(DC Agenda video by Steve Fox)
An estimated 200,000 demonstrators descended on the National Mall on Sunday to urge passage of comprehensive immigration reform, including several hundred protesters advocating for LGBT inclusion in the legislation.
As they danced to salsa music and listened to speeches, participants at the rally and the march that followed called on President Obama and Congress to keep their promise to enact reform legislation before the year’s end.
Latino groups — waiving signs reading “Reform not Raids” and “Obama Cumple tu Promesa” — comprised the majority of those participating in the demonstration, although contingents of Asian and Caribbean groups also took part.
The LGBT contingent, which included about 300 people, advocated for their inclusion as part of the broader immigration movement as well as for incorporating the Uniting American Families Act in reform. The bill would enable LGBT Americans to sponsor same-sex partners who are foreign nationals for residency.
Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, said the showing was “a nice visible contingent” that demonstrated “how much the LGBT community is here for comprehensive immigration reform that includes all families.”
“First and foremost, we hope to really be a part of the movement that’s pushing for [comprehensive immigration reform] to get going,” she said. “Nobody knows better than [LGBT] families how badly we need immigration reform in this country.”
Advocates are pushing Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are developing bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation, to include UAFA in the version of the bill they introduce in the U.S. Senate.
As they marched among other groups, members of Immigration Equality’s contingent sported red shirts with “LGBT families for immigration reform” on the back as they chanted, “Two, four, six, eight! Let our families immigrate!” and “We’re here! We’re queer! You are not alone!”
A number of demonstrators had a personal stake in the passage of legislation to protect bi-national same-sex couples. Eric Stanley, a D.C. resident, and Tim Lin, his partner of nearly four years from Taiwan, said they want UAFA passed so they can remain together in the United States.
Under current law, they said it would take Lin seven to 10 years for him to receive a green card to remain in the country.
“If I could marry him and give a green card, I would,” Stanley said. “It feels like Kansas controls what the rest of country has to do in this situation.”
Although they’re pushing hard for LGBT-inclusive immigration reform, Lin said he isn’t optimistic that reform will pass this year.
“I’m just hoping that with all these people, they might start to think about it this year, and eventually, in a year or two, do something about it,” he said.
Stanley also said he doesn’t think many LGBT people view protection for bi-national couples as a priority.
“People who are not directly affected don’t seem very interested,” he said. “I couldn’t get any friends to come today. But when you are directly affected, it does matter quite a bit.”
Guillermo Lopez, 22, a gay U.S. citizen and student at Houston Community College, said he came to the march in D.C. to support same-sex bi-national couples, even though he’s not in a relationship that would benefit from passage of the Uniting American Families Act.
“If these people were straight or were in heterosexual relationships, they could easily sponsor their partners and give them legal status,” he said. “So we’re here trying to push for the Uniting American Families Act, which would bring that equality so that gay people can sponsor their partner.”
Lopez said he thinks the rally put pressure on President Obama and Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“Hopefully it’ll put enough pressure on them so that a comprehensive reform bill will pass in 2010 before Democrats lose seats in the election, which will make it harder for us to push our agenda,” he said.
Before marching past the U.S. Capitol to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, demonstrators gathered on the Mall where a series of speakers rallied the crowd. The issue of helping same-sex couples was only mentioned a few times.
A female speaker at the event said immigration reform is supported by many groups, including “disabled and queer people.” Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), whose Reuniting American Families Act includes language similar to UAFA, was introduced at the event as someone who wants gay and lesbian families included in reform.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker, joined a group of members of Congress on stage who support immigration reform.
Speakers at the event worked to invigorate the crowd. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a champion of immigrant rights, was received particularly favorably by attendees, as he urged them to continue to pressuring lawmakers to enact reform.
“If today we will raise our voices in hope, then soon we will raise our voices in victory,” he said. “Because our day is coming. Together, we will turn today’s hope into tomorrow’s victory.”
Gutierrez late last year introduced in the U.S. House a version of immigration reform intended as a more liberal alternative to the working bill expected later in the House. But Gutierrez’s bill lacks a provision similar to the Uniting American Families Act.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group leading the charge for reform, also had encouraging words for his audience.
“We will keep the pressure on until comprehensive immigration reform is finally passed,” he said. “So from here, our power will only grow.”
In addition to Immigration Equality, other LGBT organizations participated in the demonstration, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Latino GLBT History Project and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.
Rea Carey, the Task Force’s executive director, said her organization participated to emphasize immigration as an LGBT issue.
In addition to ensuring that bi-national same-sex couples can stay together in the United States, Carey said there also are issues related to transgender people and HIV-positive detainees not receiving needed treatment while in custody that need to be addressed.
“We are here today because we want to make sure the broad range of issues that affect LGBT people are recognized in the context of immigration reform,” she said.
Lt. Dan Choi, a gay U.S. Army Iraq war veteran who was arrested last week for chaining himself to the White House gates in protest of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” joined the LGBT contingent in the rally. He said he wouldn’t take questions because the day was focused on the immigration rally.