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Immigration activists turn to LGBT marriage work for ideas

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A panel held June 30 at Columbia College explored the parallels between LGBT rights and immigration rights activism, and considered what strategies activists working on immigration issues might utilize from the gay marriage push. The forum, "Rethinking Immigration Reform and Lessons Learned from the LGBTQ Community," was sponsored by Latino Policy Forum and Association of Latinos/as Motivating Action ( ALMA ).

Panelists included state Rep. Kelly Cassidy; David Munar, CEO and President of Howard Brown Health Center; and Moises Hernandez of Latinos Progresando. The panel was moderated by Julio Rodriguez of ALMA, and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez was a keynote speaker.

"One of the critical lessons is to not be too discouraged," Cassidy said, stressing the importance of both coalition work and following through with that coalition work.

"We had huge help from our partners in immigration community," she added. "We have to keep in mind that marriage isn't necessarily a capstone but a tipping point. Once comprehensive immigration reform is passed, it won't be the end [of immigration-related issues] either."

But many of the participants stressed that the "comprehensive" aspect of immigration reform might be one of its most problematic components, suggesting that activists might want to focus on specific parts of reform in a piecemeal manner.

"Can you imagine if DOMA and DADA were all in one bill?" asked Gutierrez, who said activists may want to try for more cumulative effects in realizing their goals. A more pressing need, he suggested, is to stop the current wave of arrests, detentions and deportations.

"The first thing you have to do today, when we have a thousand deportations a day, is you have to put people in a safe place," he said.

Another successful strategy for LGBT activists was fighting on multiple fronts, Cassidy added. She noted that both legislative and legal strategies have contributed to the recognition of gay marriage, and that activists nurtured legislative influence as they simultaneously agitated on the streets.

"This is, at its best, a symbiotic relationship, not an adversarial one," Cassidy said. "Some of the best folks are able to cross back and forth. … We always have to be mindful that the streets are as powerful as the halls of power."

Munar said, "It is important to nurture allies. …We have to bring in a diverse community beyond the Latino community, and we have to go deeper than the first generation."

Hernandez acknowledged that activists faced many challenges, noting that most of the immigration codes and rules that activists are facing off against were written in 1952. But he said that, if activists can harness the power of collective memory and personal narrative, they can be successful in the long-term.

"There is incredible power in these stories," he said. "If we don't have that collective memory we're doomed. … We need to herald our resources. You get knowledgeable, compassionate, and committed people who are going to do the heavy lifting [and then] take over the narrative."

Munar noted, "Stuff that bars folks from citizenship creates a permanent second class. That's what's fearful to our opponents—the powers of our citizenship used against them. … If we have to make incremental progress, we have to be ready to not let go."

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