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Forum looks at immigration post-DOMA
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer

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The LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Coalition of Chicago and the Adler School of Professional Psychology hosted a panel of immigration attorneys and mental health professionals Oct. 7 to discuss immigration law now that a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down.

Affinity Community Services Executive Director Kim Hunt and immigration attorney Robert M. Romero-Perez, both members of the LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Coalition of Chicago, moderated the discussion. Hunt began with a history of immigration law as it impacts LGBTQ people.

In 1965, the U.S. immigration law was amended to exclude homosexuals. After the start of the AIDS crisis, people with HIV were similarly denied entry. In 2004, the Bush administration invalidated all legal marriages between two individuals where one or both parties claimed to be a transsexual. Over the years, immigration restrictions were gradually lifted in a series of case laws that culminated in the U.S, Supreme Court Decision regarding section three of DOMA this past June.

However, according to the panelists, immigration remains a complex issue for LGBTQ people with few concrete guidelines to be found. Even the Department of State, and the USCIS disagree when it comes to interpreting aspects of immigration law such as where the marriage of an LGBTQ immigrant was celebrated verses where the couple lives.

Esther Baruja, a Paraguayan national who arrived in the U.S. three-and-a-half years ago talked about her own experiences trying to enter the United States as a permanent resident with her Ohio-born wife. Owing to the restrictions placed on them by DOMA, it was impossible for Baruja to get any kind of stamp on her passport other than a B-2 tourist visa, which allowed her a maximum stay of six months.

Starting in 2006, Baruja applied faithfully every year for the Diversity Immigrant Visa (green-card lottery) costing the pair upwards of $2,000 in application fees and interviews. In 2010, she was granted permanent residency, but not because the U.S. recognized that she was married to a U.S. citizen. "The way that I got here was alone," Baruja said. "It was so dehumanizing, because I was with my partner already for many years."

Angela Fadragas, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in immigration and bicultural issues, noted that the immigration process disrupts the natural development of the family due to involuntary separation, extreme stress and fears of deportation.

For LGBT families going through the labyrinth, there can be even higher levels of anxiety. The repeal of DOMA may have edged open the door for people like Barujas and her wife to enter the country as a couple but they still face tremendous obstacles.

"Proving your marriage is bona-fide is harder for LGBT couples," said Vanessa Esparza-Lopez, a supervising attorney for the Immigrant Legal Defense Project. By example she noted one of the documents needed to prove to the Department of Homeland Security that a marriage is genuine is a joint tax return. In many cases, fear of discrimination keeps an LGBT couple from filing together. If a marriage is deemed to be fraudulent, then the immigrant is barred from petitioning again. LGBT immigrants in detention, prior to deportation proceedings, face solitary confinement ( in the case of transsexuals for 24 hours per day ) even if they have no criminal record.

Ultimately, confusion still reigns as to whether an LGBT applicant should or should not be considered a legal immigrant in the eyes of the law, and decisions are often at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security.

Dr. Elena Quintana, the executive director of the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at the Adler School, said there is still a long way to go. "As a country, we're celebrating a movement from 'what do you think you're doing in America?' to simply, 'hi'. Somehow we need to get to 'I'm so happy you're here.'"

Additional panelists were immigration attorneys Andres Cerritos and Solomon Myers.

See the complete discussion on the Windy City Times Youtube channel, .

Photo captions

Kim Hunt, Andres Cerritos, Dr. Elena Quintana, Solomon M. Myers, Angela Fadragas, Vanessa Esparza-Lopez and moderator Roberto M. Romero-Perez. Photo by Tracy Baim.

Esther Baruja. Photo by Tracy Baim

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