by Yasmin Nair
The Chicago-based LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Organization hosted a town hall forum to discuss immigrant issues Sept. 27 at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.
Mona Noriega, commissioner of human relations for the City of Chicago, was the moderator and took online questions ( as the event was streamed live online ) as well as inquiries from the floor. Panel presenters included U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago, 4th District; and Mike Quigley, D-Chicago, 5th District.
Other panelists included Karen Zwick, supervising attorney for the LGBT Rights Initiative at the National Immigrant Justice Center ( NIJC ) ; Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights ( ICIRR ) ; Reyna Wences, co-founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League ( IYJL ) ; and Tania Unzueta, advocacy coordinator for the Association of Latino Men for Action ( ALMA ) . Unzueta is also a co-founder of IYJL.
Both lawmakers left an hour after the start of the forum, while the remaining panelists stayed to take questions from the audience in the room. The panel addressed four issues particularly relevant to the LGBTQ immigrant community: prosecutorial discretion, as outlined in an Aug. 18 Obama administration memorandum that lists 19 factors, including age at entry and a lack of a criminal record that enforcement authorities take into account when considering immigration and deportation cases; same-sex binational couples and the Defense of Marriage Act; detention conditions for LGBTQ immigrants; and asylum on the basis of sexual orientation.
As to the issue of prosecutorial discretion, Gutierrez said that it provided "an opportunity to show the strength of the movement." Both he and Zwick emphasized that the memo did not mean that immigrants no longer faced the possibility of being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement ( ICE ) . Zwick said the benefits "should not be overstated."
Gutierrez talked about the Uniting American Families Act ( UAFA ) , proposed legislation which would enable LGBT citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration. He said that "UAFA will be an important part of CIR." Both legislators talked about the importance of recognizing a broader definition of family that would recognize LGBTQ relationships.
Kevin Goodwin took the floor to describe the struggle facing him and his Indonesian partner, who is applying for asylum.
On the issue of asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation, a key problem has been the one-year deadline ( from the time of arrival ) by which LGBTQ individuals must apply. Many immigrants miss the deadline simply because they don't know about it in the first place. Gutierrez said that a new proposed version of CIR would eliminate the deadline.
The Department of Homeland Security and ICE detained 400,000 this past year and amongst them are LGBTQ immigrants who have been reporting instances of sexual harassment and assault and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Quigley spoke of the attempt to get the General Accounting Office to investigate such charges. In April, NIJC released a mass civil-rights complaint about the "abuse and mistreatment" of thirteen immigrant detainees in the custody of the DHS. Gutierrez said, "We don't need legislation to keep a prison safe."
Following the legislators' departure, the remaining panelists took questions. Wences, speaking about the asylum issue, said that "we have to be very careful about categories, by making and reinforcing categories we are leaving out LGBT people" who do not fit the official requirements.
Unzueta pointed out that prosecutorial discretion was complicated for undocumented immigrants. As an example, she said that drinking under the influence was, under normal conditions, a misdemeanor but without a driver's license— which undocumented people cannot get— it becomes an aggravated felony, making someone ineligible for prosecutorial discretion:
"Someone who's a citizen is not treated the same way."A audience member asked about access to lawyers which is difficult or impossible for most people picked up by ICE. Panelists acknowledged the problem. Another raised the issue of the continuing emphasis on family and relationships as a strategy, evident in the lobbying around immigration reform, and wondered about whom that left out. Unzueta and Wences acknowledged that expanding definitions of family was not enough but that it was an issue of strategizing how to "navigate the options we have, which are very limited." Tsao said that emphasizing family was a way to engage the conservative religious community.
The LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Coalition is composed of several local organizations, including Amigas Latinas, ALMA, IYJL, Congregation Or Chadash, ICIRR and NIJC; Julio Rodriguez of ALMA asked all concerned organizations to consider joining. This was the first forum to bring lawmakers to a public forum on the two issues of immigration and LGBTQ issues, there have also been three community forums in previous years, hosted by the former Chicago LGBTQ Immigrants Alliance, members of which were also in attendance here. [ Disclosure: This reporter was part of that alliance. ]