Guest post by Verónica Bayetti Flores
Those of us who have been doing immigrants’ rights work have been hearing whispers of it coming along for a few months, and it finally seems to be here: Immigration reform is gearing up to come into full swing, and if we want this to benefit queer and trans folks, we’re going to have to stay on our toes and keep our eyes on the prize. Are you ready for this jelly?
So far, what we’ve got in our hands are some very basic blueprints – one from the Senate, and one from the White House. They don’t say much in terms of details quite yet, but what they do say…let’s just we’ve got a lot to work with.
The good news is that both the Senate and the White House seem to agree that a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented people in the country right now is necessary (the House seems less convinced, though they have yet to put out anything solid). But as it stands, the path to citizenship seems as though it will be rife with socioeconomic barriers. Both blueprints emphasize the need for undocumented people to “take responsibility for their actions” and pay taxes and a penalty (I’m guessing the U.S. won’t be taking any responsibility for a foreign policy that devastates economies in the global south and makes it so that folks have to come here for work in the first place). How steep will this penalty be? Who will be able to afford it, and who won’t? Moreover, the blueprints lay out a pathway to citizenship that includes a criminal background check. While on its surface this may not seem unreasonable, we need to be watching out for the details on what kinds of crimes will block this path. What will make a “serious” criminal? Will it include the kinds of crimes – sex work, petty drug convictions, theft – that low-income and undocumented queer and trans folks often turn to as strategies for survival? We know that convictions largely play out along lines of class, race, and gender identity, and if we’re not diligent about calling out the details of completing this path it’s likely that citizenship will remain inaccessible to many undocumented people.
After the application fees, fines, and background checks, immigrants who have cleared these hurdles will be given a provisional legal status, and will have to wait for existing immigration backlogs to be cleared before they are eligible for lawful permanent residency. Both blueprints have made it clear that during the time that immigrants have this provisional status, they will not be eligible for public benefits. While we don’t know exactly how long the wait between the provisional status and permanent residency will be, it seems likely that the wait will be at least a few years. Add to that the five-year bar – which forbids immigrants with legal permanent residency from accessing most public benefits for the first five years they have that status – and it becomes clear that for low-income undocumented people who are able to get through the initial hurdles, relief in terms of very basic needs such as health care and housing will not be coming any time soon. This is particularly disturbing when thinking of undocumented children and young people, who may literally go a lifetime without access to health care or food assistance.
We are also seeing much emphasis placed on “securing the borders” in both of the blueprints offered. And while I’m sure we will be hearing a lot about how much it will cost to bring immigrants out of the shadows and possibly cover them with of public benefits many years down the line, I’m guessing no one’s gonna bat an eyelash at how much beefing up border security with drones is going to cost. You read that right – unmanned aerial vehicles make appearances on both the Senate and the White House proposals. It seems that drones are one thing everyone can agree on. We will have wait to see how this “securing the border” business is going to play out, but it’s not hard to guess that queer people of color – and particularly gender non-conforming and trans people – will be hugely affected by any increased policing. As it stands now, queer and trans people of color are disproportionately ending up in deportation proceedings, and without larger systemic changes that address issues of economic injustice, this does not seem poised to change with this immigration reform.
Both blueprints emphasize that employers who deliberately hire undocumented workers must be held accountable. To do this, employers must be able to verify that their workers have the appropriate documentation to work, and herein lies the problem: in the past, verification systems (such as E-verify) have been rife with errors. As it happens, these errors disproportionately affect people who tend to change their names – that is, women and trans folks (possible extra bonus: being outed as trans at work!). Though the White House’s blueprint mentions a pilot program for people to check their own records and make sure that everything is accurate before applying to a job, it is unclear what recourse a transgender person, for example, might have for changing their information in this system.
We’re also going to have to really be on our toes when it comes to the detention lobby. Right now there are many people making huge sums of money off of the detention of immigrants, and you better believe that they are going to be looking out for themselves in this mess. We know that they have a quite the formidable lobbying arm, spending millions, and this legislation presents the perfect opportunity for them to solidify and expand their business. Though the White House’s blueprint claims it will prioritize humane detention (I’m just gonna go ahead and call that an oxymoron), we have every reason to believe that the CCA & friends are completely willing to put profits far above human rights. We’ve seen it before, and we’re going to have to be very diligent if we are going to avoid seeing it again.
Of course, it’s not all bad, and in fact the reason it is truly important to critique such an initiative is due to the potential it has to radically alter the circumstances of millions of immigrants in the United States today, including queer and trans folks. The fact that there appears to be a general consensus that the 11 million undocumented in the U.S. deserve a path to citizenship is a huge improvement from the political climate of even a few months ago. Moreover, the White House proposal even included bi-national same-sex couples in their blueprint, proposing giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa based on a long-term relationship with a same-sex partner.
But it is important to remember who and what kind of political action got us to a point where immigration reform finally seems inevitable after many, many years of need and just as many of political inaction. And here I have to give mad props to DREAMer youth, many of whom are queer, who have spent the last few years on an unapologetic campaign to get the country to face the fact that non-action on immigration is unsustainable by engaging in direct actions and refusing to give up and go away – even when the odds seemed so far out of their favor. If we are going to make immigration reform meaningful for queer and trans immigrants, we must stay steady on our hustle. We have to remain diligent in watching out for all the ways the most marginalized immigrants could be excluded from this process, and demand better for our communities. This is a huge opportunity, family. Y’all better werk!
Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and artist who just moved to Holyoke, MA. She has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color, and helped to lead social justice efforts in Wisconsin, New York City, and Texas.