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Two-day confab focuses on immigrant issues
by Yasmin Nair
2009-05-01

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The National Immigrant Justice Center ( NIJC ) , a program of Heartland Alliance, hosted a conference on LGBT Immigration issues entitled "Defending the Human Rights of LGBT and HIV-Positive Immigrants and Refugees." The conference took place March 26-27. The conference took place at Northwestern University Law School, 357 E. Chicago Avenue ( on the first day ) and the law firm McDermott, Will and Emery, 227 W. Monroe ( on the second day ) .

The United States bans people with HIV from entering the country. Various groups have been working to have the ban lifted since the early 1980s. Persecution due to sexual orientation can be grounds for asylum for LGBT migrants, but the process is often cumbersome and unwieldy. In addition, the U.S. government stipulates that such appeals must be made within one year of entry. However, most immigrants are not aware of this stipulation and the situation is especially complicated if they fear exposure within their immigrant communities or cannot be out about their sexuality in U.S. workplaces where conditions for LGBT citizens are still far from ideal.

According to Eric Berndt—an attorney with NIJC and a chief organizer of the conference—the purpose of this meeting was to create a space where lawyers, LGBT community activists and officials from NGOs could pool their resources. The aim was "to get everybody who's concerned about protecting LGBT and HIV migrants to get together and achieve protection for those people and, in addition to achieving the protection available in the law now, create coalitions that can reform the law to increase the available protections."

The first day of the conference was devoted to consecutive panels on specific issues like international LGBT organizing and current legislative reforms. Rosanna Flamer-Caldera opened the conference with her keynote address. Flamer-Caldera is the executive director of Equal Ground, an LGBT group based in Sri Lanka. She said there was a need for "international solutions on a global level."

The panel "LGBT Human Rights Violations: Objectives and Perspectives from around the World" featured Georges Azzi from the Lebanese group Helem; Georges Kanuma from Association pour le Respect et les Droits des Homosexuels ( ARDHO ) in Burundi; and Jawad Hussain Quereshi, a Pakistani gay activist. Each of them addressed region-specific issues: Quereshi spoke about the difficulties of organizing around HIV when "there is no clear national strategy in Pakistan" and it is illegal for stores to display condoms. Kanuma spoke about a current attempt to criminalize same-sex relations in Burundi, and the complex struggle to resist that among activists who must negotiate relationships with politicians while also seeking to find allies among international organizations. Azzi addressed how homosexuality was policed differently in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Conference attendees came with different perspectives as lawyers, community activists, and representatives of NGOs ( non-governmental organizations ) ; this resulted in the discussions where participants clearly had differences in terms of the strategies they preferred. For instance, several people questioned the focus on asylum as the best option for LGBT migrants. Both Kanuma and Azzi made it clear that they only supported asylum seekers leaving their countries in the most extreme circumstances, stressing that the real possibility for change came from changing country conditions.

On March 27, panels were organized around two tracks, one for practitioners and another for community groups and advocates. The emphasis was on legal strategies, identifying and educating LGBT immigrants about their rights [ this reporter was among the community presenters ] , and updates on legislation. Kara Hartzler, an attorney, spoke about the difficulties faced by LGBT immigrants detained for being undocumented and who might be outed to potentially unsympathetic lawyers and detention officials as well as potentially hostile fellow detainees. Julie Kruse of Immigration Equality spoke about the Uniting American Families Act, which seeks to allow U.S citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners as immigrants. Friday's events also included a keynote address by Gisela Thater, of the United Nations Human Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR ) .

The conference was clearly useful for many as a resource pool, and organizers were particular about giving people access to information and sharing documentation strategies. But there was also some sense that more needed to be done about addressing the structural problems facing LGBT immigrants. Akim Adé Larcher, of the LGBT group Egale Canada, said that he was struck by the lack of discussion around poverty and race in relation to LGBT immigrants. Referring to the UAFA ( Uniting American Families Act ) , he said he was surprised to learn that it did not include provisions for undocumented people and wondered about "solving issues around poverty, for people who don't have access to employment." Larcher also felt that there needed to be more discussion about how the U.S. "affects international discourse," and how its policies might create conditions that exacerbate issues for LGBT migrants. Mina Trudeau, director of Al-Fatiha, the U.S national organization for Muslim LGBTQ people, remarked that the conference had been "A good opportunity to connect with groups that are working on LGBT immigrant HIV and asylum issues" and for "sharing resources and collaborating to get the opportunities that individuals in our communities need."

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