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Panel focuses on queer APIs and immigration [17 March, 2010]

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The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) is currently hosting a series of LGBT immigration public forums in cities across the country.  These events are designed to bring about public discussion of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) and to educate LGBT Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and allied organizations on immigrant rights.  The group hosted one such exhaustive and detailed presentation March 8 at the Merlo Public Library in partnership with its local members and ally organizations Invisible to Invincible (I2I): Asian and Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago; Trikone-Chicago, an LGBT South Asian Group; and Akabaka Productions, a Queer Muslim Group.  The panelists were Ben de Guzman of NQAPIA, Chicago queer Muslim activist Ifti Nasim and local immigration attorney Mimi Wilson.

It is estimated that there are currently 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.  Immigration activists, emboldened by the Obama victory, are pressing for another reform package after one failed to make headway during the Bush years.  For LGBTQs, immigration reform is an issue for a number of reasons, including employment status; asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation and romantic partnerships with citizens/permanent residents.  The speakers emphasized that the interests of LGBTQs and immigrants are not mutually exclusive.

No one can be denied entry into the United States because of his or her sexual orientation or a same-sex relationship.  However, lesbians and gays cannot sponsor their partners for citizenship or permanent residency while married straight people can.  Some gay and lesbian groups and immigration groups are attempting to rectify that via the Uniting American Families Act which would exactly replicate the current system of spousal sponsorship.  The most famous case currently under review is that of the Philipino-American lesbians Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado, who face separation if Tan is deported because of having been undocumented.

Wilson talked about three ways in which queers might gain entry/citizenship: employment-based, family-based and asylum.  Ifti Nasim, a Pakistani Muslim man, spoke of his work and that of SALGA (the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, now largely inactive) Chicago in aiding appeals for political asylum.  Nasim said it has become much harder for Muslims to gain admission after 9/11, let alone gain asylum.  For instance, all Muslim immigrants over the age of 16 from 18 countries, including Nasim’s native Pakistan, are now subject to greater scrutiny of their visa applications and must register and be fingerprinted.

de Guzman spoke of NQAPIA, which has more than 30 chapters and makes a point of distributing multilingual flyers and information brochures.  He said, “We do two things: Work with LGBTs on race and economic issues and with others to address homophobia and transphobia in a way that reflects different experiences and languages.”  He added that they were “thinking intentionally about whom we are including in CIR.  The attempt is to create a transparent process that depends on coalition building.”

de Guzman said that the issues of immigration reform were fourfold: a path to citizenship that could bring the undocumented out of the shadows; family reunification petitions; concerns about heightened enforcement and militarized borders and detention centers; and future flow or how to continue making immigration measures more humane.  Regarding the Asian American immigrant and queer community, he said that queers faced the fact that “our stories are not part of the mainstream dialogue.”  In addition, “the LGBT focus in the queer community has been very narrowly focused on binational couples.”  He was in favor of reform that would help couples like Tan and Mercado, referring to them fondly and proudly as his “sisters” (they are not biologically related to him).  But he also said that mainstream gay groups need to stop using UAFA as a “litmus test” by which to judge their support for CIR, noting that such an attitude indicated a “profound disrespect…[w]e need a dialogue that covers all four issues.”

As an example of heightened enforcement, he spoke of Cambodian refugees who were caught shoplifting and deported on charges of aggravated felonies (the heightened charge is a result of a 1996 Act which expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” in immigration law to include minor offenses.)  Queer and transgender immigrants “have very limited access to health care in detention centers that often don’t even process women, much less trans people.”  He added that, “[W] hat is required is not the addressing of LGBTs in CIR but LGBT aspects of CIR,” and that the current need for reform also indicated a pressing need for “intersectional analysis” and that “it’s at the margins, [amongst queers and transgender people,  that the boundaries between categories break down.”  de Guzman also pointed out one of the triumphs of recent LGBT immigration reform issues: the lifting of the HIV ban.

The discussion afterwards focused on local efforts to bring about greater dialogue between communities and their queer members.  Members of I2I reported being welcomed when handing out flyers at the recent Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.  There is a mass mobilization for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., March 21.  A group calling itself Rainbow Riders will be leading two buses of queer immigrants and allies from Chicago.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 17 March, 2010

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