A shorter version of this article was posted at The Huffington Post.
How did we build an immigrant rights movement? As undocumented queer immigrants, we learned from our own experiences.
Frank Sharry’s latest opinion piece in the Washington Post extols the gay rights movement for teaching the immigrant rights movement how to fight, and in doing so, he places himself in the center of the movement as someone who has learned and used the tactics of the gay rights movement to win immigrant rights. This is a naive and inaccurate thesis, which marginalizes the work and existence of queer immigrants.
Queer undocumented youth have been at the forefront of fighting for immigrant rights for more than a decade. We learned to fight for our own spaces based on our experiences of exclusion from the country where we grew up, from our communities, and from both the mainstream LGBT and immigration reform movements.
The history of undocumented queer organizing goes back at least ten years. In 2001, Tania Unzueta, a queer undocumented woman leader from Chicago, Illinois, was scheduled to testify for the federal DREAM Act on Capitol Hill. That hearing never happened because of the September 11 attacks, but Tania was ready to tell her story of growing up queer and undocumented in America. As time passed, mainstream D.C. immigration reform organizations held up passage of the DREAM Act by attaching it to “comprehensive immigration reform” and marginalized the needs of a growing undocumented youth population facing barriers to higher education and living under the threat of imminent deportation.
In 2007, after Congressional failure to pass both comprehensive immigration reform and the federal DREAM Act, several queer undocumented youth who came together on an online portal decided to launch our own organization,DreamActivist, to push for the federal DREAM Act as standalone legislation. From our lived LGBT experiences, we knew that the way to formal equality for undocumented immigrants was to use our stories as our weapon, to “come out” as undocumented, just as we had come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
While the traditional immigration reform groups built coalitions with those on the right such as faith-based groups and business leaders, undocumented youth built coalitions on the left. At DreamActivist, we created the LGBTQ Student Caucus and actively recruited queer undocumented youth who were willing to join the fight. We built connections across local and state groups, creating a large and powerful social media presence and making more organizing possible. Armed with the stories of queer undocumented youth, local immigrant rights group across the country such as the Orange County DREAM Team (OCDT) and the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) started to create spaces to highlight the stories and experiences of undocumented and queer youth while building visibility regarding the intersections of immigrant and LGBT communities in both mainstream immigrant rights and LGBT rights organizing spaces.
In 2009, undocumented queer leaders from DreamActivist began working on Education Not Deportation (END) campaigns, effectively and relentlessly fighting individual deportation cases. By harnessing the power of social media and building local grassroots networks, undocumented youth leaders organized highly visible and successful campaigns targeted at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop the deportations of undocumented youth. This is a strategy that, even today, other national groups are still learning from. These efforts culminated in a nationwide effort to stop the deportation of all undocumented people.
In 2010, queer immigrant youth leaders and their allies from the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago organized“National Coming Out of the Shadows Day” to bring visibility to the urgent need to change immigration laws by challenging the federal government to deport undocumented young people in front of the media, just as DHS does every day in our communities when cameras are absent. That same year, four young immigrants from Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER), two of them queer–Felipe Matos and Juan Rodriguez–walked from Florida to Washington D.C. as part of the “Trail of Dreams” to show continuous resistance against criminalization and exclusion of undocumented immigrants across the country. This campaign was supposed to culminate on May 1st with what would have been the first civil disobedience by undocumented leaders, but mainstream immigrant rights advocates convinced them not to take that risk. Instead, dozens of executive directors and Congressman Luis Gutierrez got arrested for undocumented people, literally speaking for immigrants they attempted to silence.
These actions coincided with the creation of the Reform Immigration for America (RI4A) coalition, a multi-million dollar astroturf campaign to win support for comprehensive immigration reform. The organizations involved in setting up the coalition actively distanced themselves from LGBT groups and refused to include legislation to provide immigration benefits for same-sex bi-national couples as part of their platform. Since they were courting the right-wing conservative groups, supporting immigration rights for LGBT couples was seen as a poison pill for the coalition. At various briefings and conferences, paid RI4A professionals tried to silence criticism from LGBT bloggers such as Prerna Lal about how the newly-formed Reform Immigration for America was anti-gay and in bed with the evangelical Christian right-wing forces. The RI4A coalition’s anti-gay approach hindered it from building a strong progressive coalition to fight for a truly inclusive comprehensive immigration reform bill. The coalition died without ever introducing a viable bill.
Meanwhile, the undocumented youth movement took on more confrontational tactics when in May 2010, three queer undocumented youth–Mohammad Abdollahi (Michigan), Yahaira Carrillo (Kansas/Missouri), and Tania Unzueta (Illinois)–sat down in Senator John McCain’s office with Lizbeth Mateo (California) and Raul Alcaraz (Arizona) in Arizona in the first known act of civil disobedience by undocumented immigrants, to demand the federal DREAM Act. Abdollahi and Carrillo were arrested and placed in removal proceedings, which the government later dropped. In a subsequent action in July 2010, 8 of the 21 undocumented students who took over the U.S. Capitol with the same demand were also undocumented and queer, each leaders in their own state.
As opposed to Sharry’s erroneous claims, these early confrontational tactics used by queer undocumented youth leaders fighting for immigrant rights did not arise from the mainstream LGBT movement. In fact, too often mainstream LGBT organizations have actually opposed the confrontational tactics used by more radical LGBT groups. For example, in the 1980s, leaders of mainstream “Gay Inc.” organizations tried to distance themselves from the civil disobedience tactics used by activists from AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), and opted instead for assimilationist strategies. The marginalization of radical tactics and issues of importance to queer people of color communities has continued as mainstream LGBT groups have taken on the conservative cause of marriage equality all the way to the Supreme Court.
Sharry also conveniently omits the virulent opposition mainstream immigration reform organizations expressed to the radical tactics used by undocumented youth to advance immigrant rights. He sings praises for the protest that interrupted President Obama’s speech during the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference with shouts of “Yes We Can,” but in fact the Conference leadership did not support this action by United 4 the Dream members.
Highly coordinated confrontational actions by undocumented youth leaders occurred around the same time that activists from GetEqual were employing similar tactics to achieve repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. At one point, we had parallel actions in Washington D.C. which resulted in the same court date and legal defense team to bail out the arrestees. Queer undocumented leaders and representatives from GetEqual started coordinating attempts to work together to battle the intersectional oppressions of being queer and undocumented. Through conversations at Netroot Nations and other conferences, we acknowledged that as queer undocumented youth, we had a common goal with the LGBT rights movement — winning formal equality through federal recognition.
When the 2010 defense authorization bill came up for a vote, representatives from GetEqual and the undocumented youth movement collaborated to attach both the DREAM Act and DADT repeal to the larger legislation. The defense bill stalled in the Senate because of these controversial amendments, and the DREAM Act later failed as a stand-alone bill, but the groundwork had been laid for future collaboration between immigrant and LGBT groups.
As the movement of immigrant youth coming out as “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic” grew, undocumented and queer artists such as Julio Salgado created artwork to mark the intersection of LGBT and immigrant rights. In June 2011, undocumented and gay journalist Jose Vargas came out in his now well-known article, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” While Vargas expresses how the coming out strategies of LGBT activist and politician Harvey Milk inspired his own coming out as queer, it was the spaces created by queer undocumented youth that allowed him to publicly talk about his immigration status.
In order to acknowledge the intersectional oppression, the spaces being created, and foundational work of queer undocumented youth, members of the newly-formed National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) coined the phrase ‘Undocuqueer’ as a political identity. This inspired the creation of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project within United We Dream to continue pushing for the inclusion of LGBT issues in immigration reform.
Moving forward, the confrontational tactics originally used by queer undocumented leaders in Arizona and Washington D.C. have been replicated in other settings by more undocumented youth — shutting down streets, occupying political offices, and confronting President Obama at various events across the country. Young queer immigrants continued to lead these efforts. For example, the first planned occupation of undocumented immigrants in detention centers included a queer leader, Jonathan Perez, from the Immigrant Youth Coalition in California. Queer immigrant leaders have also led subsequent infiltrations of immigrant detention centers such as Broward Transitional Facility in Florida, which attracted the attention of Congressional leaders who called for a full investigation of the detention center.
In May and June 2012, undocumented queer leaders organized sit-ins and hunger strikes in four key Obama For America offices, calling on the President to issue an executive order to stop the deportation of undocumented youth. The sit-ins and hunger strikes shut down OFA offices in key battleground states. Under the threat of similar actions continuing through the November elections, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has temporarily provided a reprieve from removal for thousands of undocumented youth.
Queer undocumented youth leaders have recently used the increasing visibility of their existence to break down the silos of mainstream LGBT and immigrant rights work. In 2012, the state of Maryland passed marriage equality and in-state tuition for undocumented youth. Both victories were placed in front of voters by right-wing forces in the form of Question 4 and Question 6. Emails flew back and forth, and phone calls were made to collaborate efforts between the forces for marriage equality (Equality Maryland) and the forces for the DREAM Act (Casa de la Maryland). From these conversations, the Familia es Familia coalition was formed, which recruited queer undocumented youth to use our stories to support both the need for marriage equality and the need for the DREAM Act. The cross-coalition effort delivered a historic victory in Maryland, as it became the first state to uphold both marriage equality and instate tuition for undocumented youth.
The ongoing success of intersectional work for queer and immigrant rights has fueled calls from both funders and organizations for LGBT and immigrant rights communities to work together. We are not only better together, but we lead multidimensional lives that are affected by both anti-immigrant and heterosexist power structures.
Today, undocumented queer organizers continue to organize based on our experiences and the stories of people in our communities. It is by listening to these stories that many of us have come to the conclusion that we need to continue to use creative and unapologetic tactics to stop deportations and to address the abuses and injustices taking place every day in immigration detention centers. Meanwhile, national mainstream organizations continue to push for a path to citizenship that ignores the immediate needs of undocumented immigrants and the record-breaking deportations under the Obama Administration. Perhaps Frank Sharry and DC-based immigration reform groups should stop rewriting history and listen to those directly affected by immigration laws, including undocumented queer immigrants who continue to be at the forefront of the movement.
Next time someone asks how the contemporary immigrant rights movement came about, tell them that queer undocumented youth built it.
Prerna Lal is a founder of DreamActivist and a Board Director of Immigration Equality. Tania Unzueta is a founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League and an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.