National Dream Graduation, Redux

Every June for the past 12 years, undocumented students from around the country have traveled to Washington D.C.to urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act, holding a “mock graduation ceremony” followed by lobby visits to their respective Congresspersons. This year was no different, with The National Immigrant Youth Alliance bringing over 500 undocumented students from at least 17 states down to the Capitol. And this year, we also had Andres Benach from Benach Ragland LLP, talk to a self-selected group of students about Obama’s deferred action policy, clearing up some misconceptions and dishing out great legal information.

Graduation has historically been a bittersweet event for many undocumented youth, unable to move forward. The “mock graduation” – now called the National Dream Graduation – symbolizes the estimated 70,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, unable to pursue higher education because they lack papers. This year was a bit different. Due to the hard organizing work of many young undocumented people around the country, President Obama has issued a directive to not deport undocumented youth, and instead, allowed us to come forward affirmatively and apply for deferred action. While deferred action is certainly not enough, for the first time in history, many of these young people are graduating and will graduate with hope and dreams of a future. And even if they don’t graduate with high hopes and dreams of a future, I think Kemi Bello, a friend and undocumented youth from Texas, sums it up best:

“I urge you to challenge the traditional notion of the milestones we must meet in life in order to be successful. Whether it takes you 4 years or 7 to finish college, or you decide not to go at all, or are not able to go; whether you wear your “I Am Undocumented” shirt to the grocery store or have only told one person that you are undocumented; whether you are working 3 jobs or are organizing full-time – own your story, own your experience and never apologize for how different your life has turned out to be from some pre-determined ‘norm.’ For it is the uniqueness of our individual stories and experiences that makes our collective story as undocumented youth so powerful.”

And indeed, the event was one of a kind, with unique individual stories that did not fit the norm. Dulce Guerrero (GA), Viridiana Martinez (NC) and Cynthia Martinez did wonders MC-ing. Marco Saavedra from Ohio owned the room with his powerful rendition of Langston Hughes for the convocation. Alejandra Pimentel, a mother fighting her son’s deportation, shared some great words with us, telling us that her dream was our success and that we should never give up. Little J shared the poem he wrote for Michelle Obama that he couldn’t share it with her because he lacked a social security number. Alicia Torres had a vital message for everyone in the movement to nurture themselves so that they could be a source of positive energy. Even YOLO made it to the graduation, thanks to Vicko Alvaro from USAS.

And of course, 10 minutes before the start of the event, I found out that I had the honor (and terrifying duty) of delivering the commencement speech to 500 people. I would like to thank the person who let me hurriedly borrow his cap and gown for the ceremony! I decided that jaded activist humor was the way to go. It seems to have worked, or at least, I don’t have any displeased emails. Even the Pastor kindly told me later that he enjoyed my speech and that the Luther Church welcomes LGBT people.

The National Dream Graduation is usually the one of the only times when undocumented youth activists from around the country who work together virtually get to be in the same room with one another. I remember meeting Walter Lara, Maria Marroquin, Kemi, Bello, Cintia Felix and so many other impressive young people for the first time at my first National Dream Graduation in Washington D.C. in 2009. It seems like such a long time ago, even though it has only been three years.

This year, I saw some old friends for the first time in ages. I also met some new people such as young South Asian American immigrant activists Yves Gomes and Ashwini Jaisingh from Casa de la Maryland. My own partner spoke on behalf of her Congressperson! And I had the pleasure of running into Tim, a U.S. citizen, whose partner is languishing in detention in Michigan, highlighting the need for immigration relief for same-sex bi-national couples. I hope we are able to get his partner the help he needs so that they can continue to stay together. That would certainly be the cherry on top of the icing of a truly great event.

Most of my friends were riled up and denouncing the Supreme Court, SB 1070 ruling, which actually is not a bad decision, but a pleasantly good one. President Obama’s policies like Secure Communities (S-COMM) and his record-breaking deportation of over 1 million people is what deserves continued denunciation even as we welcome his decision to grant deferred action to an estimated 1.4 million young people.

And much like graduation from high school, we’ve made some progress, but the war continues.

 

Of Border Gays and Trans Migrants: Where Next?

Jose Antonio Vargas is perhaps the best known border gay.

But there is much larger community of border gays and trans* migrants who don’t necessarily bask in the mainstream limelight.

Queer immigrants have been around for quite a while and involved in every civil rights struggle. The undocumented youth movement is just the latest reincarnation. From the earliest days of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) to Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER) to the LGBT Caucus at DreamActivist and the March 10 Coming Out Day marked by Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), we’ve long been active and at the forefront of securing more rights for immigrant communities while not leaving our queer allegiances behind. If and when the DREAM Act is passed, it would be in large part due to the unrelenting efforts of queer youth and women.

But it has not been easy to navigate the complex world of immigration politics. Different forces have always tried to divide us. We’ve been told to leave spaces because we are queer. We’ve been left out of conversations because we speak our minds. We’ve been told to suppress or hide one part of ourselves in favor of another. We’ve been cast in the binary of good gays and bad queers by white professional anti-racists. We’ve been told to speak out against each other to protect certain heterosexual privileging. We’ve been told that our lives and truths need to be filtered and watered down for the comfort of our more privileged allies. Our gender-queer and trans* compadres have not been treated with the same love and respect. Over and over again.

More often than not and in somewhat mainstream LGBT circles, I’m told that immigration is simply not an LGBT issue. “The DREAM Act only tangentially affects gays.” That may be a fair criticism but I’d like to point out that marriage also tangentially affects gays. It certainly does nothing for those of us who are young, single and ready to mingle, who do not believe in the institution and who have no interest in coupledom. And since marriage is a hetero-normative institution, gay marriage is not even a queer issue. Yet I’ve seen millions getting poured into the movement for marriage equality and to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which serves to mainly benefit those who assimilate to white, heterosexual normative assumptions of the family.

Personally, as a queer immigrant youth, marriage is a major turn-off because it is precisely what most of our own immigrant families want us to do from the moment we turn 18. They start telling us to “find a good American boy” or “find a good American girl” and the coercion continues for years till we can somehow leave our home or persuade them otherwise or succumb to their desires while hiding our own or kill ourselves. No thanks, I’d much rather pursue higher education as a way to get us out of poverty.

If we are concerned about fighting for issues that affect the largest number of queers, why isn’t the LGBT movement all about securing universal healthcare for everyone and making sure that both reproductive rights and gender re-assignment surgery is part of the package? And in case you forgot, we can still get fired for being queer and trans* because the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) remains a non-priority. It’s just not an issue that is on the radar of the gay white boys club and hence, not important. Gay is not the new black; it is the old white.

But I digress. The purpose of this post is not to come down hard on marriage equality proponents. It’s to talk about how to serve the interests of queer immigrant youth in an increasingly hostile environment. And I’ve come up with a small laundry list.

We need to support Nico Gonzalez as he walks across the continental United States for his dream.

We need to help our queer compadres in New York pass the New York Dream Act, to provide financial assistance for long-time New York residents.

We need to pour massive amounts of time and energy into defending the Maryland DREAM Act, which grants instate tuition for everyone who attended high school in Maryland for three or more years.

We need to win on the Child Status Protection Act. After all, it is queer immigrant youth who disproportionately need to keep their original priority date to immigrate through their parents.

We need to join IYJL in celebrating the Third Annual National Coming Out Day and making the effort truly national in character.

We need to fight against the increasing archipelago of detention that disproportionately impacts our queer and trans* compadres, ranging from immigrant detention facilities to police surveillance.

We need to connect the dots between anti-immigrant fervor and good old racism whenever possible and stop people from hiding behind the word “illegal.”

That’s just a few things we need to do immediately. And we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the right time.

New Jersey May Become 12th State to Grant Tuition Parity

Two bills (S1036 and A990) would enable New Jersey to join 11 other states in allowing an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 undocumented students per year to pay resident rates provided they maintain good grades, solid character, and attend at least three years of high school in the state.

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 7-4 and the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 8-6 to send the legislation to the floor for the first time in New Jersey history.

The bill was endorsed by the outgoing Governor Jon Corzine’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy and the New Jersey legislature is trying to pass the bill before Governor-elect Chris Christie resumes office. Floor votes in the Assembly and Senate are scheduled as early as this Thursday. If New Jersey does not pass tuition parity in this legislative session, than the state may not get a chance to do so for another 8 years. Time is of the essence.

If you live in New Jersey, after signing the petition below, call these senators and ask them to support tuition parity for New Jersey residents – Senate Bill 1036.

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Going to Netroots Nations

Change of plans–After months of shying away, I agreed to attend Netroots Nations in Pennsylvania next week and will join the bike riders when I get back to California.

And I am happy that Piash is coming along, thanks to America’s Voice! Agenda here.

The weight is on me to “sufficiently represent the Dream Activists” at the pre-NN blogger summit for LGBT and Immigration bloggers. (Mohammad is busy doing more important work in deferring the deportation of two other students this month, one of them in Detroit Michigan).

11:00 – 11:15    Welcome and Introductions (Judith Freeman)
11:15 – 12:00    The Power of Coalitions: Case Studies in Progressive Collaboration (Chris Bowers)
12:00 – 12:30    Intersection of Immigration/LGBT Issues (Steve Ralls)
12:30 – 1:30      Working Lunch Panel — A Bloggers’ Guide to Legislative Advocacy and Going Online to Offline (Shaunna Thomas, Kyle de Beausset, Prerna Lal, Michael Crawford, and Marcy Wheeler with Q&A)
1:30 – 2:15        Legislation: What’s On the Table and Where We Need To Go (David Waldman aka Kagro X)
2:15 – 2:30        Coffee/Snack
2:30 – 3:15        How Bloggers Can Help Organizations — and Vice Versa (Kety Esquivel, Julia Rosen, and Mike Rogers)
3:15 – 4:45        Strengthening Connections and Making Plans (small group discussions)
4:45 – 5:00        Wrap-Up and Next Steps (Chris Bowers)

Two years ago, or even a year ago, this wouldn’t have been a possibility–there is no way that an (out) undocumented queer woman of color would sit on any such panels and summit. The changes are due in large part to the amazing work at DreamActivist and the online promigrant blogosphere (such as Citizen Orange) for recognizing and recommending that work. It feels great to represent, even if I am pigeon-holed and labeled as a ‘DREAM Act’ or ‘undocumented student’ blogger. Maybe I am a token per my multiple identities but my work speaks for itself and I am certainly not a ‘bland’ one.

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Lessons from New York

I have never been to New York before but it isn’t places that hold importance–it’s people. And sometimes we meet and spend time with people who remind us why we are still residing in this #%#%% country.

I remember when I was a kid, I had made a speech about how friendship was the most important and telling relationship since it was one of the only ones that we aren’t forced to make or keep. This blog has many friendly stalkers and the ones in New York are both special and important enough to keep.

I inherited the red-eye on Thursday, spent the day in company of friends working to stop the deportation of Taha, had a smashing night with little sleep, got dragged to a meeting I had no stake in, spent a much longer part of the day ‘hobbling’ around New York/New Jersey over Taha’s case and partying the night away. I usually detest traveling but I spent quality time with people I love so the trip was productive.

And I did work. I owed Dave 10 blog posts over the course of the week and delivered duly. From the Senate passing the long-awaited hate crime bill to Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan and Kris Kobach to ICE breaking laws to apologies for racial discrimination and to the undying DREAM Act. And I learned some valuable lessons.

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