Monday, 21 February 2011

In US, gay illegal immigrants face legal, social challenges

Doug Gentry and Alex Benshimol
Source: The Press Enterprise

By David Olson

Doug Gentry and Alex Benshimol have been together nearly six years. The Cathedral City couple plans to spend the rest of their lives together.

But Benshimol, a Venezuelan immigrant, faces deportation for overstaying his visa. The couple's marriage last year in Connecticut doesn't protect them because the U.S. government does not recognize same-sex unions.

"We're married but we're nothing to the government," Benshimol said.

An increasing number of gay illegal immigrants are going public with their stories, some risking deportation to homelands in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people face harassment or violence.

Some, like Benshimol, are in marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships with U.S. citizens, legal bonds that are typically no help in gaining legal residency.

Others fled anti-gay and transgendered repression.

Equality California Institute recently held a forum in Redlands to discuss the challenges that undocumented gay people face. It was one of a series of workshops on the issue being held throughout California by the institute, the nonprofit arm of Equality California, the state's largest gay-rights group.

Yvonna Cazares, an Equality California volunteer who moderated the Redlands forum, said "the struggles are very similar: the discrimination, the bullying coming out as undocumented or les-gay."

Geoffrey Kors, the group's executive director, said he hopes the forums lead to more pressure to change laws - like the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act - that bar federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, last year co-sponsored the Uniting American Families Act, which would treat permanent same-sex partners of U.S. citizens and legal residents the same as opposite-sex spouses for immigration purposes.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports greater restrictions on immigration, said activists should not create special exceptions in immigration law to the federal definition of marriage.

About 24,000 U.S. same-sex couples include at least one foreign partner, according to an estimate by UCLA's Williams Institute.

Marriage is not a guarantee of residency for all heterosexual foreign spouses, but marriage strengthens the straight partner's case.

Benshimol entered the United States on a visitor visa in 1999. It expired six months later.

He said he and his then-partner left Venezuela for Miami because they were unable to live as openly gay for fear of harassment. The two broke up, but Benshimol stayed in the United States, moving to Cathedral City, then meeting and later marrying Gentry.

Gentry helped Benshimol opened a pet-grooming business and then petitioned for a green card for Benshimol.

"We tried to do the right thing and get the paperwork," Gentry said. "But by trying to do the right thing and filling out the paperwork he of course became part of the system."

In 2009, the government initiated deportation proceedings. The next hearing is in July.

"Our big fear is we'll either be separated or have to move to another country," Gentry said. Some gay and transgendered immigrants came to the United States after facing violence at home. The government has recognized a well-founded fear of persecution based upon sexual orientation as a valid asylum claim since 1994.

Bamby Salcedo, 40, a transgendered woman and president of the nationwide Trans Latino/a Coalition, said she was repeatedly beaten in her hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico. Sometimes her attackers were strangers looking for transgendered people to assault; once a policeman attacked her, she said.

She fled to California, where she lived illegally for 17 years before filing for asylum in 2003. It was granted in 2004, she said. Salcedo, of Glendale, said she didn't apply earlier because she didn't realize anti-transgender persecution was valid grounds for asylum and worried that immigration lawyers might harbor anti-transgender bias.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people live in the United States illegally even if they could be eligible for asylum, said Shannon Minter, legal director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. Some fear if an asylum claim is denied, they would be deported to a homeland in which they would face violence or death. Others face difficulty proving they are gay, because they were forced to conceal their sexual orientation in their home country, he said.

Mariana Gitomer, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency does not track asylum requests by sexual orientation or gender identity.

Same-gender sex is illegal in more than 80 countries, and gay people face the death penalty in several, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to Amnesty International.

Last month, a Ugandan gay activist was bludgeoned to death after a newspaper published photos of him and other gay and lesbian people next to the words "Hang Them." The Ugandan government, which is considering a bill that would impose the death penalty for repeated same-gender sex, denied the murder was a hate crime, but human-rights groups are calling for a more thorough investigation.

Krikorian said the United States cannot accept every gay person who faces repression in his or her homeland. All women face severe discrimination in many of the countries in which gays are repressed, and allowing legal entry to any oppressed person would give potentially billions of people the right to immigrate to the United States, he said.

Gay undocumented Californians face their own type of discrimination and harassment, said Dan Torres, program manager of Proyecto Poderoso, which was created by the lesbian-rights center and California Rural Legal Assistance to help low-income lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered immigrants in rural California.

Lesbian and gay undocumented victims of hate crimes, job and housing discrimination and domestic violence are less likely to contact authorities because of their legal status, Torres said.

Some fear a complaint will lead to widespread knowledge of their sexual orientation in tight-knit rural communities. In addition, some social-service and legal organizations in rural areas aren't sensitive to the needs of gay and transgendered people, he said.

Many also have more difficulty finding jobs, friends and support because people in their immigrant communities may ostracize them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, said Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, a New York.-based gay immigration group.

Last week's forum at the University of Redlands featured three undocumented-immigrant students, two from the Inland area.

Javier Hernandez, who immigrated from Mexico when he was 6 months old and grew up mostly in San Bernardino County, feels a double stigma. In Pomona, where he lives now and where a third of the residents are immigrants, Hernandez is comfortable wearing his "I Am Undocumented" T-shirt - but he's been called anti-gay slurs. In neighboring Claremont, he is comfortable being openly gay but wonders how people in the mostly white city would react to the T-shirt.

Jesús Barrios, 21, said he was bullied while growing up in South Los Angeles because other kids thought he was gay. He came out as both undocumented and gay while in high school in Rialto.

Barrios, who arrived from Mexico when he was 3, said if he were deported "it would be devastating. My entire family is here. Going back would be like going to a foreign country, where I have no friends and no family."

But despite the risks, Barrios has become an activist on behalf of undocumented students at Cal State San Bernardino, where he studies public health.

"We hope when we share our stories and our struggles, we will increase the number of people who will back us up," he said. "When people understand this on a personal level, they're more likely to be supportive. If we continue to stay in the shadows, nothing will change."
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