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Queers and Immigration Reform: Where Do We Stand? [10 January, 2008]

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On January 8, The Washington Times reported that Mike Huckabee supported amending the constitution so that children born in the US to “illegal aliens” could not automatically become American citizens.  On January 9, the same paper reported Huckabee’s denial that he supported any such measure. 

Those of us who identify as Liberal, Progressive, or Left might be tempted to dismiss this as the usual blather from the Right.  We consider ourselves infinitely superior on the topic of humane immigration laws.  But what do we really understand as substantive and significant immigration reform?  On January 21, 2009, immigration will once again become a divisive issue.  Where will queers stand in relation to the immigration reform movement?  Where will the immigration reform movement stand in relation to the queer community?

Why are the interests of the two groups seen as incommensurable with each other?

When it comes to immigration, a lot of queer energy is being spent on the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which benefits bi-national couples (where one partner is a citizen/permanent resident and the other a foreign national).  The UAFA would make it possible for U.S.  citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex “permanent partners” for immigration, something that straights can already do.  Groups like HRC and Immigration Equality have decided that UAFA is the single most important piece of immigration legislation that matters to queers.  But what’re the real issues in immigration?  And why is that the queer community and queer organisers aren’t motivated to act on immigration reform except when it comes to the narrow self-interest of queers?  Who benefits from the UAFA?  More importantly: Who suffers?

As I’ve written in a piece on changing the paradigms of queer immigration and in previous articles on marriage and immigration and the UAFA, the immigration crisis is about labour.  We want cheap and easily exploited labour to bring us our cheap and plentiful orange juice and we also want the “right kind” of immigrants -- those who’re “qualified” and able to become “contributing citizens.” As if immigrant day labourers, for instance, are nothing but cankers on society, waiting in the wings to “take American jobs” from hard-working citizens.  The UAFA isolates queers from the workforce – defining queers as simply “permanent partners” in “committed relationships,” as if queers aren’t ever workers in any capacity and can only be reduced to their roles as mates for life.  But if we’re being asked, as a community, to mobilise around this “cause,” we ought to ask how it connects to larger immigration reform.

The UAFA is mired in the concept of “family reunification,” the idea that people should be able to sponsor their spouses/partners and children for immigration.  But, as Eithne Luibhéid shows in her revealing book, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border, family reunification has always been about exclusion, not inclusion.  It has always privileged particular types of families (heteropatriarchal, with the father determined as the bread-winner); has kept out specific ethnic groups (“Asiatics” as opposed to Europeans); and controlled women’s sexuality (female spouses were closely examined for any signs of moral deviation and fixed in their roles as wives).  Family reunification law requires that the sponsoring partner can support dependents at 125% above the mandated poverty line.  That cuts a lot of people out of the picture.  And families considered undesirable are treated as less than human.  Consider, for instance, this Counterpunch report about the euphemistically named T.  Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, where nearly 200 children of immigrants awaiting deportation hearings are forced to live in subhuman conditions with the threat of separation from their parents. 

Many binational couples live in anxiety and spend a lot of their scarce resources devising ways to stay with their partners; not all of them have the money and resource to fly back and forth between countries.  But stories like the one about the Pfizer executive living with his Brazilian partner in London reinforce the idea of class privilege and mobility.  These people, we’re implicitly reassured, are good and stable, the kind we’d want living next door to us.  The UAFA would not help undocumented couples, or even the undocumented partners of citizens.

And then there’s the dramatic language used by so many proponents of UAFA, about “going into exile” or, even more contradictorily, “self-exile.” Yeah.  Right.  Pablo Neruda.  Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  And some guy who’s able to relocate to Toronto to be with his partner.  You’re forced into exile, a political condition, when your life is in danger.  Relocating and/or moving between two countries can be difficult and taxing but that, my friends, is not exile.  That’s mobility.

And what does the privilege of sponsorship really mean for straight people, especially women whose dependence on their husbands’ sponsorship leaves them vulnerable to spousal abuse?  What about people like Aalimah, a lesbian trapped in a heterosexual marriage who’s trying to get out of a desperate situation?  H-4 status, which is what you get as a dependent spouse, means that you don’t get a social security number and can’t apply for jobs.  The Hindu has reported on the widespread abuse of women on H-4 visas, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think that queers are incapable of such abuse.  And then, of course, there’s the fact that H1-B visa holders are themselves prone to exploitation by their employers, who can force them to endure terrible working conditions under threat of cancelling their visas.  All of which is to say that family reunification/partner sponsorship does nothing to get at the underlying problems with immigration legislation.

Given its troubling history, it’s time for the Left to rethink our support for family reunification.  And for queers to question the UAFA.  The Right has dubbed family reunification “chain migration” in order to play on our worst fears about hordes of invading “aliens.”  But the fact that the Right is against something does not mean that the Left needs to automatically support it (the Left, has, in recent years, mostly defined itself in response to the Right.  As opposed to devising a truly Left agenda.  But I digress; that’s a post for another day).

Queer organising used to be dismantling economic structures of privilege and redefining structures of kinship in ways that straights have since embraced.  Somewhere along the way, we – or rather, the increasingly powerful gay organisations that speak for us and articulate “our” agenda – have decided that we want to expand, not destroy, privilege.  Instead of fighting for basic rights for everyone.

So what do we support, as queers and as people who’d like to see real immigration reform?  Being critical of the UAFA isn’t about hostility towards binational couples but about questioning the value of organising around a concept and legislation that does nothing to change or even shift the problematic paradigms around which immigration legislation is built.  In my article, I ask readers to question their gay groups about their long-term support for immigration reform.  But do I really believe that we should depend on them, or that they’ll actually adhere to any promises they might make about a long-term commitment to the issue, once the UAFA is passed?  No.  The solution lies not with gay groups but with queers figuring out and asking hard questions of ourselves.  The ENDA fracas showed us that it’s dangerous to let a major gay organisation like HRC establish itself as the voice of the community.  When it comes to immigration reform and to politics in general, we queers have so far tended to substitute affect for any substantive call for economic and political change.  We have depoliticised politics.

If we remove affect from immigration reform, it becomes clear that concepts like “family” and “permanent partnership” only distract us from the real issue of exploited labour and the privileging of certain classes of people (doctors and lawyers over day workers).  But consider what would happen if we demanded something as simple as dropping the dependency requirements and enabling spouses/partners to come here as people with economic rights – such as applying for jobs and getting social security numbers.  That alone would mean looking at everyone, not just “workers,” as self-sustaining individuals with rights, not as dependents.  Now consider allowing undocumented people without families, who don’t want to get married in order to stay, to petition for themselves as self-sustaining workers.  That, along with reform of the labour laws so that workers, whether day workers or H1-Bs, aren’t exploited, is no more complicated or onerous than the current system of sponsorship.  Defining immigrants as people with economic rights instead of as dependents would make for fairness.  And that, not marriage and not “permanent partnerships,” is what truly gives immigrants, straight and queer, the same rights as citizens.  In contrast, the UAFA threatens to take us back fifty years, to a time of social relationships defined by dependency.

Orginally published on The Bilerico Project, 10 January, 2008.  Read the many comments here.


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