By Tania Unzueta Carrasco
The immigrant-rights group Latinos Progresando ( LP ) has begun a campaign to create awareness of LGBT immigrant rights within the LGBT and Latino communities. They are working with a coalition of organizations including Amigas Latinas, ALMA, the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, Lambda Legal, Rainbow House, the Center on Halsted and Radio Arte, among others.
Laura Pichardo became a lawyer with LP six months ago, and she says that an initiative such as this one has been necessary for a long time. Aside from some of the legal obstacles, such as the lack of recognition of same-sex marriages, there are issues of asylum, domestic violence, as well as social problems such as the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist about LGBT immigrants within both populations.
Pichardo has the full support of the organization, including that of the board of directors and Luis Gutierrez, the executive director of Latinos Progresando. Gutierrez says that his organization is here to serve all of the Latino community, and that by ignoring the LGBT population, immigrant-rights organizations are doing a disservice to the whole community. 'We see it like the civil rights movement of the '60s and '70s,' says Gutierrez. 'It is important to support people who are part of the community, where there is discrimination.'
Part of this campaign will focus on addressing some of the legal boundaries faced by LGBT immigrants. 'We already know that many members of our community legalize their status through their family,' Pichardo explains. She says that a person who qualifies for residency in every other way, including having a partner who is a citizen, does not have access to the same process of naturalization that heterosexual couples do. 'This is a very big problem. It means that LGBT families are not respected or treated the same as other families,' noted Pichardo.
She also adds that this means that many immigrants who want to legalize their status turn to heterosexual marriage, sometimes meaning they have to keep their homosexuality a secret from their partners.
But this is just one of the problems. 'There are many members of our community who have to flee their countries because they live in a society where they are constantly threatened because of their sexual orientation' says Pichardo. While there have been some successful cases of asylum due to sexual orientation in Latin America, she says that 'there is still a lot of tension, lack of knowledge and prejudice in this country's system about the needs and experiences that they have in their countries.'
Then there are the legal issues people with HIV/AIDS face. According to current U.S. immigration law, an HIV-positive person can be denied entrance into the country, as well as lawful permanent residency, unless he or she gets a waiver.
Pichardo also maintains that this work may bring up issues that the LGBT community does not like to talk about, such as domestic violence. People who are in same-sex relationships who are victims of domestic violence and who are immigrants are not protected by the same laws that people in heterosexual relationships.
Specifically, she referrers to the Violence Against Women Act, which gives battered women the right to continue their residency process independently. 'These people suffer at the same level as heterosexuals,' argues Pichardo. 'The federal system and the immigration service have come to the conclusion that couples of the same sex are not worth the same as heterosexual couples.'
In general, though, Pichardo believes that it is not only about correcting these aspects of the law: 'It is a system that puts work and family in the center, meaning that a person has no worth within the system if they are not married or have a certain relationship with a citizen or a resident. The system is broken.'
But some of the hardest obstacles will be outside the legal arena. When asked how LP will work on educating both the LGBT and Latino communities on misconceptions about LGBT immigrants, Pichardo answers that it is a difficult question, but it is about making people realize their similarities, and making them see that LGBT immigrants 'are our family [ and that ] they live with us. Without them, we are not us.'
Furthermore, she said, 'We have to confront the LGBT community, because we don't like to admit it, but we have to deal with the xenophobia and racism that exists here.' The LGBT community has some of the same stereotypes about the immigrant community that the rest of the population does. ' [ Some of the stereotypes are ] that they take our resources, there has to be more protection in the border, they are a danger to national security, they don't pay taxes, they take advantage of public benefits, [ and ] they just take and don't give anything back,' Pichardo listed.
'But nothing could be further from the truth,' she continues, 'because immigrants give, give, give, and what they receive in return is very little.' Indeed, even undocumented immigrants are assigned an Individual Taxpayer Information Number that allows the federal government to tax the income of those without a social security number.
Additionally, a majority of undocumented immigrants never get the tax returns that they qualify for. In 2001, Alan Greenspan, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, said that in Illinois alone ' [ i ] llegal workers pay $547 million in taxes yearly, compared to $238 million in services used,' which leaves $309 million.
Nevertheless, it is not solely justifying a person's worth or contribution to the economy. The executive director of LP says that it is important for people to realize that discrimination against one group affects all. 'It's something ugly,' says Gutierrez, 'and we have to bring an end to it.'
Both Gutierrez and Pichardo invite all of those who are interested to join this movement 'to create education [ and ] to make change.' For more information about this initiative, or help with legal immigration services, visit latinospro.org or call LP at ( 312 ) 850-0572.