South­ern­ers on New Ground fight im­mi­grant de­por­ta­tions

Un­doc­u­mented LGBT peo­ple face be­ing ‘lost in the sys­tem’

GA Voice - - Contents - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­

The im­mi­gra­tion is­sue has topped na­tional news for months, go­ing on years, peo­ple of color are are about to be­come the ma­jor­ity in the U.S. and there are un­told amounts of un­doc­u­mented LGBT peo­ple fac­ing a va­ri­ety of in­jus­tices, ac­cord­ing to an At­lanta non­profit.

“We need to have a heavy, deep and real con­ver­sa­tion about how many peo­ple think they’ll be able to fight that with re­gres­sive poli­cies,” says Paulina Helm-Her­nan­dez, co-ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of South­ern­ers on New Ground.

SONG iden­ti­fies as a queer lib­er­a­tion group that works pri­mar­ily with ru­ral LGBT south­ern­ers on is­sues such as poverty and racism in ad­di­tion to im­mi­gra­tion. The group takes a mul­tira­cial ap­proach to help­ing solve these is­sues.

The en­tire im­mi­gra­tion con­ver­sa­tion rad­i­cally shifted af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks. The fed­eral govern­ment was given his­toric and sweep­ing lev­els of con­trol in the name of na­tional se­cu­rity. While Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was re­spon­si­ble for set­ting up the frame­work, there’s one man whom SONG and other or­ga­ni­za­tions are point­ing a fin­ger at for be­ing re­spon­si­ble for record num­bers of de­por­ta­tions.

“Pres­i­dent Obama has come in and re­ally dug that deeper, which is why we’ve sin­gled him out as a tar­get,” Helm-Her­nan­dez says. “The re­al­ity is, he hasn’t just en­forced the law, he’s made it so much more ag­gres­sive and it has so much more bite than when Bush was in of­fice.”

As a re­sult, SONG re­cently an­nounced that two un­doc­u­mented mem­bers of the or­ga­ni­za­tion have joined the Not 1 More De­por­ta­tion Cam­paign’s Blue Rib­bon Com­mis­sion. The com­mis­sion per­formed an in­de­pen­dent re­view and on April 10 is­sued a par­al­lel re­port to the pres­i­dent’s or­der to the Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices to make de­por­ta­tion poli­cies more hu­mane.


Of those in the LGBT com­mu­nity who ac­tu­ally pay at­ten­tion to the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue, most look at it solely based on the con­ver­sa­tion around bi-na­tional cou­ples, i.e. when one per­son is a cit­i­zen and their part­ner isn’t. The is­sue is how to make it pos­si­ble for the cit­i­zen to spon­sor their part­ner so they too can be­come a cit­i­zen.

“I think that’s im­por­tant, but that’s not the core cen­ter of the con­ver­sa­tion,” Helm-Her­nan­dez says. “It’s about the safety and dig­nity and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of all LGBT peo­ple in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

Specif­i­cally, the rapid in­crease in anti-gay laws around the world is jeop­ar­diz­ing the safety of LGBT peo­ple in coun­tries like Rus­sia, Uganda, Ukraine, Kenya and Nige­ria. This has led to a mas­sive mi­gra­tion move­ment to the U.S., but ac­tivists say that U.S. im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies are mak­ing it tougher for them to seek asy­lum and es­cape the vi­o­lence.

Ce­celia Saenz Be­cerra is a 28-year-old self­i­den­ti­fied queer un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant who lives in East At­lanta and is one of the two SONG mem­bers on the Not 1 More De­por­ta­tion Cam­paign’s Blue Rib­bon Com­mis­sion.

Born in Mex­ico City, Be­cerra came to the U.S. with her mother when she was four. Her father was a le­gal res­i­dent, and her sib­lings are U.S. cit­i­zens as well since they were born in Phoenix. She moved to At­lanta for work.

“That was a hard de­ci­sion for me to leave my fam­ily,” Be­cerra tells GA Voice. “There can’t be enough words to ex­plain how it feels to have folks in your fam­ily, like my mom, to be liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent city than me.”

The is­sue with un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants like Be­cerra and her mother is they con­stantly live in fear of be­ing picked up by U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment. They then are trans­ferred to de­ten­tion cen­ters like the one lo­cated in down­town At­lanta at Peachtree Street and Memo­rial Drive.

“It’s very painful to see folks be de­ported and be lost in the sys­tem and try­ing to find them,” Be­cerra says. “You’re maybe hop­ing they’re still here [in the U.S.] and you’re hop­ing they didn’t go through some ex­pe­dited de­por­ta­tion process.”

The de­ten­tion cen­ters are a ma­jor fo­cus for groups like SONG.

“The un­told story is the amount of LGBT peo­ple in de­ten­tion and de­por­ta­tion and what our peo­ple are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in­side there,” Helm-Her­nan­dez says. Those specif­i­cally fac­ing the most ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence in­side the cen­ters are trans women of color.

“If you’re trans, where are they go­ing to place you?” Be­cerra says. “It’s sim­i­lar to pris­ons, there’s no sen­si­tiv­ity to it. It’s very trau­matic and brings up other trau­mas that LGBT folks have had in terms of com­ing out to their fam­i­lies and oth­ers—vi­o­lence, threats to their lives.”

Helm-Her­nan­dez con­curs, say­ing, “Trans women of color are placed im­me­di­ately in soli­tary con­fine­ment, sup­pos­edly for their own pro­tec­tion, but they of­ten have no le­gal re­course to get out of soli­tary. So of­ten­times they spend months in soli­tary con­fine­ment by them­selves.”

An­other im­mi­gra­tion is­sue specif­i­cally harm­ful to the LGBT com­mu­nity is that un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants have to lay low in or­der not to get picked up, so the voices of un­told num­bers of un­doc­u­mented LGBT voices are si­lenced.

“I of­ten feel held back in terms of my po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause if I get ar­rested, I might not be able to stay here or it might mean that I could get dinged points on my res­i­dency,” Be­cerra says. “I al­ways have to pause and think about how far I’m go­ing to go and how much I’m go­ing to do. For those of us that are not doc­u­mented, it means it’s not just on you but on your fam­ily.”

For now, SONG and the Not 1 More De­por­ta­tion Cam­paign await Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­sponse to their rec­om­men­da­tions, grow­ing more frus­trated ev­ery day by the con­tra­dic­tions of a pres­i­dent get­ting lauded for his ad­vances for LGBT equal­ity.

“Ex­cept if you’re un­doc­u­mented. Ex­cept if you’re an im­mi­grant,” says Helm-Her­nan­dez. “Then you have no con­trol over your life.”

South­ern­ers on New Ground, an LGBT non­profit work­ing to em­power ru­ral south­ern­ers, has held sev­eral ral­lies in At­lanta to bring aware­ness to the is­sue of LGBT un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants fac­ing de­por­ta­tion un­der strict U.S. laws. (Photo by An­gela Hill)

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