This past Fourth of July weekend, I attended what will remain as one of the most unique and influential conferences of my lifeDesiQ. Hosted by Trikone for the past four conferences, DesiQ brings together the international South Asian LGBTQ community and its allies for a conference every five (or so) years. Since "coming out" to my family nearly 10 years ago, I have immersed myself into queer spaces over time and am now a young veteran.
Thanks to the elders of our community, I am also an informed resource for young people and peers on being South Asian, queer, and a child of Muslim immigrants. The discussions that took place at DesiQ on immigration in particular have come at a critical time for this issue, and I am honored and humbled to be working on it in these historic times. In Washington, D.C., as the attention turns from the Senate to the House on comprehensive immigration reform, the realization that I am part of a national conversation that will have ramifications for years to come.
According to the Center for American Progress, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer undocumented immigrants are more likely to be male, younger, less likely to be Hispanic, and more likely to be Asian. To identify as LGBTQ and be a South Asian immigrant is also not a one-track narrative, and,issues such as H1B professional work visas, asylum, racial and religious discrimination, the need for legalization and a reduction in visa backlogs are leading concerns surrounding immigration reform for the South Asian LGBTQ community.
While India and China graduate nearly 1 million engineering students annually, it is no surprise that many H1B visa holders are young, South Asian men who immigrate to the United States on their own, often without any family ties. Among South Asian women in the sciences, technology, math and engineering, a disproportionate portion of them identify as lesbian or bisexual. Naturally, immigrating alone provides space for exploring one's self without familiar and cultural pressures from back home and in turn allows one to be more comfortable in openly identifying as LGBTQ.
This also, however, creates dread of returning to the homeland once an H1B visa holder has come out of the closet and become a part of the ever-diverse American LGBTQ community. With the recent ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), this can fortunately be amended for couples where one partner is a US Citizen. Access to permanent residency, thus, is a key necessity for visa holders to live independently and continue contributing to the communities and safety nets they have created here. Because same sex marriage is not legal in South Asian countries, questions still remain about the affects of the overturning of DOMA on whether provisions in the Senate bill allowing work authorization for the spouses of non-immigrant H1B visa holders will apply to same-sex spouses.
Similarly, the issue of asylum closely affects South Asian communities, particularly those from Muslim-identifying countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, which tend to be less welcoming of queer-identified individuals. As the US provides a safe space for asylum-seeking immigrants, we must consider the one-year filing deadline that remains in our laws and the strain that places on individuals who could return to living in often violently homophobic communities if they miss the filing window.
Racism, religious intolerance
and national security?
The South Asian experience in the past 12 years has been characterized by a heightened sense of racism and Islamophobia. With concerns over racial and religious discrimination loopholes in policies for national security needs, coupled with heightened hate crimes and surveillance of the Muslim and Sikh communities, we need increased judicial discretion and fairness. For queer South Asians particularly, navigating these identities and the triple-minority-discrimination is a struggle. Personally, if I had not met older queer South Asian immigrants to seek guidance from, maneuvering racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia simultaneously would have remained a struggle waged in isolation. Should these elders and next generation individuals be deported or rejected permanent residency, our support systems will actively disintegrate.
While improvements to the immigration system continue and with DOMA now nullified, South Asian LGBTQ immigrants are relying on the passage of a sensible immigration bill.
Accounting for one-tenth of the undocumented population of 11 million, Asian Americans account for nearly 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, including those from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. With 240,000 of them hailing from India alone, India has become the seventh highest country of origin for undocumented individuals in the United States.
Queers have been legalized through the striking down of sodomy laws and now DOMA, and in turn have been proven to invest our energy and time in building our informal and formal networks, and economies, into stronger systems. Legalization is thus needed for our members to live without fear of the authorities, without fear of how to finance their family's livelihoods, and with a stronger sense of community within the United States.
Keeping families together
Current immigration law designates green card quotas per country, no matter how populous the country nor how long the list.
Of the top seven countries with the largest backlogs, five of them fall in Asia, with India as the third and Bangladesh as the seventh highest. This also means that applicants from India wait much longer for permanent residency than those from almost every other country.
While the current Senate bill unfortunately removes the family reunification categories of adult married children and siblings, it takes efforts to reduce immense green card backlogs. With 4.3 million people caught in these backlogs, waiting to be reunited with their loved ones, nearly 2 million are Asian. Considering the safety and support networks queer individuals rely on, this means strides for the queer South Asian community. As we continue to push for sensible and comprehensive immigration policy reform, we must address the reduction of these backlogs and allow for the reunification of families within the next decade.
Fayzan Gowani is an immigration consultant for the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA). In 2011, she was part of a groundbreaking contingent of Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) LGBTQ young, emerging leaders to be invited to the White House for a special AAPI LGBT briefing.