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On the 235th birthday of the U.S., how do we “Define American?”

Over the last couple of weeks, developments in the immigration reform movement and the LGBTQI rights movement have opened up discussions of how one movement can learn from the other. New Yorkers celebrated the hard-won passage of the legalization of gay marriage, making the state the largest and most politically influential in the US so far to take the step forward. After the landmark passage of the law, other states (such as New Jersey and Rhode Island) are in the motion of enacting their own versions of the law.

The New York victory for the LGBTQI movement, coinciding with Pride Day and LGBT Pride Month, has sparked a discussion among the immigration reform movement over what can be learned from the successes of the other group. While the socio-political conditions of both movements are different, analysts have identified one major factor that contributed to the recent strides taken by the LGBTQI movement – making the issue personal for the legislators- that could be useful for other movements for human rights.

There are, of course, other, more obvious overlaps between the two groups as well. The recent case of Henry Velandia serves as a key example. Velandia, a Venezuelan salsa dancer, came to the US in 2002 and was legally married to his partner Josh Vandiver, a US citizen, last year in Connecticut. Velandia was then denied legal residency under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which states that an American citizen can petition for legal residency for a spouse only if the spouse is of the opposite sex. Velandia faced deportation and only after repeated petitioning and opposition to DOMA, did the the immigration authorities cancel his deportation. Velandia and Vandiver’s lawyer, who won them the case, commented on the decision-

This action shows that the government has not only the power but the inclination to do the right thing when it comes to protecting certain vulnerable populations from deportation.

These links between the immigration and gay rights movements was also highlighted at the recent Freedom from Fear Awards that were announced on June 18 at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis. One of the awards was given to Gaby Pacheco, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Roa, the students who walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC to move the government into passing the DREAM Act. The four students, two of whom (Matos and Rodriguez) are openly gay, went on the four month journey and garnered tremendous support – and some threats – along the way. Their campaign, called the Trail of DREAMs, caught the attention of President Obama and was also instrumental in the House of Representatives passing the DREAM Act in December 2010 before it was rejected by the Senate.

Freedom from Fear recognized several other, incredibly deserving, individuals for their dogged determination and fearlessness in working towards immigration reform, through grassroots campaigning, fighting discrimination, ending labor exploitation and much more. They also released a video showcasing all the winners from this year. One such worthy award recipient is Erika Andiola (from Phoenix, AZ). An honors student at Arizona State University, Andiola fell victim to Arizona’s draconian immigration laws when her scholarships were withdrawn because of her undocumented status. She has also been unable to find a job because of the same discrimination. Andiola joined Promise Arizona, a grassroots civic engagement group that works to train a new generation of leaders and also registers Latinos to vote. She is also campaigning for the DREAM Act, regularly approaching senior government officials to get her voice heard. Despite losing her scholarships, Andiola completed her degree and hopes to work as a school counselor one day.

The Freedom from Fear Awards give further impetus to the immigration movement, that has of late benefited from increased support and high-profile press coverage. On June 22, The New York Times published a completely unexpected confession from their Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas titled ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.’ The article, in which Vargas reveals his background, his unwavering American identity, and criticizes the immigration policy of the country, received widespread attention and gave the immigration reform movement its latest high-profile advocate. Vargas founded the organization, Define American, whose goal is to instigate a conversation around the many facets, including the moral questions, of the immigration debate. Vargas aims to publicize his story in the hope of encouraging the undocumented immigrants in the country to be more vocal and push legislators to pass comprehensive reform.

On June 28, the Senate held its very first hearing on the DREAM Act. In attendance were numerous DREAMers, including those who are now well known – such as Vargas – and those working tirelessly in their communities fighting to be accepted as Americans. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who authored the original DREAM Act, said in his opening statement-

When I look around this room, I see the future doctors, nurses, scientists, and soldiers who will make this country stronger. I ask my colleagues to consider the plight of these young people, who find themselves in a legal twilight zone through no fault of their own. They are willing to serve our country, if we would only give them a chance.

Opponents of the DREAM Act always say they sympathize with DREAM Act students. They criticize the details of the bill, but they offer no alternative. Do they want these young people to be deported to countries that they barely remember? Or to continue living in the shadows?

The following day, President Obama renewed his promise to work towards comprehensive immigration reform, commenting specifically on the flaws of E-Verify, the mandatory background checking system that is being considered. Watch his remarks here:

Soon after, hundreds of DREAMers and their allies staged a symbolic graduation ceremony on Capitol Hill for the “Deportation Class of 2011.” With the slogan ‘Education, not Deportation,’ the DREAMers called on President Obama to fulfill his promise of getting the DREAM Act passed. Several DREAMers took to the podium to voice their calls for reform. They were also joined by Vargas, who spoke of the urgency to educate ordinary Americans about the cause and to publicize it more widely (an opinion that echoes the reasons for the success of the LGBTQI movement). With a statement that essentially summarizes the undeniable importance of immigration reform to the foundations of this country, Vargas ended with-

Americans don’t hate us…They just don’t know us. We need to show them that immigration is not about us, the 11 million undocumented immigrants. It’s about us, the 300 million Americans.

Photo courtesy of change.org

What happens when we give up the ideals that define us?

Incidents around the country continue to undermine the principles of equality, justice and dignity for all that have played an important role in making America the strong nation it is today. In a story reported by the New York Times, a Brazilian man, Genesio Oliveira, is facing deportation and separation from his husband, Tim Coco, an American citizen and resident of Massachusetts, soon after federal officials allowed him to be reunited with his husband earlier this year.

The current situation is reminiscent of the ordeal the couple went through 3 years ago when they were forced to live apart after Genesio was denied asylum on claims of being raped as a teenager in Brazil. The judge deciding the case said he found Genesio’s fear of returning to Brazil “genuine” but denied him asylum on the grounds that he was never physically harmed by the rape. This ruling received a lot of attention from civil rights and immigrant rights groups around the world who criticized U.S. officials for separating a couple that was legally married. Following a request from Senator Kerry in June this year Genesio Oliveira was allowed back into the country on humanitarian grounds. He fervently hoped that this would induce the Attorney General to reverse the initial ruling that forced him back to Brazil, but even on Sen. Kerry’s urging, Eric Holder is refusing to reverse the earlier decision in a way that would allow Genesio to apply for permanent residency and stay with his husband.

Laws that interfere with civil rights and liberties are making their presence felt on a national level, as is evident in the constantly evolving TSA (Transportation Security Administration) regulations regarding security screenings in airports around the country. Three of the largest Sikh advocacy groups in the country are opposing screening measures at airports that require hand searches of all people wearing turbans, even if they agree to undergo full body scans using Advanced Imaging Technology. Representatives from the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund announced their opposition to screening policies that they say unfairly target members of the Sikh community.

Hansdeep Singh, a senior staff lawyer for United Sikhs based in New York, told the New York Times about a meeting that took place with TSA officials some weeks ago, in which members of Sikh groups had hoped to hear that with the introduction of Advanced Imaging Technology, there would be less hand and wand searches of turbans in airports. Instead, what they were met with was news of the development of “a patchwork of airport security policies… in which all turbans are searched.” Amardeep Singh, the Sikh Coalition’s director of programs, told the Associated Press, “The TSA told us, point blank, that turbans will now be screened 100 percent of the time.” Referring to the racial profiling and hate crimes that Sikh Americans have been faced with post September 11, 2001, Singh said, “Sikh Americans are already looked at differently in this country. Once you start pulling Sikhs aside for extra screening, it sends a message that the government is suspicious of them for the same reasons [other passengers] are suspicious of them.”

While TSA officials have not confirmed the introduction of a blanket policy, they reiterated Security procedures introduced in 2007 that included provisions for all “bulky” headwear to be searched. National Sikh organizations are urging their constituents to lobby Congress to overturn a blanket TSA policy that calls on all Sikhs wearing turbans to undergo a hand search of their turbans in spite of the Advanced Imaging Technology screening that screens metallic, plastic and ceramic through items of clothing.

In the midst of these incidents and policies that strike at the heart of this nation’s diversity, we did get wind of a heartening story that evidences a positive stance towards minority communities. Today, New Haven officials announced their plans for New Haven Promise, a new program that grants college tuition to high school students from public and charter school, provided that they maintain a 3.0 grade point average and 90% attendance rate.  The program, financed by Yale University, will pay up to 25% of the tuition for qualifying seniors who go on to public colleges or universities in Connecticut next year, up to 50% for the class after that, up to 75%for the following class; and up to 100% for the Class of 2014. According to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., the program is like a “contract that says to kids: If you work hard, you demonstrate academic achievement and display appropriate behaviors, we’ll give you the tools to go to college and therefore inject choice and opportunity in your lives.”

Most importantly, the Promise will be open to all New Haven residents irrespective of their immigration status, and that includes those young adults who are undocumented and would be eligible for the DREAM Act, were it to be passed. Right now, students have to be legal residents or citizens in order to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and undocumented students are charged out-of-state tuition, which is about $10,000 at the state universities and $24,500 at University of Connecticut.

This is just one more step in the right direction for New Haven officials who are supportive of the immigrant communities that are an integral part of the city. From the New Haven Independent-

State legislators, including New Haven Sen. Martin Looney, have been pushing for a statewide version of the DREAM Act that would allow Connecticut residents who are undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition. DeStefano said he will urge the state legislature to pass such a bill; he also said he’s working with various in-state colleges to work out an arrangement concerning the issue. Until such a change is made, he said, Promise will pay “full tuition” for each eligible student, even if that student is an immigrant who must pay out-of-state tuition.

It is important that we work together to honor the diversity that is the strength of this nation. As long as we continue to deny equality, justice, dignity and liberty to some, we cannot guarantee human rights for anyone.

Photo courtesy of blogs.cnn.com