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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The bus

This past Sunday, The New York Times reported on a reality that still surprises many people, straight and gay: that Americans with same-sex partners from abroad have to leave the country to live together legally. (The article doesn’t mention those whose partners’ countries are also intolerant, and who therefore have nowhere in the world to go.) You can read it here (thanks, J.)

To his credit, President Obama has included this dilemma as part of his proposals for immigration reform. There is a lot to be fixed as far as the U.S. immigration system is concerned. And while I focus here on one aspect to be fixed, I don’t mean to question that other failings need to be addressed.

Although this particular failing has affected me personally for more than twenty years. Has changed the entire course of my adult life, more than any other single factor.

Which is why it was so hard to hear that the Senate’s proposed bill for immigration reform has deliberately left out people like me. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said, “There are so many other, bigger issues the Congress has to resolve in immigration reform before we would even get to a point where we would be discussing a change to a longstanding policy like this.”

In other words, we can talk about any number of “bigger” issues-- Latino votes for Republicans? cheap labor for business?--before we can talk about gay citizens, born in the U.S.A., who have never had so much as a traffic ticket in our entire lives.

The threat seems to be that the Senate is prepared to derail all immigration reform unless we, Americans with same-sex partners, are left out of it.

Think about that. We, U.S. citizens with foreign-born partners, can get behind those who, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps under mitigating circumstances, have immigrated illegally. We are assured that those who have broken immigration laws, while having a path to legal residence, will go to “the back of the line.” Meanwhile we, the gays, can go to the back of the bus.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, “has warned that adding the divisive social issue to the legislation could ‘derail it.’” Now, I have more respect than you might think for Senator McCain. His experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam have led him steadfastly to oppose torture by, or with the approval of, the U.S.A., while others around the country have happily clamored for scalps. And he may just have been making a realistic assessment of the situation in the Senate. But it’s hard to escape the implication that we have to wait until there is no longer any controversy about this “social issue” before even considering equal rights.

This past week I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, a novel set partly during the anti-communist hysteria of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s day. In one scene, Kingsolver fascinatingly evokes one of the most horrifying aspects of McCarthyism (detailed in William Manchester’s wonderful history of America, The Glory and the Dream). In the 1940s and '50s, many employers or institutions that wanted to be rid of someone would assure her that, of course, they knew that she had committed no crime against the U.S., nor was she even a communist. She had simply become “controversial.” The mere fact that there was controversy about someone—although that controversy had no basis in fact—meant that she had to go.

Even if we someday get past the controversial stage, it will be too late for some of us. I’ve long since become a citizen of a country that not only has full equality, but actually wanted me as an immigrant. And none of this being asked to wait should surprise me because I am, after all, a woman.

From the American Revolution to the civil rights movement, women are always participating on the front line, only to be told that they were only helpmeets. To demand their rights then and there would not be supportive of the menfolk. Just wait, ladies, we are forever being told.

More than twenty years ago, Anita Hill went up against then-nominee for the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas. An all-white, almost all-male Senate watched a black woman take on a black man in his confirmation hearings. One of them had to lose. Justice Thomas is on the Court today, but the message then was that there was a ladder of importance in America, and women of color were on the bottom rung. Where would Anita Hill have been if she were a lesbian? Down in the dirt?

Next month, according to the Times article, this very Supreme Court will be hearing cases that also have a bearing on our situation, including one about the “Defense of Marriage Act.” That, you may recall, is the federal law which (among other things) makes it impossible for the U. S. to recognize citizens' same-sex partnerships, even if the states do. The Court is a bit more diverse, by ethnicity and gender, than it was twenty years ago, but I am still out here.

The bus of U.S. immigration reform is leaving. It remains to be seen whether we will be in the back of the bus, or thrown under it.

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