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Immigration Equality chief to depart at year’s end

Eight-year career culminated with Supreme Court ruling helping gay bi-national couples

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Rachel Tiven, Immigration Equality, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Tiven, Immigration Equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Executive Director of Immigration Equality Rachel Tiven will depart the organization at the end of this year. (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, announced on Tuesday that she will depart the organization effective Dec. 31 after eight years there. The resignation comes just more than one month after the Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

During an interview with the Washington Blade on Tuesday, Tiven said her decision to leave was independent of the Supreme Court’s ruling and something she had planned for some time.

“I felt for a long time that we were going to win this year for LGBT families and that would add to our past wins on lifting the HIV travel ban and our success at building LGBT asylum as a field,” Tiven said. “Honestly, if we had lost, I think the organization would have deserved new leadership who could bring a new vision for how to win.”

Tiven said the board of directors is launching a search to find the next executive director who has a vision for where Immigration Equality will head next, which she predicted would include expanded asylum work and ending unfair practices against LGBT immigrants in detention.

“I wanted to announce a nice, long time in advance so the board would have time to search and I’m sure they’re going to find someone great,” Tiven said. “It’s bittersweet because I really love my work, but I think it’s important to give the organization an opportunity to really think about new leadership and new vision.”

Following her departure, Tiven’s  immediate plans are personal. She plans to travel to Israel with family for a seven-month sabbatical so her kids can “have a different experience” for a while.

But in the months remaining with Immigration Equality, Tiven said she intends to focus on the work her organization has previously pursued. That includes additional interest in LGBT asylum seekers in Russia coming to the United States amid controversy over the country’s anti-gay propaganda law, especially because these applications generally face additional complications.

“We project our total inquiries from Russia to essentially double this year over last year,” Tiven said. “Interestingly, one of things that we’re seeing is that cases for LGBT asylum seekers from Russia are ‘referred’ — which is an immigration asylum law word that means not granted in the first instance, but rather referred for what is effectively an appeal in immigration court — much more often than cases in other countries. So, in a nutshell, it’s harder for Russians to win asylum in the U.S.”

Other priorities are helping to ensure Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform legislation and overseeing implementation in the post-DOMA world to ensure married bi-national same-sex couples, who were previously barred from applying for I-130 marriage-based green cards, have access to them.

“We hear every day from couples who are grappling with lots of different kinds of snafus,” Tiven said. “It’s challenging for people to navigate what is a very, very, very complicated system. There are couples who have been waiting for years, some of them for decades for their green card and they can’t get them soon enough.”

In the past year, one of Immigration Equality’s most prominent efforts was the pursuit of the inclusion of language along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act as part of comprehensive immigration reform. In May, Democrats working on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to include the provision after Republicans voiced opposition, leaving the Supreme Court as the agency to take action on behalf of gay bi-national couples by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

After that vote, Tiven said the decision not to include gay couples as part of the larger bill is still a memory tinged with sadness.

“The Senate vote was a real low point in the immigration debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was otherwise a pretty inspiring show of support for future Americans and for the families who want to be full participants in our society,” Tiven said. “It really showed that as far as we’ve come, in a year in which we saw lots of progress, there is still a nasty anti-gay strand that is alive and well in American politics.”

Asked whether the court ruling against DOMA makes the Senate committee’s decision not to include gay couples in the immigration bill any more forgivable, Tiven replied succinctly, “No.”

Andrew Lane, a prominent New York-based gay donor, said he’s “entirely unsurprised” that Tiven is leaving Immigration Equality and said it’s predicated on the Senate’s failure to include gay couples as part of immigration reform.

“Her stewardship of IE, and her fundraising for the organization, were premised on permanent partners,” Lane said. “So when the Senate Judiciary Committee threw us under the bus, that landed on her shores — a profound failure. My involvement in queer immigration politics is limited, but I’m very clear about the degree to which IE marginalized itself in the most important reform conversations. And then Windsor happened, which rendered the controversy — and IE’s non-asylum work — moot.”

But members of Immigration Equality’s board said upon news of Tiven’s departure they’re happy with her work. In a statement, Joseph Landau, the organization’s board chair, credited her “wisdom, leadership and expertise” as the reason for Immigration Equality’s “unparalleled track record.”

“The board couldn’t be more proud of her success, which led to a series of historic victories for LGBT immigrants,” Landau said. “In addition, her ability to grow the organization’s budget to meet our expanding profile, hire incredible staff members, and manage two offices doing ground-breaking legal aid and policy work has made Immigration Equality one of the most respected organizations in the movement.”

Prerna Lal, another Immigration Equality board member and lesbian DREAM activist, told the Washington Blade news of Tiven’s departure was a “great loss” for the organization.

“Rachel has been at the forefront of so many great efforts of LGBT immigration and our asylum work as well as bi-national couples work,” Lal said. “That means she’s really been a tour de force in the immigration rights world as well as the LGBT world. It’s a loss for the organization, I feel like. I don’t know who’ll fill her shoes, but we’ll try very hard to do it.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Lesbian mother from El Salvador released from ICE custody

Jessica Barahona-Martinez arrested on June 26, 2017

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(Bigstock photo)

A federal judge last week ordered the release of a lesbian mother from El Salvador who had been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017.

Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez and her three children entered the U.S. on May 31, 2016. A court filing notes she fled “persecution she faced in El Salvador as a lesbian, and because the government had falsely identified her as a gang member.”

Barahona-Martinez lived with her sister and other relatives in Woodbridge, Va., until ICE arrested and detained her on June 26, 2017. She was housed at two ICE detention centers in Virginia until her transfer to the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a privately-run facility the GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates in Basile, La., in October 2020. 

An immigration judge in November 2019 granted Barahona-Martinez asylum for the second time. The government appealed the decision and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department oversees, ruled in their favor.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana last month filed a writ for habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana’s Lafayette Division that asked for Barahona-Martinez’s release. U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty on Sept. 27 ruled in her favor.  

“Petitioner (Barahona-Martinez) ultimately argues that her prolonged detention violates due process; she moves that this court issues a temporary restraining order, requests release, a bond hearing, an expedited hearing and costs and attorney fees,” wrote Doughty.

“This court finds that petitioner has plausibly alleged her prolonged detention violates due process,” added Doughty.

An ACLU spokesperson on Monday told the Blade that ICE has released Barahona-Martinez and she is once again in Virginia with her children and sister. 

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State Department

State Department hosts intersex activists from around the world

Group met with policy makers, health officials, NGOs

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The State Department last week hosted a group of intersex activists from around the world. (Courtesy photo)

The State Department last week hosted five intersex activists from around the world.

Kimberly Zieselman, a prominent intersex activist who advises Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, brought the activists to D.C.

• Morgan Carpenter, co-founder and executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia

• Natasha Jiménez, an intersex activist from Costa Rica who is the general coordinator of Mulabi, the Latin American Space for Sexualities and Rights

• Julius Kaggwa, founder of the Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development Uganda

• Magda Rakita, co-founder and executive director of Fujdacja Interakcja in Poland and co-founder of Interconnected UK

• Esan Regmi, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign for Change in Nepal.

Special U.S. Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine are among the officials with whom the activists met.

Zieselman told the Washington Blade on Sept. 21 the activists offered State Department officials an “intersex 101” overview during a virtual briefing.

More than 60 Save the Children staffers from around the world participated in another virtual briefing. Zieselman noted the activists also met with Stern, U.N. and Organization of American States officials, funders and NGO representatives while in D.C.

“The people we met were genuinely interested,” Rakita told the Blade.

Stern in an exclusive statement to the Blade said “the visiting intersex activists clearly had an impact here at State, sharing their expertise and lived experience highlighting the urgency to end human rights abuses, including those involving harmful medical practices against intersex persons globally.” Andrew Gleason, senior director for gender equality and social justice at Save the Children US, in a LinkedIn post he wrote after attending his organization’s meeting with the activists echoed Stern.

“There are many learnings to recount from today’s discussion, but one thing is clear, this is unequivocally a child rights issue, and one that demands attention and action at the intersection of LGBTQI+ rights, reproductive rights and justice, disability justice and more,” wrote Gleason. “Gratitude to the panelists for sharing such poignant testimonies and providing insights into what organizations like ours can do to contribute to the broader intersex movement; and thank you to Kimberly for your leadership and bringing this group together.”

The activists’ trip to D.C. coincided with efforts to end so-called sex “normalization” surgeries on intersex children.

Greek lawmakers in July passed a law that bans such procedures on children under 15 unless they offer their consent or a court allows them to happen. Doctors who violate the statute face fines and prison.

Germany Iceland, Malta, Portugal and Spain have also enacted laws that seek to protect intersex youth. 

A law that grants equal rights and legal recognition to intersex people in Kenya took effect in July 2022. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory earlier this year passed the Variation in Sex Characteristics (Restricted Medical Treatment) Bill 2023.

Intersex Human Rights Australia notes the law implements “mechanisms to regulate non-urgent medical care to encourage child participation in medical decisions, establish groundbreaking oversight mechanisms and provide transparency on medical practices and decision making.” It further points out the statute “will criminalize some deferrable procedures that permanently alter the sex characteristics of children” and provides “funding for necessary psychosocial supports for families and children.”

“It’s amazing,” Carpenter told the Blade when discussing the law and resistance to it. “It’s not perfect. There was some big gaps, but physicians are resisting every step of the way.”

The State Department in April 2022 began to issue passports with an “X” gender marker.

Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Navy veteran who identifies as non-binary, in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department after it denied their application for a passport with an “X” gender marker. Zzyym in October 2021 received the first gender-neutral American passport.

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Federal Government

Federal government prepares for looming shutdown

White House warns of ‘damaging impacts across the country’

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U.S. Capitol Building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

However remote they were on Monday, odds of avoiding a government shutdown were narrowed by Thursday evening as House Republicans continued debate over their hyper-partisan appropriations bills that stand no chance of passage by the Upper Chamber.

As lawmakers in the Democratic controlled Senate forged ahead with a bipartisan stop-gap spending measure that House GOP leadership had vowed to reject, the federal government began bracing for operations to grind to a halt on October 1.

This would mean hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed as more than 100 agencies from the State Department to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation roll out contingency plans maintained by the White House Office of Management and Budget. On Thursday the Office of Personnel Management sent out memos to all agencies instructing them to ready for a shutdown on Sunday.

Before 1980, operations would continue per usual in cases where Congress failed to break an impasse over spending, as lapses in funding tended to last only a few days before lawmakers brokered a deal.

Since then, the government has shut down more than a dozen times and the duration has tended to become longer and longer.

“Across the United States, local news outlets are reporting on the harmful impacts a potential government shutdown would have on American families,” the White House wrote in a release on Thursday featuring a roundup of reporting on how the public might be affected.

“With just days left before the end of the fiscal year, extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples’ lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown that would have damaging impacts across the country,” the White House said.

The nature and extent of that damage will depend on factors including how long the impasse lasts, but the Biden-Harris administration has warned of some consequences the American public is likely to face.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, for example, warned: “There is no good time for a government shutdown, but this is a particularly bad time for a government shutdown, especially when it comes to transportation.”

Amid the shortage of air traffic controllers and efforts to modernize aviation technology to mitigate flight delays and cancellations, a government shutdown threatens to “make air travel even worse,” as Business Insider wrote in a headline Thursday.

Democratic lawmakers including California Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, meanwhile, have sounded the alarm in recent weeks over the consequences for the global fight against AIDS amid the looming expiration, on Oct. 1, of funding for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

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