"We too are immigrants"

Gay Latinos are crossing the border from Mexico in search of a better life and a place where they can be themselves. But when they get here they’re not always finding the American dream.

BY Todd Henneman

May 21 2006 11:00 PM ET

time like any
other couple: They walk their dogs in the afternoon, they
go out for dinner on Fridays, and they see at least one
movie every weekend. And they like to vacation at
theme parks such as Six Flags Magic Mountain and
Disneyland because they both love roller coasters.
“In short, we do the ‘married
couple’ thing a lot,” says Manuel, 39, who is
working on his second graduate degree, an MFA in
playwriting, at Arizona State University.

But Manuel and
González, who have been together for eight years, also
live with moments of panic. González, 32, is an
undocumented immigrant. Fourteen years ago he walked
across the border from Mexico in hopes of finding a
job and helping his family back home. He found his way to
San Diego, where other Mexican immigrants called him
joto, meaning “faggot” in
Spanish, and mariposa, the Spanish word for
“butterfly,” another pejorative reference to
gay men.

Conditions for
gay men were much worse back home, however, and
González lives in constant fear of deportation.
Even today, routine traffic stops can be terrifying.
“Trust me: We always live in fear,” says
Manuel, also born in Mexico but now a U.S. citizen.

As Congress
debates proposals to limit illegal entry into the United
States and to punish undocumented immigrants, Latino
immigrants and their supporters have been rallying in
the streets. And González and other gay
immigrants fear they are being left out. For them, the
struggle is twofold: They need to gain support from
lawmakers and officials who have the power to give
them residency and also gain support from Latino and
immigrant communities where homosexuality is still taboo.

“For the
social-justice Latino rights organizations, it’s not
an issue they’ve been taking up,” says
Oscar De La O, president and CEO of Bienestar Human
Services, California’s largest Latino nonprofit
HIV-related health services agency. “For them, it
complicates their overall work. For us, you cannot
separate your ethnic-racial makeup from your sexual
orientation.”

Andres Duque,
director of Mano a Mano, a network of Latino LGBT
organizations in New York City, says he is seeing a
“wait and see” attitude among many
undocumented LGBT Latino immigrants who would like to
become U.S. citizens. “Some are too afraid,
considering recent immigration crackdowns, to even
think about approaching the government at this
moment,” says Duque.

“Robert
Ortiz,” an undocumented immigrant who asked that his
real name be withheld for fear of deportation, fled
his native Guatemala when he was 18. “Being gay
in Guatemala, you can’t tell everyone,” says
Ortiz. “People are very discriminated against.
You can’t trust other people. I don’t
see myself going back to live there; it would be
dangerous.”

Indeed, gay men
in Guatemala are being killed as part of what a U.S.
Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship, and
Immigration Services report described in 1998 as
“social cleansing.” Police there often harass
and arbitrarily detain gay men, the report said.

When Ortiz came
to the United States he was able to be more out, and he
found a community of gay people. But that didn’t help
him gain legal status as an immigrant. In his efforts
to get U.S. residency, Ortiz says he has been scammed
and rejected. He became a seminarian in the Roman
Catholic Church, but he was forced to leave after he refused
to be sent to Mexico. “For me, that would be
going backward,” he says.

Then he married a
lesbian who promised him citizenship but ended up
blackmailing him. They divorced last year. And he paid a
police officer who claimed to have friends in the
Social Security Administration and U.S. Bureau of
Citizenship and Immigration Services. “That was such
a lie,” says Ortiz, who lives in suburban Los
Angeles. “I’ve paid so much money to
people because they promised me help, but nothing ever
happens.”

Historically,
U.S. immigration policy has favored family reunification,
bringing together parents and children, husbands and wives.
Ortiz got into a relationship with a U.S. citizen
three years ago, but that gets him nothing because
U.S. immigration policy does not recognize same-sex
partnerships, including same-sex marriages performed in
Massachusetts. “Unlike Hispanic or Latino
heterosexual couples, where if they marry someone who
is a U.S. citizen they can become a U.S. citizen, binational
Hispanic same-sex couples face all of these threats to their
families, including the inability to marry and become
U.S. citizens if their spouse already happens to be a
citizen,” notes Jason Cianciotto, research
director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy
Institute.

“Manco
Leguia,” an undocumented immigrant who asked that his
real name be withheld, arrived in Miami from Peru in
May 2000 using a fake visa. Authorities took away his
travel documents, including his legitimate Peruvian
passport, but let him stay. He took a bus to New York City,
where, unlike in his native country, he found a gay support
system. Then he met his partner of two years,
“Will West.”

After West moved
to Arizona, Leguia began visiting him periodically. On
his fourth trip, instead of flying to Phoenix, Leguia flew
to Tucson International Airport, where border patrol
agents arrested him. “When he was detained,
because we’re not married, I’m
nothing,” West says. “The only way I was
able to see him was when his cousin flew in from New York
and I drove her [to the detention facility], they let me go
in with her.”

West paid $6,000
in bond for Leguia to be freed. The men have hired an
attorney who is seeking political asylum for Leguia because
he fears for his life if he were to return to Peru. To
win asylum, immigrants like Leguia must prove a
well-founded fear of persecution based on their race,
religion, nationality, membership in a particular social
group, or political opinion. In 1994
then–attorney general Janet Reno decided that
sexual orientation could be considered membership in a
social group and that people who were persecuted
because of their sexual orientation qualified for
political asylum. That decision came just four years after
the federal government repealed a decades-old ban on gay and
lesbian immigrants that dated back to a time when
homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.

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