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Immigration debate poses challenge for gay Latinos

Published May 28, 2013 11:28 am

Overhaul • Same-sex immigrant couples want legal protections but not at the expense of the reform bill.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Seized by the highest-profile immigration debate in nearly three decades, the nation might swap its national pastime this summer from baseball to a bill batted around Congress by the Gang of Eight.

For gay Latino immigrants in Utah — especially those without papers known as the "undocuqueers" — the outcome could deliver double the impact: a pathway to citizenship and the equal treatment of same-sex couples through a comprehensive reform bill.

Amendments that would extend the same immigration rights to gay and lesbian couples were withdrawn before the reform measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, but they could re-emerge on the Senate floor.

Key Republicans call that a deal killer, but gay rights leaders aren't giving up.

Complicating the politics, the timing dovetails with a Supreme Court ruling — expected in June — on the case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. If the court strikes down DOMA, the LGBT provision in the immigration bill would largely be moot.

Gay Latinos in Salt Lake City are riveted by both developments. But they also recognize pushing for protections as part of immigration reform could be a double-edged sword.

"It's an issue that is of course close to me, but it is also a little bit opportunistic," says "Edgar," a gay 22-year-old Salt Lake City resident from Mexico, using a pseudonym because he is undocumented and one semester removed from completing a double major at the University of Utah. "I found it quite sad when it didn't pass [in committee], but I also said if this is the issue that will kill immigration reform, let's not go for it."

Still, the polarizing topic poses a delicate dilemma for Edgar and undocumented Latinos across Utah's gay community.

"Most of the people in my situation who are also LGBT have an extra barrier in front of them," Edgar adds. "It's not only that you don't exist on paper here in the United States, but you also have to face an issue that most immigrants don't have to face."

Dreamers dreaming • For five years, Alex Moya has been promoting HIV prevention to gay immigrant men through his work at the Utah AIDS Foundation.

"I work primarily with couples who have two green cards or undocumented couples," he explains. "The focus here is just hoping that immigration reform passes, but not so much about, 'How can I marry?' I don't think that's the main concern for a lot of them."

The amendment pulled from the Gang of Eight bill would have allowed foreign-born partners in same-sex, binational couples to petition for a green card the way straight partners can.

Moya, who is gay, knows one gay Salt Lake City resident — whose partner lives outside the United States — who could benefit from a yet-to-be-amended bill. But he says the pool of binational immigrant couples who are gay seems small — and the numbers back him up.

Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, an estimated 267,000 are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Estimates point to 40,000 bi­national same-sex couples in the United States.

Even so, members of the Salt Lake Dream Team — a youth-oriented immigration rights group — are fighting for gay rights as part of comprehensive immigration reform, calling it the new civil rights movement and history in the making.

This spring, Salt Lake Dream Team members visited the staff of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in Salt Lake City, while the Dream Team's Itza Hernandez also dropped by the offices of Lee and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in Washington, D.C.

"They need to choose the right side of history," Hernandez said at the time, calling it a priority to get immigration reform that "explicitly benefits the undocumented lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community."

Edgar says the fact Congress is still discussing the amendment is itself "very much a victory."

Too Catholic and conservative? • By many cultural conventions, the notion of Latinos standing up for gay marriage seems like a stretch. Too focused on conventional family, stereotypes suggest. Too conservative. Too Catholic.

But poll numbers tell a different story.

A majority of Latinos (52 percent) favor same-sex marriage — eclipsing the 48 percent support among the U.S. general public — according to a 2012 national survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center.

What's more, 54 percent of Catholic Latinos favor gay marriage, the poll showed, while three-quarters of them supported President Barack Obama's re-election.

As recently as 2006, the 52 percent in favor and the 34 percent against same-sex marriage was nearly reversed. Back then, Pew showed 56 percent of Latinos opposed gay marriage while just 31 percent supported it.

"It is surprising to a lot of people because of the idea that we are very conservative," says Rebecca Valverde, a graduate student at Westminster College completing a thesis on trans-identified Latino immigrants in Utah. "A lot of them, especially the younger Latinos, are definitely for marriage equality."

Valverde, a Rose Park resident, offers an anecdotal response regarding the Catholic conundrum: "Some will say, 'Even though my church doesn't accept me, I still go to church.' "

Mark Alvarez, an attorney who has lived in Spain and Mexico and now hosts the Spanish language radio program "Sin Rodeos" in Salt Lake City, says Latino attitudes — particularly on gay marriage — are different than generally portrayed by media.

"There's not nearly as much popular resistance to it as you would perceive," Alvarez says. "Latinos are more libertarian than conservative."

For her part, Valverde would love to see LGBT protections as part of comprehensive immigration reform — "We can't advocate for one group and not another because it's just about human rights," she says. But same-sex rights may be secondary.

"Young people are for marriage equality, but mostly for immigration reform," she adds.

Politics of protection • Extending immigration rights to gay couples is Washington's latest round of high-stakes political chicken.

Most Democrats and the White House want the provision included, but not at the expense of the entire bill. Political observers note a Republican rejection — before the Supreme Court rules on DOMA — could cost the GOP during the next election cycle. That's because polls continually show growing support for LGBT protections despite Republican resistance.

Insiders, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say such an amendment would be toxic.

"You've got me on immigration," he said before the Judiciary Committee's 13-5 approval. "You don't have me on marriage."

Moya, of the Utah AIDS Foundation, is not bothered by the amendment's long odds. He says there are more eyes on Washington's black robes than backrooms.

"Most of the people I work with are hoping for marriage equality through the Supreme Court."

For Edgar, now in his first relationship and about to graduate college, the horizon looks bright from all angles.

"I'm a young person, I'm a dreamer, I'm 22," he says. "Marriage equality will happen. We'll get there — it's just a matter of time."

djensen@sltrib.com

Latino majority for gay marriage

More than half of Latinos (52 percent) favor same-sex marriage, according to a 2012 national survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center. Among Catholic Latinos, support is even higher — 54 percent, the poll reveals. The 52 percent favorable number also is higher than support for gay marriage among the United States' general public, which measured 48 percent, according to the survey.