Op-ed: Why I Got Arrested for Fair Immigration Reform

A bill to help millions of people, including LGBTs, realize their American dream is still stalled in Congress.

BY Rea Carey

September 18 2013 3:20 AM ET

Rea Carey

Last week I joined 104 other women from across the nation — 22 of whom were undocumented immigrants — in an act of civil disobedience organized by We Belong Together in protest of the House of Representatives’ appalling inaction on immigration reform. Here’s why.

A few short months ago I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court when the justices struck down a key component of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, as they ruled for Edie Windsor and against the heartbreaking inequalities that she and many others have had to face. Among the first people I called that day was our board member Ken, who has known his Bahamian partner, Otts, for 13 years. 

For Ken and Otts, the news that the federal government would recognize marriage equality for same-sex couples was absolutely life-changing. It meant that, as a binational couple, they could finally gain access to the same immigration rights enjoyed by straight married couples. For this loving couple and for thousands of same-sex binational couples — the high court’s ruling brought an end to years of separation, suffering, and undue financial hardship. It provided relief from the deeply painful choice between love for each other and love of country. It made the possibility of a shared American Dream for same-sex married couples a reality. While this historic ruling played an important role in helping to fix one aspect of our nation’s broken immigration system, it did not help the 11 million undocumented immigrants to our country, over a quarter of a million of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, who desperately want a shot at the American Dream.

It didn’t help the undocumented lesbian mother who has been separated from her young children; the gay DREAMer who wants to continue his studies here and contribute to our society; the transgender woman being held in detention facilities not appropriate for her gender, experiencing discrimination, mistreatment, and abuse from other detainees, facility staff, and officials.

Today, 51% of undocumented immigrants are women, but they only get a third of the employment visas issued each year. And a full 70% of applicants to the notoriously inefficient family visa system are women and children — many of whom have to endure decades of waiting to be reunited with their families.

For these reasons and more, I walked into a busy intersection on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., with other women, arm in arm, and we formed a large circle and then all 105 of us sat down. We chanted, we sang, we insisted that Congress move forward on immigration reform. And then, arms cuffed behind our backs, we were arrested.

As we were processed for arrest all day and into the night, we shared stories of our lives, talked about our work to create change for immigrants and made sure the undocumented among us were safe.

The truth is, fair immigration reform is not just good for LGBT people, and women and their families — it’s good for our democracy, good for our economy, and good for America. Our broken system has a clear fix that most Americans want action on now.

The U.S. Senate has acted on this issue in a bipartisan way, but the U.S. House leadership has been dragging its feet on one of the most critical issues of our day. 

To be sure, it is right that members of Congress carefully consider the situation in Syria and the impending debt ceiling fight. But they must also simultaneously focus on vitally important domestic issues. We elected them to walk and chew gum — and to move a number of important decisions forward at the same time.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Undocumented immigrants need a real pathway to citizenship and the American Dream now. We need progress, not political gridlock.

REA CAREY is the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

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