Forum highlights intersection of civil unions and immigration issues
The forum in Humboldt Park, in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, was sponsored by Vida/SIDA and Lambda Legal.
“Vida/SIDA was one of the first organizations in the Latino community that rejected homophobia,” noted Roberto Sanabria, who helped found Vida/SIDA in 1988 and serves on its advisory board. “What makes me proud is that we’ve come such a long way.”
Sanabria moderated the forum, which included discussions by Juan Calderon, executive director of Vida/SIDA; Rick Garcia, the longtime gay activist who led lobbying efforts to pass both civil unions and the Illinois law banning discrimination against LGBTs; Camilla Taylor, National Marriage Project director in Lambda’s Midwest office in Chicago; and Tania Unzueta, advocacy coordinator for the Association of Latino Men for Action’s Immigrant Rights Project.
Calderon, who said civil unions and the push for marriage equality are at the top of Vida/SIDA’s priorities this year, became executive director at the Humboldt Park organization four years ago at age 21. Where Illinois is now in the struggle for marriage equality is something he said he couldn’t have foreseen as a teenager.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to say you can get in a civil union and you can work for marriage equality,” Calderon said.
Taylor focused on the rights couples get and don’t get from a civil union.
Panel Discussion at Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
“A civil union does not entitle you to a marriage license,” she said. “You are not married…and even if you could get married in Illinois the federal government would not recognize it.”
People who work for state or local government in Illinois can get health insurance benefits for their civil-unioned partners, Taylor said, but federal laws make that a gray area for private sector employees. And couples in civil unions who have or adopt children are both legally presumed to be parents of their child, she said. But even if federal law is changed to allow the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage, which the Defense of Marriage Act currently prohibits, Taylor said that won’t mean anything to couples who get their civil unions in Illinois.
Unzueta focused on the relationship between marriage equality and immigration issues. Repealing DOMA would open up federal recognition of married same-sex couples, she said, but would not address the legal issues for same-sex binational couples, couples in which one partner is a foreign national.
To address that would require passage of the Uniting American Families Act, proposed federal legislation that would allow citizenship for a foreign national upon marriage to a U.S. citizen.
Even with that, however, Unzueta noted that many gays and lesbians in the U.S. would be left out.
“Even if we were able to change all these things, it would not help those who are here undocumented,” she said.
That is where the efforts to achieve marriage equality and to pass immigration reform intersect, Unzueta said.
“What we’re doing is building this coalition of people who work for same-sex marriage and people who work for immigration reform and group these together,” she said.
Unzueta said advocates have been able to make some headway under the Obama administration for same-sex couples who are longtime partners when one member of the couple is threatened with deportation, with immigration judges using discretion and not deporting those partners in some cases, particularly if the couple is married or in a civil union.
But the bottom line on immigration has not been good under President Obama, she added.
“Right now we’re still waiting for immigration reform,” Unzueta said.
“Meanwhile, Obama’s about to reach the one-million mark in the number he’s deported, and that’s the highest number of any president.”
Garcia said getting civil unions is only one step in the real battle for equality.
“Right now we celebrate a little that we got civil unions here in Illinois but let me tell you something: Separate is not equal,” he said.
Passing civil unions – or marriage equality – is about the number of votes for it in the Illinois Legislature, and civil unions was achievable last year while marriage was not, he said.
“There are real people, real families, who need protection and they need it now,” Garcia said.
The next step toward marriage equality in Illinois is to make sure that legislators who voted for civil unions get reelected next year, he said.
“Then we can go back to them,” Garcia said.
In response to questions, Garcia said it’s frustrating that Obama doesn’t support marriage equality, even though he once said he did. But he added that the alternatives right now are much worse for LGBTs.
“I trust President Obama in the White House more than I trust any of the Republican SOBs who want to be in there,” Garcia said.
Following the discussion, spoken-word artist Token performed and officials at the IPRAC gave a tour of the center’s museum, the only museum dedicated to Puerto Rican art in the continental U.S.
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