Tragedy ... and Possibility
I, like all of you, have felt the heaviness borne of mindless violence and tragedy in the wake of the bombings in Boston. My birthday was April 15, and now that date will be remembered for yet another national horror. In the days since the attack, I can’t help but think about the very different world my kids are growing up in. Their reality of life in this country is shaped by far too many moments like the nightmare in Boston. Now we, like most every other family blessed with health, resources, and luck, know that our lives are more joy than pain and more light than dark. But still, I feel more than ever a commitment to doing all I can to make a small difference in the country my kids call home.
NCLR has always been a multi-issue organization, in part because we understand, as Audre Lorde put it, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We know that because the LGBT community IS everywhere, our organization must be where our people are. We also know that a nation which withholds justice, fairness, and humanity from some will be a nation that is no friend to us. The juxtaposition of the Boston attack and movement in Congress on immigration reform provided our family with a teaching moment. While there may be terrible events that we cannot control, we can always strive to live out our ideals and values. This country has a chance to finally address and correct the inhumanity of our current immigration system, and in doing so, to make our nation a more humane and just place for so many who have suffered. In a historic moment full of possibility and promise for our country, the Senate late Tuesday night unveiled its proposed legislation for immigration reform. Many have pushed for years to align our current immigration laws with a more just, fair, and equitable system that honors the human rights of every person that seeks a better life in this country, and I am heartened that the Senate has taken a necessary first step in that direction. Yet so much more needs to be done.
I want to share with you some key highlights of the proposal and urge you to get involved in making sure the final bill is truly comprehensive and inclusive. I am hoping you will commit to making your voice heard about what kind of country you want to live in. We at NCLR want a bill that takes into account the full diversity of the immigrant community, and is conscious of those who live at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities. We want a bill that is fully inclusive and works for all immigrants and their families, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, race, country of origin, native language, socioeconomic status, age, or reason for coming to this country.
We must be vigilant, and, in fact, it is our duty to elevate the voices of those at risk of being left behind. Although the Senate base bill is not perfect, we stand in solidarity with the community of activists who continue to push for a final reform bill that leaves no one behind. We will continue to push for more and we need your help by contacting your Senator and asking for humane reforms.
The proposed pathway to citizenship effectively addresses the situation of many of the 11 million undocumented people currently living in and contributing to the U.S. economy; however, the provision requires an immigrant to have been in the country on or before December 31, 2011 in order to be eligible to access the pathway. This arbitrary cut-off date will effectively exclude millions. The proposal’s 10-year waiting period for legalization, coupled with the three-year registration and application period, is rightfully criticized as long and unnecessarily arduous. But most importantly, any waiting period must be paired with a wider path towards citizenship that does not disproportionately exclude certain groups. Overly punitive restrictions based on criminal convictions without regard a genuine threat to public safety make this path inaccessible to too many people. Moreover, employment verifications must be designed in a way that does not restrict access to the path for those who engage in work that is difficult to verify, like domestic workers, day laborers, and homemakers. In the coming months, we must guard these provisions in order to ensure that the path to citizenship remains wide and is not unduly narrowed as the final bill unfolds.
The family sponsorship provisions are a good first step towards reducing the applications that currently exist. It aims to clear the backlog of 4-5 million people currently waiting for family-based visas within the next 8 years. It will create a V visa, which will allow family members who are waiting in the backlog to come to the United States while they wait, which will preserve family unity for many. However, the elimination of F4 visas, which allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their siblings for citizenship, undermines this principle of family unity and weakens families.
We are also extremely disappointed that the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) is not a part of the base bill. There are 40,000 same-sex binational couples and their families that could potentially benefit from UAFA. Excluding U.S. citizens and permanent residents from sponsoring their same-sex foreign partners for citizenship is morally wrong, short-sighted, and inhumane. NCLR is confident that we will be able to add this essential protection during the amendment process, and will work closely with Senate leaders to ensure protection for these families. You can help us continue to press for UAFA’s inclusion in a final reform package by contacting your Senators and urging them to support an amendment to add these protections to the bill.
We are likewise appalled that the plan bars immigrants who are accessing the path to citizenship from receiving any healthcare benefits through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or accessing Medicaid or CHIP. This bar prevents immigrants buying healthcare coverage through the state exchanges from receiving any of the tax credits or subsidies that make this coverage affordable to most people for 10 years. Likewise, it leaves those people and families who qualify for Medicaid and CHIP ineligible to even apply for these benefits for 10 years, and likely unable to actually access benefits and services for even longer. This senseless exclusion is illogical, unfair, and will cost lives.
The Senate proposal also provides an expedited path to citizenship for DREAMers. Young people who qualify will be able to legalize their status in five years and become naturalized U.S. citizens three years after that. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients (those who have already applied for and received work permits under President Obama’s policy known as DACA) will receive expedited treatment. Most importantly, there will be no artificial age cut off that excludes otherwise eligible young people. To find out more about the lives of LGBT DREAMers and to help support them, please visit www.LGBTDREAMersStories.com.
One very good piece of news, and one that will benefit hundreds people who turn to NCLR for help applying for political asylum, is that the Senate's proposal would delete the one-year filing period for asylum in our current immigration law, that effectively excludes many political asylum seekers, is deleted in the Senate’s proposal. Under the current system, asylum-seekers are forced to file their asylum application within one year of arriving in the U.S. or be barred. At NCLR we see the effects of this incredibly unrealistic standard nearly every week. LGBT asylum-seekers, many of whom flee violence and persecution in their home countries due to their LGBT status, are unlikely to and rarely immediately feel safe disclosing their identity for an asylum application. The Senate plan removes this timeline. This means that it will now be easier for political asylum seekers, and they will have a longer time period to prepare their case and document that persecution. This widening of the path towards citizenship is exactly the direction the entire reform package should take in its other legalization provisions.
One place where we must remain diligent is around border security and conditions in detention facilities caused by the over-use of detention unrelated to security or flight risk. Every day, NCLR hears from LGBT immigrants languishing in detention facilities in substandard conditions, without access to basic medical treatment, and often emotionally and physically abused because they are LGBT. We must continue to push for the elimination of solitary confinement, which is disproportionately used to house LGBT detainees, the improvement of conditions at detention centers, and to push our legislators to disentangle reform efforts from draconian border enforcement strategies that only serve to criminalize and warehouse immigrants in these detention centers.
There is much work ahead of us to ensure immigration reform is fair and just. Next month, the Senate Judiciary Committee will debate the bill and consider amendments. It will then head to the Senate floor in June for a vote. What happens in the Republican-controlled House is less clear. They could opt to vote on the Senate bill, produce their own bill, or decide to piecemeal legislation that tackles select issues separately. However the process unfolds in the House, the entire process could be concluded by August. In the meantime, I urge you to be involved, know the issues, contact your legislators, and stand besides us and in favor of basic equality and fairness.
Our community has benefitted from the opening of hearts and the changing of minds of many of our fellow Americans. That change has resulted in major gains for many LGBT people and families. We all believe that our country is best when we embrace and celebrate our common humanity. We have a chance again to elevate that core value. Doing so won’t right every wrong, or prevent every tragedy, but it will elevate justice and decency over stigma and bigotry, and that will be a very good thing.