Latinos Progresando, a Chicago-based immigration-rights organization, invited a wide array of agencies and not-for-profit groups whose client populations include ethnic minorities, underserved communities, and LGBT individuals for a discussion Feb. 1 at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. The meeting's goal was to foster a better understanding of each organization's mission and resources so that all may become more responsive to the particular needs of LGBT immigrants.
Approximately 30 representatives from Amigas Latinas, ALMA, Orgullo an Accion, Latinos United, Equality Illinois, Lambda Legal, AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, Vital Bridges, Rainbow House, Sara's Inn, Center on Halsted, Heartland Alliance, Illinois Hunger Coalition and Homofrequencia attended. Law students from DePaul University were also present. Using a mix of anecdotal testimony and brainstorming sessions, the participants first identified the psychological, legal and financial dynamics at play when an immigrant's sexual orientation prevents or delays his or her access to social services.
For both documented and undocumented LGBT immigrants, some decisions can require a lot of risk assessment. Fear of compromising their legal status or of being deported often keeps them from accessing essential health services, seeking legal counsel or simply advocating for their own civil rights. When they do reach out for help, LGBT immigrants are sometimes discriminated against or refused services by biased and poorly trained staff. Felicia Ramos, a case manager at Rainbow House, pointed out that while the domestic violence shelter was about to open its doors to homeless transgenders, not everybody appeared ready to deal with such individuals.
Moreover, when it comes to obtaining legal residency in the U.S., LGBT couples have no legal standing to file reunification claims because same-sex marriage is not federally recognized. Mona Noriega, Regional Director of Lambda Legal's Midwest Office, cited a number of court cases to illustrate the difficulties gay and lesbian individuals and families encounter. On this point, activist Yasmin Nair warned against what she perceives as a conformist tendency to peg equal rights to marriage.
But it was generally agreed that being routinely forced to weigh the different aspects of their identity and choose which one to put forward makes LGBT immigrants more vulnerable. Putting an end to this detrimental fragmentation is the motivation behind Latino Progresando's initiative. 'Individuals should be dealt with holistically,' legal services program supervisor and staff attorney Laura Pichardo said in explaining the burgeoning alliance's mission.
To this end, participants began laying the groundwork for the creation of a comprehensive referral network among the different service providers. However, educating staff and members about anti-LGBT discrimination was identified as the fundamental task. Encouraging immigration rights groups to include LGBT sensitivity in their training and then getting them to address LGBT issues publicly was accepted by all as the next logical step.
Other projects are also in development. Latinos Progresando is currently building a free directory of LGBT-friendly immigration resources, which it will distribute to organizations in PDF form so they may put a link to it on their respective Web sites. A town-hall meeting on the topic of LGBT immigration is intended for the spring, possibly to coincide with a Human Rights Watch press conference.
Some participants used the opportunity to announce how their groups are planning to tackle the issue. The Heartland Alliance's Midwest Immigrant & Human Rights Center is looking into hiring an attorney that would work exclusively on LGBT asylum cases. The AIDS Legal Council of Chicago is supporting a petition to make legal resident status permanent. Latinos United will hold a free information session ( in English and Spanish ) on immigration reform, including the controversial Real ID bill, on Feb. 25.
Maricela Garcia, a board member of Latinos United, reminded attendees that Real ID will be debated and voted on this month in Congress. Among the bill's many punitive provisions is the criminalization of any person who offers help to an undocumented immigrant. First introduced in January 2005 by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., Real ID has attracted a lot of criticism for broadening the definition of 'terrorist organization,' authorizing the construction of a fence along the U.S. border, and limiting the appeal process in refugee and asylum cases. Garcia spoke of the need for all immigrant populations to mobilize and generate public outcry.
After an evening of reflecting and sharing on the dual themes of sexual orientation and immigration, the group decided to reconvene on March 8 to strategize. Studying the intersection of identities is producing a welcome synergy that promises to yield tangible benefits across multiple communities.