The immigration issue has topped national news for months, going on years, people of color are are about to become the majority in the U.S. and there are untold amounts of undocumented LGBT people facing a variety of injustices, according to an Atlanta nonprofit.
“We need to have a heavy, deep and real conversation about how many people think they’ll be able to fight that with regressive policies,” says Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-executive director of Southerners on New Ground.
SONG identifies as a queer liberation group that works primarily with rural LGBT southerners on issues such as poverty and racism in addition to immigration. The group takes a multiracial approach to helping solve these issues.
The entire immigration conversation radically shifted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The federal government was given historic and sweeping levels of control in the name of national security. While President George W. Bush was responsible for setting up the framework, there’s one man whom SONG and other organizations are pointing a finger at for being responsible for record numbers of deportations.
“President Obama has come in and really dug that deeper, which is why we’ve singled him out as a target,” Helm-Hernandez says. “The reality is, he hasn’t just enforced the law, he’s made it so much more aggressive and it has so much more bite than when Bush was in office.”
As a result, SONG recently announced that two undocumented members of the organization have joined the Not 1 More Deportation Campaign’s Blue Ribbon Commission. The commission performed an independent review and on April 10 issued a parallel report to the president’s order to the Department of Human Services to make deportation policies more humane.
LOST IN THE DETENTION CENTER ABYSS
Of those in the LGBT community who actually pay attention to the immigration issue, most look at it solely based on the conversation around bi-national couples, i.e. when one person is a citizen and their partner isn’t. The issue is how to make it possible for the citizen to sponsor their partner so they too can become a citizen.
“I think that’s important, but that’s not the core center of the conversation,” Helm-Hernandez says. “It’s about the safety and dignity and self-determination of all LGBT people internationally.”
Specifically, the rapid increase in anti-gay laws around the world is jeopardizing the safety of LGBT people in countries like Russia, Uganda, Ukraine, Kenya and Nigeria. This has led to a massive migration movement to the U.S., but activists say that U.S. immigration policies are making it tougher for them to seek asylum and escape the violence.
Cecelia Saenz Becerra is a 28-year-old self-identified queer undocumented immigrant who lives in East Atlanta and is one of the two SONG members on the Not 1 More Deportation Campaign’s Blue Ribbon Commission.
Born in Mexico City, Becerra came to the U.S. with her mother when she was four. Her father was a legal resident, and her siblings are U.S. citizens as well since they were born in Phoenix. She moved to Atlanta for work.
“That was a hard decision for me to leave my family,” Becerra tells GA Voice. “There can’t be enough words to explain how it feels to have folks in your family, like my mom, to be living in a different city than me.”
The issue with undocumented immigrants like Becerra and her mother is they constantly live in fear of being picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They then are transferred to detention centers like the one located in downtown Atlanta at Peachtree Street and Memorial Drive.
“It’s very painful to see folks be deported and be lost in the system and trying to find them,” Becerra says. “You’re maybe hoping they’re still here [in the U.S.] and you’re hoping they didn’t go through some expedited deportation process.”
The detention centers are a major focus for groups like SONG.
“The untold story is the amount of LGBT people in detention and deportation and what our people are experiencing inside there,” Helm-Hernandez says. Those specifically facing the most harassment and violence inside the centers are trans women of color.
“If you’re trans, where are they going to place you?” Becerra says. “It’s similar to prisons, there’s no sensitivity to it. It’s very traumatic and brings up other traumas that LGBT folks have had in terms of coming out to their families and others—violence, threats to their lives.”
Helm-Hernandez concurs, saying, “Trans women of color are placed immediately in solitary confinement, supposedly for their own protection, but they often have no legal recourse to get out of solitary. So oftentimes they spend months in solitary confinement by themselves.”
Another immigration issue specifically harmful to the LGBT community is that undocumented immigrants have to lay low in order not to get picked up, so the voices of untold numbers of undocumented LGBT voices are silenced.
“I often feel held back in terms of my political activities because if I get arrested, I might not be able to stay here or it might mean that I could get dinged points on my residency,” Becerra says. “I always have to pause and think about how far I’m going to go and how much I’m going to do. For those of us that are not documented, it means it’s not just on you but on your family.”
For now, SONG and the Not 1 More Deportation Campaign await President Obama’s response to their recommendations, growing more frustrated every day by the contradictions of a president getting lauded for his advances for LGBT equality.
“Except if you’re undocumented. Except if you’re an immigrant,” says Helm-Hernandez. “Then you have no control over your life.”