Queering Immigration

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Queering Immigration: Perspectives on Cross-Movement Organizing
By Debanuj DasGupta 
Read the full article here.
Tara is a 27-year-old transgender woman from Guyana. When she entered the United States at JFK airport in New York, she declared to immigration officials that she was escaping lifelong torture and recent rape in Guyana and was seeking asylum in the United States. To her surprise she was held in an immigration detention facility, chained, and denied hormone treatment. She was able to receive legal representation and was granted asylum after living in the detention center for three months. Even though Tara claimed that her gender identity was female, she was put in the men’s ward and subjected to intense verbal and physical abuse by other detainees and the detention officers.
Raul is a 38-year-old gay HIV-positive man from Brazil. He has lived in the United States for the last 15 years, first as an international student and then on a work visa. His work sponsored him for a green card and he was told that his application was approved. During the mandatory medical exam Raul was informed that he was HIV positive, and his application was instead denied. Since then Raul has lived in the United States illegally, and cleans apartments for eight dollars an hour in San Diego.
Atif is a 32-year-old gay man from Bangladesh. He has been a lifelong target of violent Islamic fundamentalists in his neighborhood for being effeminate and having a Christian boyfriend. After his boyfriend was murdered in front of him, his mother sold all her jewelry and bought him a plane ticket to New York. He arrived just days before 9/11. For years he has suffered from depression and addiction, and has been working at a Dunkin’ Donuts for an hourly wage of $5.75. He was picked up in an immigration raid and held as a detainee for five weeks. Upon his release he got in touch with a fledgling LGBT immigrant support group, and was able to obtain representation. His application for asylum was denied, but he was granted “withholding of removal” (he is allowed to live and work in the United States, but is never able to leave the country).
Tara, Raul, and Atif are among millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants living in the United States whose lives are caught between sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and exploitation of labor across global borders. Queers for Economic Justice estimates that there are over 1 million LGBT undocumented immigrants in the US who are in dire need of immigration reform.[1]
Immigration laws in the United States are largely based on two policy priorities: the reunification of “families,” and “merit.” Family ties are defined on the basis of the heterosexual nuclear family, leaving LGBT households and relationships largely outside the protection of immigration law. The ban on HIV-positive immigrants to the United States also created great hardship, as in Raul’s case. Many LGBT immigrants without “qualifying relationships” have been unable to obtain an HIV waiver, making access to treatment difficult, if not impossible.
The debate on immigration reform and rights of immigrants rages on, especially in context of virulent attacks on immigrant mobility through statewide legislation such as SB1070 (PDF) in Arizona (otherwise known as the “show me your papers” bill) or the passage of federal legislation such as the “Secure Communities Act,” which calls for heightened collaboration between local police and federal immigration officials. The cross-movement organizing tactics and a wider vision of social justice offered by the queer immigration vision statement of 2007 can still be seen in recent organizing initiatives. Debates flourished around the DREAM Act among young activists organizing around the rights of undocumented students. The DREAM Act calls for legalizing children (those not born in the United States) of undocumented immigrants who are attending school in the United States. The passage of the DREAM Act is predicated upon three crucial requirements: 1) undocumented students who will benefit from legalization need to provide military service; 2) acknowledgement of the parents’ undocumented status, and; 3) age restrictions, such as fixing the upper age limit up to 23 for those applying for relief. The DREAM Act organizing efforts, including national sit-ins at Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson, Arizona, have largely been carried out by undocumented young people.
LGBT undocumented students have been a huge part of the sit-ins and national protests. Many of them popularized slogans such as “undocumented and unafraid,” and “double coming out.” However, the movement’s youth leaders remain sharply divided over their engagements with US state and legislative process. In a public letter to the DREAM movement, Raul Al-qaraz Ochoa (one of the lead organizers of the sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office) rescinded his support from the DREAM Act. Raul calls upon the activists (popularly referred to as the “dreamers”) to critically examine their demands and the ways in which their dreams were being “manipulated by Democrats.” He further criticized the unquestioned acceptance of military service and acknowledgment of the “illegal status” of their parents. Raul ends his open letter by reflexively acknowledging his position as a person of color holding US citizenship status, and yet raising critical questions. He asks:
So if I support the DREAM Act, does this mean I am okay with our people being used as political pawns? Does this mean that my hands will be smeared with the same bloodshed the U.S. spills all over the world? Does this mean I am okay with blaming my mother and my father for migrating “illegally” to the U.S.? Am I willing to surrender to all that in exchange for a benefit?
His critique points out the limited nature of the legislative strategies being adopted by the immigrant rights movement, and forces the DREAM Act movement to reconsider the web of relationships within which undocumented students flourish (namely their communities of origin and communities of residence). Raul’s critique, much like the queer vision Statement of 2007, seeks to disrupt the uncanny assemblage of heteronormative family, global capital, and the increasingly militarized US nation-state in which LGBT immigrant bodies remain deeply enmeshed.
The queer immigration vision statement was not the first attempt to offer a fuller vision of immigration and sexual reform within present-day United States, nor is it the seminal one. The vision statement, much like Raul’s blog, departs solely from asking for recognition of certain kinds of bodies from the US state. Queering immigration calls for an examination of the power relationships which undergird the lives and aspirations of LGBT-identified immigrants, and in doing so humbly seeks to join larger struggles against global capital and violence against racialized, sexualized, and feminized bodies across geopolitical borders.