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.”