Gay Marriage Offers Lessons for Immigration Reform

by Randy Shaw on June 28, 2011

Ultimately, New York enacted gay marriage because the issue became personal. Legislators previously opposed to gay marriage and key Republicans previously uninvolved both moved into the “yes” camp out of personal relationships with gay and lesbian family members. Grassroots activism and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political savvy joined with people’s unwillingness to discriminate against gays and lesbians who they cared about to dramatically turn the political tide. The same approach could also create a breakthrough on immigration reform. As New York’s victory was being celebrated, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ emotional memoir of his life as an undocumented immigrant (“Outlaw”) appeared in the June 26 New York Times Magazine. On the heels of last fall’s march by four undocumented students in support of the DREAM Act, Vargas’ visceral account of the immorality of current U.S. immigration policy could lead to a wave of undocumented immigrants telling their stories; while this risks deportation, such a powerful strategy appears necessary to personalize the issue and broaden support for reform.

There are obvious differences between the struggles for gay marriage and comprehensive immigration reform. The latter requires federal action, benefits primarily non-whites with much lower incomes and political power, and has far greater electoral implications. Further, while the declining political clout of the Catholic Church reduced opposition to gay marriage, this weakening has also reduced the Church’s power to positively impact immigration reform efforts.

It’s also true that while many gays and lesbians must protect careers and family relationships by remaining in the closet, few risk such draconian action as deportation by publicly supporting gay marriage.

But despite these differences, it is also true that the astonishing turnaround in the politics of gay marriage – recall the mood after the passage of California’s Prop 8 and Maine’s Question 1 – came from gays and lesbians publicly confronting powerful relatives, friends and the greater public on the importance of the issue. And because of the risk of deportation, we have not seen anything close to these personal appeals from undocumented immigrants.

This must change.

The Power of Personal Stories

Community organizers have long understood the power of personal stories. But the stories of undocumented immigrants have typically been told from anonymous voices in the shadows. They resonate with the already sympathetic – but not sufficiently with the electorate, politicians, or powerful donors to change the dynamics of the immigration reform debate.

Consider the impact of this excerpt from Vargas’ article:

“Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.”

Of course, most undocumented immigrants are not politically or socially connected people with high-profile careers. And the vast majority are Latinos, who have experienced a long history of racism and discrimination in the United States.

But as more come forward to tell their own versions of how they live a “different kind of reality,” public demands for a path toward legalization will grow. This makes it even more imperative for President Obama to suspend deportations at a minimum for those potentially impacted by the DREAM Act, as this will unleash thousands of stories of hard-working young people who deserve a path to legalization and citizenship.

Gay Marriage and Political Accountability

Why has the Obama Administration deported over 800,000 people in the past two years, while moving to end restrictions on gays in the military and refusing to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act during the same period? One reason is that gay rights advocates have been far more publicly critical of the President than immigrant rights groups, and have done a far better job of holding Obama accountable for his actions rather than his words.

Many believe the difference lies in the gay community’s greater political donations (Obama got over $750,000 from a gay and lesbian fundraising event last week). But Obama also knows that he cannot win re-election without winning a strong share of the Latino vote, and the June 2011 Latino Decisions poll found Latinos split 48%-48% on Obama’s handling of immigration reform.

Obama long defended his inaction on gay and lesbian issues, as he continues to do on immigrant rights. Yet while the activist base of the gay and lesbian movement rejected Obama’s words and forced the President to act by escalating the pressure, immigrant rights activists have accepted Obama’s excuses and given him a pass.

One reason could be the differing recent histories of the two constituencies …

I describe in The Activist’s Handbook how ACT-UP activists in the 1980’s and 1990’s promoted a “by all means necessary” approach, reflected in its full name, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Such tactics included a personal confrontation with President Clinton in November 1993 during his AIDS Awareness speech at Georgetown University where he touted his “unprecedented commitment” to AIDS funding and gay rights.

AIDS activists did not give Democratic politicians a pass then, and the grassroots gay and lesbian movement continues to play hardball with politicians like Obama who try to avoid fulfilling their commitments. In contrast, the immigrant rights movement has allowed the street activism highlighted by the 2006 marches to give way to inside the Beltway strategies, which invariably fail to put sufficient pressure on non-performing political “allies.”

Political insiders in 2006 would have predicted that comprehensive immigration reform would be enacted before a large state approved gay marriage. If activists follow the lessons of the gay marriage movement, comprehensive reform could be back on the table sooner than anyone thinks.

Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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