Binational couple Shirley Tan, Jay Mercado, and their two sons.


by Dave Bennion

Prerna Lal, pro-migrant LGBT rights activist and blogger, recently expressed her frustration that the mainstream immigration reform coalition Reform Immigration for America (RI4A) appears willing to exclude LGBT immigrants from comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in order to keep the faith groups on board.  RI4A should not simply attempt to paper this conflict over as that would damage its credibility with liberals/progressives who support CIR and ultimately undermine the group’s efforts to promote immigration reform.

RI4A is an umbrella group formed last year by the main institutional coalition partners pushing for immigration reform: faith groups, business, and labor.  Immigrant rights nonprofits, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and local communities and individuals have also been working with RI4A to promote comprehensive immigration reform, but as far as I know, most of the money and organizational support comes from the three institutional partners.

RI4A has been confronted with serious obstacles like the recession and the emergence over the past several years of immigration as a culture war issue.  Furthermore, RI4A’s formation itself is something of an achievement, as it is the first time in recent memory that all the major unions joined together to support a common platform on immigration reform.  I believe the unions agreed to set aside their differences to better push for workers’ rights against business interests as immigration legislation is negotiated, which in turn has alarmed the Chamber of Commerce and AILA.  However, for now, as far as I know, all the disparate groups are still under the umbrella.  RI4A’s leaders understand that one sure way to lose the CIR debate is through infighting.

But despite RI4A’s best efforts, cracks are emerging in the coalition along the lines where interests diverge.  I won’t speak today to the longstanding conflict between labor and business on immigration—Duke at Migra Matters is a better source for that analysis.  And there is a widening fracture between immigrant activists concerned about widespread violations of human rights by the Department of Homeland Security and politicians who can’t say anything about immigration without assuring the public that the border will be defended from the gardeners and nannies who would do us harm.

But RI4A—and the immigrant rights community more broadly—shouldn’t ignore the split between the faith groups and LGBT immigrants.  In my view the two paramount social justice struggles in America today are immigrant rights and LGBT equality.  As people invested in social justice, we cannot support one cause to the detriment of the other.

RI4A needs to figure out how to maintain the churches’ support while not selling out LGBT immigrants.  That is no easy task.  But my takeaway from Prerna’s report on the recent LGBT Immigration summit in New York City is if RI4A wants to ensure that a wedge on CIR forms between liberals/progressives and the faith groups, they are doing all the right things.

Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum had the unenviable task of explaining to the LGBT bloggers in attendance that CIR will not include an LGBT component permitting citizens or permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration benefits because of the staunch opposition of the churches.  From Prerna:

To his credit, Ali Noorani was brave to show up to weather the storm of anger and have a conversation that should have happened long ago. He admitted that there were no LGBT organizations on the Reform Immigration for America management team, allegedly to appease conservative religious organizations — the same community that queer advocates have been fighting against to gain equal rights for so long. Noorani also went out on a limb to say that the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) was not a winning strategy for the campaign to adopt, which made little sense given that UAFA has more cosponsors than even the popular DREAM Act and the tanked Gutierrez CIRASAP bill.

But Noorani failed dismally when he ranked oppressions, especially in the case of the Trail of DREAM students: “they won’t be detained for being gay, they would be detained for being undocumented.” This blatantly ignorant statement demonstrates a complete and utter failure at understanding intersectional oppression: Felipe is still undocumented because Juan is queer male and they are in a same-sex relationship — these multi-dimensional identities are so intrinsically linked that it is hard to elevate one over the other, let alone rank them.

Ostensible champions of the oppressed shouldn’t so easily overlook the interests of the most vulnerable members of the communities they are tasked with protecting.

The biggest problem, though, is the churches themselves, and primarily the Catholic Church.  I don’t know of a single Catholic immigration legal services organization that would refuse to represent a gay asylum applicant who walked through their doors.  Maybe this has happened somewhere, but my experience working for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens for two years as an immigration attorney leads me to believe that Catholic organizations will fight as hard as the next nonprofit to defend LGBT immigrants whose claims of relief rest upon sexual orientation.

So why, then, has the Catholic Church decided to fight to categorically exclude LGBT immigrants from the family-based immigration system?  Do the leaders of the church know what is going on in their own legal services organizations?  Have they recently attended a training on the intricacies of LGBT asylum law by one of CLINIC’s excellent attorneys?  Have they taken the time lately to listen to a CLINIC attorney argue a gay asylum case in immigration court?  Their actions lead me to believe they haven’t.

As someone who grew up in the LDS church and got my start in the field working for the Catholic Church, it saddens me that the churches are this ready to (1) hurt their own LGBT constituents and family members and (2) risk the success of CIR over marriage equality.

Advocates of immigration LGBT equality may hear the converse of argument (2) above: Why are you in the immigrant rights community willing to risk CIR over LGBT rights?  I will just point to everything Prerna has ever written and her life story as the best refutation of that argument.

So what can be done to keep faith groups and the LGBT community under the CIR umbrella?  Here are a few initial thoughts:

(1) LGBT-friendly faith groups like HIAS, the Lutherans, and the Methodists should lean on the Catholics to moderate their position on LGBT equality.  The other primary coalition partners—the unions and business—should also weigh in on this point.  How many major corporations today could afford to endorse the Catholic Church’s position on LGBT rights?  How, then, can they afford to remain silent in the face of the Church’s intransigence on LGBT immigration equality?

(2) We in the immigraton legal community can start speaking up for LGBT rights to our partners in the faith communities.  Past AILA president Charles Kuck is a great example of this—he is one of the only active LDS I’ve seen publicly defend LGBT rights in his own faith community.

(3) Pro-migrant liberals/progressives need to draw a line in the sand as the Catholics have done: Without an LGBT component, we will not support CIR.  We’ll take piecemeal and our integrity instead, thank you very much.  If RI4A takes its role seriously as peacemaker between coalition partners, it will work to find a compromise that both the pro- and anti-LGBT groups can live with.

The power of the Catholic Church in the immigrant rights movement is immense, and so far it seems that RI4A, when driven to choose between LGBT immigrants and the churches, will choose the latter every time unless the other coalition partners push back.

 David Bennion is an attorney in Philadelphia, PA, where he helps immigrants to the U.S. navigate the complex immigration legal system.

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  1. Peter Coyotl says:

    When we fail to go forward together we all stumble in our efforts to progress.

    Social injustice is social injustice. Inequities in justice impact us all. If one is not equal, then we are all not equal.

    Supporting CIR without LGBT equality is selfish, shortsighted, and divisive in its blatant disregard for supporting equality for all members of society based upon our deepest culturally forced-fed biases of others.

  2. Judy Rickard says:

    Comprehensive immigration reform cannot exclude one or more groups! We need to work together and we need to succeed together. I want to come back home and I am helping wherever and however I can.

  3. Like Judy I want to come home. All families need the same protections. We are one people – let’s honor and respect each others’ families.

  4. Jon-Paul says:

    Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye,

    I too read Prerna’s article as well as many, many of her others at Gay Rights, The Sanctuary, and her two concerns over at The Immigration Blog that is run and supported by And I agree in principle with your assessments of her articles; however, I cannot agree with the assumptions made by those who are supporters of “Immigrant Rights” CIR, or “LGBT Rights” and CIR.

    Too many people either out of lack of knowledge or wanting to be a part of a cause have forgotten the simplest of issues: Namely of the first part what rights does an illegal alien in this country have? And of the second part, what rights do the LGBT community have with the exception of anti-discrimination concerns pursuant to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment?

    I have serious difficulty with statements such as this: “As someone who grew up in the LDS church and got my start in the field working for the Catholic Church, it saddens me that the churches are this ready to (1) hurt their own LGBT constituents and family members and (2) risk the success of CIR over marriage equality.” This of course is based on the notion that all things being equal that these communities are actually the ‘norm’ of this society.

    There is an issue that I will readily agree to as I mentioned in a post to Prerna: . “In my view the two paramount social justice struggles in America today are immigrant rights and LGBT equality – [and] – we cannot support one cause to the detriment of the other.” This is precisely my assessment predicated upon setting one community against the other which will result in the both of them failing. Thank you.

    jon-paul schilling, esq.

  5. Un Jung says:

    This is the letter I sent President Obama:

    Dear President Obama,
    My name is Un Jung and I am a United States Citizen. Not only am I a Master’s level social worker, Christian and Korean American, I am a Lesbian woman in a binational relationship.
    In your efforts to reform our immigration system and policies, I urge you to include the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer voters. Are we not directly affected by the need to justly change our immigration system? My family are immigrants and so is my partner’s family. At the present time, my partner and I are separated because after 18 years of legitimately living, studying and working in the U.S. her time was up and she was forced to go back to India. Had we been a straight/heterosexual couple we would have gotten married but currently the federal immigration laws do not recognize same-sex relationships. We have been separated for over 5 challenging months and I pray everyday that we are reunited soon.

    Please DO NOT leave out the millions of LGBTQ voices and voters from the immigration reform platform. Please consider that “Justice For All” does not translate to “Justice For Some”

    Thank you for reading and God Bless You!
    -Un Jung

  6. It fits our needs perfectly the advantage of immigration reform on the country: Greater supply of unskilled workers, a younger workforce, and skilled workers in needed sectors. But there is also a disadvantage of immigration reform like Greater poverty, more educational cost, lower unskilled wage levels, and increased danger of terrorism. Thanks to the post!

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