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Immigration vs. gay rights — not a zero-sum game

Blogger Jasmyne Cannick opened up a huge can of worms with her Advocate commentary, Gays first, then illegals, taking the position that LGBT citizens — legal, taxpaying, and voting individuals don’t yet have all of their rights and that they should be at the head of the line.

I have to be honest with you, I don’t see any reason to pit the undocumented immigrant struggle with that of LGBT citizens, despite some similarities in plight for equality and legal recognition, but Jasmyne slammed this down on the table, and I’m sorry to say, it’s in a non-productive way.

American citizens continue to be denied the right to marry because of their sexual orientation while their families are deprived of access to the 1,138 federal rights, protections, and responsibilities automatically granted to married heterosexual couples.

It’s a slap in the face to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to take up the debate on whether to give people who are in this country illegally additional rights when we haven’t even given the people who are here legally all of their rights.

If we’re going to hold 24-hour Senate sessions using taxpayers’ dollars, let those sessions be used to come up with a comprehensive plan that allows America’s same-gender-loving stakeholders to have the opportunity to have the right to make decisions on a partner’s behalf in a medical emergency or the right to receive family-related Social Security benefits.

It is not a slap in the face to recognize that this country hasn’t dealt with these workers, who toil at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, picking the fruits and vegetables we eat, mowing lawns, cleaning homes, building houses — doing work that no citizen can do (note I didn’t say willing to do), because employers cannot exploit U.S. citizens as they do undocumented workers. The underground economy pulls wages down for all workers in this sphere, and that’s the way these employers — and the government — like it.

I usually find Jasmyne’s take on race and politics, particularly regarding tensions between the religious black community and gay people of color enlightening and clarifying; this column seems misguided, simply blind to the effect of the negativity it engenders — for no good reason.

Immigration reform needs to get in line behind the LGBT civil rights movement, which has not yet realized all of its goals.

Which is not to say that I don’t recognize the plight of illegal immigrants. I do. But I didn’t break the law to come into this country. This country broke the law by not recognizing and bestowing upon me my full rights as a citizen. As a black lesbian I find it hard to jump on the immigration reform bandwagon when my own bandwagon hasn’t even left the barn.

I understand her frustration; watching the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers and supporters around the country today illustrates that critical mass matters. These immigrants are no longer in the shadows and the White House and the Hill are apoplectic. Who wouldn’t be when this problem has not been dealt with for decades — and it blows up on their watch threatening to split their political party, one that has built its base on homophobia, racism and social injustice.

The fact that LGBT citizens and other citizen minorities cannot possibly create the same tidal wave of visible activism that we have seen over the last couple of weeks is just a fact of life. Movements don’t form on a schedule.

It does not mean there isn’t the passion or effective activism or support for LGBT or black civil rights; we are watching a new movement taking shape, forming and realizing its power. We should be building bridges, not burning them, but that, sadly, is what Jasmyne appears to be doing.

President Bush wants a comprehensive guest worker program.

With all due respect, Mr. President, there can be no guest worker program until we resolve the issue of making sure that all lesbian and gay legal workers have the right to take up to 12 weeks of leave from work to care for a seriously ill partner or parent of a partner and the right to purchase continued health coverage for a domestic partner after the loss of a job.

Our economy at present is dependent on the backs of this particular group of immigrants to a frightening degree now realized in full flower, and we have a president offering up a plan to ensure that these immigrants work in a defined second-class status, able to be exploited legally. This is not right.

Our elected officials have been mute about the matter until now, and have never been held accountable by voters to solve the problem because we too were participating in the don’t ask/don’t tell charade of supporting the underground economy grinding along on undocumented labor – gay, straight, all races, rich, poor and middle class.

While I support legal immigration and efforts to enforce the laws of the land, the reality is that we cannot simply round up all these people and send them to their homeland. Once the anti-immigrant folks finally get this through their heads, maybe we can have a sane discussion.

Does any of this rigamarole mean gay rights are any less important? No. But what if you are a gay U.S. citizen involved with an immigrant who could be deported at any time? That’s the plight of many gay couples as well, how does this fit into Jasmyne’s equation?

Kate and I were thinking about this issue and we both noted that you could compare civil unions and Bush’s guest worker BS as analogous. Both are simply poor, diluted offerings to the respective groups that cannot and will not provide the benefits of marriage/citizenship. What these mechanisms are intended to do is to placate the groups, and to institutionalize second-class status, making it infinitely harder to achieve full equality.

There are too many simply gray areas here to begin pitting one disenfranchised group against another when the stakes are so high for both.

What echos in my mind as I read the commentary is how myopic it is when we look at the countless posts on Jasmyne’s blog and of course here on the Blend about the black civil rights leaders who have turned their backs on black gays and lesbians. These so-called leaders of the black community are bellying up to the faith-based trough, cozying up to Dobsons, Sheldons and the other AmTaliban leaders who would have likely justified segregation a couple of decades ago. They embrace bigotry in the name of protecting marriage, vilify the gay parishioners from the pulpit, and rightfully earned the scorn of Jasmyne in her writing.

Civil rights is not a zero-sum game — something I’ve said about the black homophobes who want to deny LGBT people civil equality. I wonder how and why this relevance of this point has been lost in the obvious thought Jasmyne put into the Advocate essay.

***

An open letter from queer people of color responding to Jasmyne Cannick’s column makes several cogent points. A snippet:

And we ask those who share the destructive views of this article to remember the immortal words of Audre Lorde when she said that “There is no hierarchy of oppressionâ€?. We reject any attempts to pit the struggle of multiple communities against each other and firmly believe that “Rights” are not in limited supply. We condemn the “scarcity of rights” perspective espoused by Cannick and other members of the LGBT movement, and are surprised to see members of our community trafficking in s
uch ugliness. But then, one reason why it has always been so hard to shift power in this country is because the ruling class has successfully made us believe that there are only a few deserving groups to whom rights can be given. This strategy has always been used to divide oppressed groups from coming together to work in coalition.

We are painfully aware that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities still lack many basic protections under the law in this country, including the right to care for and support all of our families, in the various ways in which we construct family and kinship. Nevertheless, supporting immigrant rights, while we continue to work for LGBT liberation, does nothing to hurt our cause. In fact, we believe the opposite to be true, and want to work towards building powerful coalitions between immigrant and LGBT movements to work together for social justice.

We are also aware that many immigrant right advocates have (intentionally or not) used anti-black rhetoric to move their agenda forward. Arguments such as “Don’t treat us like “criminals'” or “We are doing work that “other’ Americans won’t do” have the effect of positioning immigrant narratives as subtly juxtaposed with American stereotypes of non-immigrant black communities. They leave native-born black Americans as among the only people who do not have access to the immigrant narrative, and so are in a permanent position of subordination, as the state consistently negotiates and redefines citizenship and “American-ness” for almost everyone but blacks. Nevertheless, the solution to this problem is not to abandon support for the struggle of immigrant communities. Rather, we call on immigrant movements and (non-immigrant) black organizations to work together for real racial and economic justice in this country. Together these movements can work to end the exploitation and targeting of both communities, and to ensure that black folks and immigrants do not end up having to choose between competing for low-paying jobs, or being targeted for detainment or imprisonment.

This is a heavy topic, and one that quite frankly, makes me sad. The real enemy is the Right, and they relish in watching circular firing squads of this nature, because they are so raw.

I hope that those in conflict can find common ground.

***

A recent WaPo article illustrates why these undocumented immigrants, a group that the conservative evangelical movement has actively courted, need to be reminded that when it comes down to it, the AmTaliban will throw them under the bus to serve its own agenda and base. They are, as I said, the real enemy here.

Some predominantly white evangelical groups, such as the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, have strongly opposed the Kennedy-McCain bill, labeling it an “amnesty” package. They support a House-passed measure that would concentrate on sealing U.S. borders and enforcing existing immigration laws.

“We think our national boundaries should be respected. That’s a biblical principle also,” said Christian Coalition lobbyist Jim Backlin.

Many larger groups, such as James C. Dobson’s Colorado-based Focus on the Family, have not taken a stand on the issue. Rodriguez, of the Hispanic Christian conference, said his group wants to know why.

“We need to know from white evangelical leaders why did they not support comprehensive immigration reform, why they came down in favor exclusively of enforcement, without any mention of the compassionate side, without any mention of the Christian moral imperatives,” he said.

“So down the road, when the white evangelical community calls us and says, ‘We want to partner with you on marriage, we want to partner on family issues,’ my first question will be: ‘Where were you when 12 million of our brothers and sisters were about to be deported and 12 million families disenfranchised?‘ “

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding