Thursday, May 5, 2011

Santa Cruz LGBT Community is Most Troubled in Immigration Attempts (Santa Cruz, CA Patch)

Santa Cruz LGBT Community is Most Troubled in Immigration Attempts

Think it's hard for married couples to immigrate? It's harder if they are denied legal marriage.

By Angela Medina and Sydney Reed

A transgender woman gained legal residence for her Canadian-born, male husband. She legally changed her gender on her birth certificate from male to female and converted her appearance to look like a woman.

The couple won legal residence, because the U.S. government saw the two as a heterosexual couple, according to Douglas Keegan, coordinator of the Santa Cruz Immigration Project.

Such is not the case for people in the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual (LGBT) community. The harsh reality for the country’s 35,820 bi-national, same-sex couples—30 percent of whom live in California, according to Immigration—is that unlike heterosexual couples, they cannot apply for legal permanent residence for the undocumented partner.

DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—recognizes a marriage solely if it is between a man and a woman. Even though there are some states that issue marriage licenses and some that recognize marriages from other states, bi-national homosexual marriages are not granted the same recognition as bi-national heterosexual couples.

“Immigration depends on the DOMA,” said Santa Cruz immigration attorney Daniel G. Gold. “Foreign law is not recognized here.”

Even if the couple married in another country, the U.S. will not recognize the marriage if it is not between a man and a woman. The partner would have to apply for a visa in another category.

“DOMA is discriminating,” said Gold. “It should be repealed. Same-sex couples should be accorded the same laws as heterosexual couples.”

As the Immigration Project’s Keegan said, “As [same-sex] marriage becomes more recognized by states, the federal government should accept that and be willing to make that change.”

There have been different approaches to challenging DOMA, but only with minor success, said Gold. President Barack Obama said he would no longer support DOMA, but it is still enforced by the federal government.

The most prominent challenge to DOMA is the Uniting Americans Families Act (UAFA)—a bill that would allow the federal government to recognize same-sex partnerships and U.S. citizens with legal residence to sponsor their same-sex permanent partners for U.S. Immigration benefits.

The act had 122 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 23 co-sponsors in the Senate last year. Although it has yet to be passed, the fight for immigration equality within the LBGT community is still alive.

Fortunately for bi-national couples, Santa Cruz has centers and resources for help, such as The Diversity Center and the Cantu’ Queer Center on the UCSC campus. At the Diversity Center, they can get help finding resources, such as gay-friendly doctors, or counseling services when needing help coming out of the closet, a situation that many are afraid of doing.

Immigration policies, of course, can affect people in the community whether they are married or not.

Xochitlquetzal, a senior at UC Santa Cruz who is part of the LGBT community, is also an undocumented student. So she copes with both her sexual and immigrant identities.

“You can categorize me as a pansexual, gender queer, polyandrous person,” she said.

When she was 3, Xochitlquetzal was brought to the United States by her father, who was already here as an undocumented worker. When she started school, her father taught her to be on the lookout and lie about where she was born, because of the risk of being discovered by Immigration Neutralization Services (INS).

Xochitlquetzal is one of the few undocumented immigrants willing to risk going public. Only about 10 disclosed, undocumented immigrants use the resources a year at the Diversity Center in Santa Cruz, according to volunteer Abel Murillo. The center does not ask individuals their immigration status; it’s a big risk for some to disclose an undocumented status, because they fear deportation by the INS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But it’s a risk that some are willing to take.

Now that she is older, Xochitlquetzal said she no longer lives with fear. As long as she is a student in good standing, she said, she cannot be deported.

“Right now I am the most untouchable I have ever been,” she said.

That may change for her; however, Gold insists that there has been “a steady stream of success” for immigration equality among the gay community. He cited the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the 17-year policy of banning gay and lesbian service members from serving openly in the military. He also said he has faith that as the younger population reaches the age to vote, same-sex equality will not be an issue in the future.

“Change,” he said, “will happen eventually.”

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