this overarching and elastic frame. We're all desperately fighting defensive battles to protect our own very narrow slices of an ever-diminishing pie. By ignoring Ben Franklin's advice to all hang together, we are most assuredly in imminent danger of hanging separately, each in our own silos.

The LGBT movement has a long history of asking other causes to fight for us and then not being there when those causes have been under attack.

At the same time, we've seen that even modest work for "other" causes yields tremendous benefits. For example, the work the Task Force and other LGBT organizations did in California to oppose anti-affirmative action, anti-immigrant, and anti-choice ballot measures helped get the California NAACP and the United Farm Workers to support marriage equality and the major choice organizations allowing us to access their huge supporter lists to determine the level of support for marriage. Clearly, standing up for immigrant rights will pay big dividends for us.

Finally, there's the issue of simple humanity. We know what it's like to be demonized, to be blamed for all of society's ills. We know what it's like to have our families threatened, torn apart and denied legal recognition. It's happening every day.

Can we take a stand? Si se puede! (Yes we can!)


The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.