Why I’m not happy & gay about immigration reform

I’ve written before about the new argument, popular among organizations either connected to the administration, or which receive funding from immigration-rights funders, that the immigration bill is a “gay rights” bill.

This, even though the immigration bill, in its current form, has already dropped the one gay rights provision that the gay community has long been asking for, UAFA.

UAFA, you might recall, is the Uniting American Families Act.  In a nutshell, if you’re American and you marry your non-American spouse, your spouse can remain in the US.  If you’re gay and you marry your non-American spouse, under DOMA they can’t be recognized and they get deported.  UAFA would fix that (as might overturning DOMA – but there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen, and in any case, we only have marriage in 9 states and DC). UAFA would fix that.

The Obama administration, to its credit, included UAFA in its immigration reform proposal earlier year this.  While the US Senate, and particularly New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, knifed us in the back, and killed UAFA’s inclusion in the current compromise legislation.

Kerry Eleveld, in a new piece for Salon, worries that perhaps the White House is now wavering on its previous commitment to including UAFA in the omnibus immigration reform bill.  And I don’t blame her, or them.  Why should anyone put UAFA back in the bill, now that our top gay rights groups, in concert with liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress, keep informing gay Americans that we already got most of what we wanted in immigration reform?

Specifically, those groups are claiming that immigration reform is a gay rights bill because it will help (they say) some 250,000 gay and trans undocumented immigrants.  They reach this number, apparently, by assuming that 2.5% of undocumented immigrants are LGBT, a conservative estimate of how many people are gay in the US overall.

And while that may be true, it’s also true of every piece of legislation that isn’t particularly gay at all.  Every piece of legislation, in principle (save anything dealing with federal benefits for marriage) will affect a certain pool of Americans, 2.5% of whom will be LGBT.  So, under this logic, as I noted earlier, every piece of legislation is a gay rights legislation, be it a tax bill, an environmental bill, or a celebration of National Ice Cream Day (since 2.5% of ice cream eaters are presumably L, G, B or T).

In addition to this logic making every bill a gay rights bill, it’s actually worse than that. The bill could affirmatively cut you out, and it would still be “your” bill.  As I explained earlier:

Under that logic, a non-Trans-inclusive ENDA [employment non-discrimination legislation] would still be trans-inclusive, and could even be called “trans legislation,” because trans-people-who-are-gay would be helped by the legislation.  And in fact they would –  the same way that gay people who are undocumented immigrants would be helped by the immigration bill. Yet, I suspect that argument wouldn’t go over too well with the trans community, or most of the gay people arguing that immigration reform is really a gay issue, and I’m not sure why it should go over any better with the gay community itself.

I object on its face to the intellectual dishonestly of claiming that immigration reform, sans UAFA, is a “gay rights” issue.  Prerna Lal, over at Huffington Post, calls this the “pinkwashing” of immigration reform.

It strikes me as an attempt to co-opt our movement for the benefit of another – because “gay” is in, so let’s make everything “gay” – and worse, to co-opt our community into not speaking up against an obvious injustice (why complain when the bill is already gay!).  And while progressives are generally supportive of immigration reform, rightly so, pinkwashing a bill that knifes our community in the back will only help to kill any chance UAFA has of making it into the final bill.  Here’s why…

Back in 2000, there were 36,000 binational gay couples who would have benefitted from UAFA, using US Census data.  One assumes that number would be larger today.  But let’s stick with 36,000.  That’s 36,000 non-Americans who would be helped.  The immigration bill as it stands, sans gay, we are told, will help 250,000 lgbt immigrants.  So that means of a total 286,000 gay or trans people, 250,000 are already being helped by the current non-UAFA bill – or, 87% of our community will be helped by the bill.  Hurray!

Who needs UAFA when we’re already getting 87% of what we asked for!

And don’t think for a minute that Schumer and everyone else won’t use that fact against us when we once again ask for UAFA when the bill goes to committee (something that is much harder than simply including it in there from the git-go).

And it’s even more insidious than that.  The community at large, if they’re not following this issue that closely, will already “know” that the immigration reform bill addresses the needs of gays – it is, after, a “gay rights bill” – so why work to make it any gayer?

Of course, the gay groups didn’t ask for that 87% of all gays who are being supposedly helped by this legislation.  It’s not like the 250,000 undocumented lgbt people affected by the immigration bill were somehow excluded from the bill until Gay Inc. signed on.  And it’s not like they’d be excluded if the gay groups signed off.  The 87% are not covered by the bill because they’re gay.  They’re covered by the bill because they’re undocumented.  Taking our seat at the immigration table, while nice of us, doesn’t appear to have gotten us anything in return, like an actual seat at the table.

Now, that’s not to say that joining coalitions is a bad thing.  It can be a very good thing to devote your limited time and resources to the causes of other progressive movements.  Not the least of which because hopefully those coalition partners will help us in the future on something we care about.  (Of course, good luck getting UAFA passed after the immigration bill is over – immigration will be “done” at that point, and Congress will probably be reluctant to address it again for a long time coming.)

I have to say, I’m having a hard time thinking of an actual example in coalition politics, when groups were asked to join on to legislation as a gesture of kindness to sister-movements, and the legislation in question specifically axed those groups that are joining on to show their camaraderie.  It’s a bit like inviting someone to dinner, only to inform them that they won’t be eating after all, but you’ll be happy to let them wash the dishes.

Would women’s groups support the immigration bill if women’s concerns were suddenly dropped from it?

Would Latino groups join on to a gay rights bill that specifically cut Latinos’ #1 concern from the bill?

It’s just a bit odd to have groups sign on to legislation that specifically excludes them and their number one issue.  That’s not the way coalition politics usually works.  At worst, you sign on to legislation that has nothing to do with you, to be a good team player – and at best, you sign on to something that does include.  But you don’t normally sign on to something that slaps you in the face and tells you that you’re mere existence is simply too embarrassing to address, and resolve – but nudge nudge, wink wink, the bill “really” covers you anyway.

Now, some are saying that once DOMA is overturned by the Supreme Court in May or June, UAFA will no longer be needed.  And that’s not even completely true.  First off, are we really convinced that the Supreme Court is going to overturn DOMA, 100%, and nationwide?  Maybe they will.  Maybe they won’t.  Second, even if they overturn DOMA, you still won’t be able to have your partner stay if you live in one of the 41 states that don’t let gay people marry.  So DOMA is no guarantee of anything.

Look, I’m glad immigration reform is finally getting it’s day in the court of public opinion.  And I’m glad that the gay and progressive groups are suddenly talking more about UAFA, now that people have been getting publicly annoyed that it’s not in the bill.  But everyone’s outspoken support of how gay a bill is that specifically axes the number one immigration request of the gay community, will only make it all the harder to include us later.

And worse, I’m not convinced that anyone will lay down in the tracks for UAFA when the time comes (again) – be it the administration, the gay groups, the progressive groups, or the immigration groups.  I hope I’m pleasantly surprised.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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