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Queer Immigration: Change the Paradigms [9 January, 2008]

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The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) is back in the news.  Currently, heterosexual married citizens and permanent residents can sponsor their non-citizen spouses for immigration.  The UAFA extends that privilege to same-sex binational couples, substituting the words ‘permanent partner’ for ‘spouse’ in the language of immigration law.  Stories about binational couples emphasize that their relationships aren’t considered as equal to those of married people.

The UAFA looks like a progressive cause.  But whom would this law affect and how? Is this really a progressive idea whose day has come? Is it tied to a progressive/left vision around immigration reform?

I’ve written previously about immigration and the UAFA.  Gay groups like Human Rights Campaign, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Immigration Equality have cynically manipulated the topic of immigration reform in order to advance the cause of ‘binational’ couples.  I have friends in binational relationships, and don’t deny the real pain and anxiety they go through.  The problem lies in the framing of the issue.  The emphasis on documented couples as more deserving of protection undermines progress towards immigration reform that benefits all immigrants, undocumented or not, single or otherwise.

The UAFA is isolated from the larger immigration movement in its emphasis on the rights of American citizens/permanent residents to sponsor their documented partners.  It places immigration in the realm of love and affect, separating it from the issue of exploited labor—which is at the heart of the current immigration crisis.  Undocumented couples or undocumented immigrants with citizen partners will not benefit from the UAFA.

The language of the UAFA privileges retrograde relationships.  Couples have to prove that they are “financially interdependent” and “intend a lifelong commitment.”  Queer feminists should be appalled at such language.  But more importantly: what do we know about how such interdependence works for straight couples?

Consider the case of Aalimah (not her real name).  She’s here on an H-4 ( Dependent Visa ) because she came here with her husband, who has an H1-B (Guest Worker Visa) .  The visa allows him to apply for permanent resident status for both of them.  Her problem? She’s a lesbian trapped in her marriage.  She’s been suicidal and depressed over her invisibility as a lesbian but can’t get out of an intolerable situation.  She can’t find support within her South Asian community; she doesn’t have the support of her family; and she’s not economically independent.  Remember that bit about financial interdependence?  If you’re on your spouse’s H1-B, you can’t get a social security number and you can’t apply for jobs.  Aalimah’s best option is to be admitted to a University and start the long and slow process of establishing her professional credentials.  But she needs her husband’s financial support.

And she’s one of the lucky ones.  In 2004, The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, reported on the physical and economic exploitation of women on H-4 visas.  We might be tempted to dismiss such stories as indicative of bad cultural practices.  But do we really imagine that queer US citizens or permanent residents are above the coercion and exploitation of their partners?  Do we really think that this system, which gives such power to one person over another, is a good thing?

So why do we cling to these antiquated notions of family, love, and financial interdependence? Instead of asking why queer couples don’t have the same privileges as married people, we ought to ask: why do married people deserve those privileges over unmarried people in the first place? Why not advocate for a system that doesn’t demand dependency but lets people enter and stay, or leave, on their own merits?

If we queers are really concerned about immigration, we need to stand with Immigration Rights activists and consider reform for the long term and for all.  This means being critical of the rhetoric of “family reunification,” which privileges family and erases issues of labor.  Consider The Chicago Reporter story about workers who’re denied legally mandated medical coverage by bosses who exploit their fears of deportation.   Consider Aalimah, who has the kind of visa status we’d want for queer immigrants.  Consider asking your favorite gay advocacy group: how will you advocate for change even if and after the UAFA gets passed?  We need to work on reform that matters to all of us, not just because it validates gay bodies and relationships.  Our interest should lie in dismantling the status quo, changing the paradigms and asking for a more complex but more just world.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 9 January, 2008


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