Action for LGBT immigrants sought at White House rally

This article was originally posted on Washington Blade. 

Following news that President Obama won’t take executive action on immigration until after Election Day, activists rallied before the White House on Tuesday to call for an immediate change to help LGBT people facing unfair or discriminatory treatment under the current system.

Speakers at the rally, which was attended by about two dozen people, consisted of advocates from LGBT organizations as well as LGBT immigrants who shared personal stories of harassment or discrimination they’ve faced both in the United States and overseas.

One speaker, who went by the name “Jose,” is a 25-year-old gay man who now lives in California after he fled El Salvador at age 17. In his home country, he was attacked and sexually abused by homophobic gang members, who at one point put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him because he’s gay.

Although he since has been granted asylum, he faced harassment in this country when he was arrested by immigration officials last year and sent for five-and-a-half months to a detention center in South Texas, where he was threatened with deportation back to El Salvador.

“Being a gay man in a detention center, I felt scared,” Jose said. “One of the detainees openly said that he was gay, and he was literally insulated from everyone. No one wanted to talk to him; no one wanted to be with him. That made me feel threatened. That made me feel scared of saying something. Day by day, being in that horrible place, in that detention center, I was living my nightmare again.”

Attendees at the event wore red shirts saying, “Immigration is an LGBTQ issue.” A group of other attendees held up a banner from the Latino group United We Dream that said, “Families over Politics,” and one waved a rainbow Pride flag with the words “Liberation Not Deportation.”

Another speaker, who went by the name “Fernanda,” is a 36-year-old transgender woman from Honduras who fled to the United States after facing extreme violence in her home county because of her gender identity. Her remarks were translated from Spanish by Kimberly Inez McQuire, director of public affairs for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Instead of being welcomed in the United States, Fernanda was placed in a detention center and was at risk of being assaulted, she said, because she was placed with detainees who were were mentally ill.

“It is time for this country to turn our attention to understand the stories of trans woman in detention who are mistreated psychologically, verbally, who are repeatedly assaulted and attacked for being who they are,” Fernanda said.

Activists at the rally also took note that among the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States are an estimated 267,000 LGBT people. Because of Obama’s inaction, the speakers predicted that an additional 70,000 immigrant would be deported before Election Day.

The White House announced over the weekend that Obama would take no action for at this time on immigration — despite his promise to use his pen to help the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted that Obama’s plans to address this issue by the year’s end haven’t changed, but no action will happen for the time being because it could subject the immigration issue to “gross distortion and partisanship.”

“And we don’t want to do that,” Earnest said. “And that means the president is willing to take on a little heat and be criticized by — certainly by Republicans, but even by members of his own party in order to protect the issue — because ultimately that is the goal.”

Although the rally took place in front of the White House, activists didn’t singularly target Obama for his inaction on immigration, but also Congress for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

At the conclusion of the rally, activists announced they would take buses down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill to protest in the offices of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

The immigration group United We Dream conducted a sit-in on the same day that led to arrests in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid(D-Nev.). Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, told the Washington Blade her organization is co-ordinating with other groups on the additional actions that will likely be a combination of direct action and civil disobedience, although a firm date hasn’t been set.

Another speaker at the rally was “Oliver,” a 28-year-old gay man who fled Nigeria to the United States because of the anti-gay hostility in his country — where he said he was blackmailed daily.

But after moving to the United States, Oliver was among the homeless youth in New York. Although he has won asylum, he said he can’t return to his home country because of the law recently signed by Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan criminalizing homosexuality.

Oliver said keeping the asylum system in the United States intact is important to ensure the safety of LGBT people seeking refuge from persecution overseas.

“I would use this opportunity to call on Obama and the Congress to consider my story, and hopefully the stories of all the amazing people here, and remind them that we as human beings deserve the right to live,” Oliver said. “It’s a fundamental basic human right, and sending us back to those countries where we’re fleeing from is sending us back to our deaths.”

Joining immigration activists at the rally were advocates from LGBT groups that don’t have an express purpose for working for the immigration community, but nonetheless saw a connection between LGBT rights and immigration rights.

Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, impressed the idea that LGBT issues and immigration issues are one and the same.

“Too many LGBTQ people have experienced harassment and discrimination, and persecution, simply because of who we are and who we love,” Nipper said. “And while we have made significant strides in this country in many ways, strides toward freedom and equality for LGBTQ people, that promise has still yet to be fulfilled for many. And that’s why we’re hear today. These people are us; we are them.”

Other advocates who spoke at the rally were Sergio Lopez, director of Latino programming for the LGBT group Freedom to Marry; and Luis Aguilera Garcia of GetEQUAL, a gay undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

Although he qualified for deferred action on deportation under the DACA program, Garcia said his hopes were dashed after the White House announced Obama wouldn’t take additional action on immigration at this time because he wanted his mother to be eligible for the same relief.

“The only my mom want is to go see my grandmother,” Garcia said. “My grandma is in Mexico; she cannot speak and she cannot hear. My mom has not been able to talk to her, or hear her, for 17 years. I want to give her that hope to be able to say that you can go back, you can drive, that you can do this because you deserve it.”

At the conclusion of the rally, participants chanted together the same line uttered by GetEQUAL years ago when the organization first began pushing for rights for LGBT people: “I am…somebody…and I deserve…full equality.”

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