Activists from the African and LGBT communities joined forces to hold a teach-in Saturday to discuss how efforts to overhaul U.S. immigration policy negatively affect their communities.
At issue are the diversity visa lottery program and the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). Both programs provided a legal pathway for Africans and foreign-born gay spouses to come to the U.S. But the U.S. Senate bill eliminates the diversity visa program when it passed its version of the immigration bill back in June, and the UAFA was cut from the legislation.
Kim Hunt, executive director of Affinity Community Service (ACS), said the Senate could have passed “a really good bill” if it did not throw a lot of people under the bus, including the LGBT community. ACS is a social justice organization advocating for the Black LGBTQ community.
Her organization was among four groups that sponsored Saturday’s teach-in held at the Chicago Urban League (CUL), 4510 S. Michigan Ave. The groups, United African Organization, CUL, ACS and the Black Women Lawyers Association, are calling for both the diversity visa program and UAFA to be put back into the immigration bill, which is now stalled in the House.
She contends that the UAFA was omitted from the Senate bill because many believed that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, which defined marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. UAFA would have allowed bi-national gay couples to petition for legal status for their foreign-born spouses.
When DOMA was struck down, it did little to “solve the immigration issue for same sex couples,” Hunt said. Only 13 states allow same-sex couples to marry, which hinders a gay U.S. citizen from sponsoring “his or her partner to come to the United States like heterosexual couples can” if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize gay marriage, she explained.
Without UAFA, most of the 30,000 bi-national couples living in the U.S. are left in limbo, Hunt added.
ACS’ treasurer and board member Takeia Johnson, said UAFA “would have created a substantive right” clause, but it was not written into the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“There was discussion about it, but it was taking off the table similar to the diversity visa program,” she said.
“There is overlap on these issues, and I am going to assume that some of the people who are coming on diversity visas might actually be LGBT,” Hunt added.
Forming this partnership is significant, said Allie Kabba, executive director of the UAO, a coalition of African-community organizations. It gives voice to marginalized people by building a unified solidarity movement, he explained.
“As African immigrants, we can push for issues that matter to us when we build a constituency larger than us,” Kabba said.
But Kabba believes race played a part in eliminating the diversity visa program from the Senate comprehensive immigration reform package. Originally, the program was created in the late 1980s by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and established 1990, as a way to help the Irish immigrate to the U.S. The program’s language targeted regions and countries historically underrepresented in the U.S. population. That language, Kabba noted, opened the door for Africans to come to the U.S.
“Now that it is benefiting at least 50 percent of people who do not necessarily look Irish, you want to say that this is a bad program,” he said, noting that Africans are one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the U.S. over the last decade.
The diversity visa program is the main option most Africans have to come to the U.S. as immigrants, he added. In the last decade, nearly half of the 55,000 slots allotted in the permanent residency program went to Africans, he said.
Before 1965, Africans could only come here as students, not as immigrants, Kabba said. He credits the Civil Rights movement for democratizing U.S. immigration policy making it possible Africans to come to the U.S. and gain citizenship.
Immigration reform is about fixing a broken system and providing the undocumented, those who do not have status, with a path to citizenship, Kabba said.
“This is a legal program,” he said of the potential elimination of the diversity visa program. “Why are we fixing a broken system by going after a legal program? It’s a contradiction.”
Kabba shot down critics who allege the diversity visa program is fraught with fraud. Applicants he said undergo a background check, must have a high school diploma and have an affidavit of support to show that “you are not going to be a public charge.”
The Congressional Black Caucus has also voiced concerns with the Senate immigration reform bill, arguing that it will greatly reduce the ability for Africans and Caribbeans to immigrate to the U.S.
“It is not easy for an African to come here illegally,” added Sadik B. Aboagye, who emigrated from his native Ghana with his wife and two of his five children in 1999 under the diversity visa program. He applied for the program in 1997.
“When you come here, you try as much as possible to be law abiding and work for what you want to achieve for yourself, your children or your nation,” said Aboagye, who on a cab driver’s salary put all his children through college. His remaining children arrived in the U.S. in 2006.
But Aboagye described being selected for the diversity visa program as almost like winning the lottery.
“If you try and win, it’s like the Powerball for you,” Aboagye said. “People want to come here ... because there are opportunities here.”