LONG BEACH, Calif. – Last month’s Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act marked a major victory for advocates of marriage equality. But for undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, the struggle for immigration reform and acceptance within the wider immigrant rights community continues.
“It’s such a great time to be alive,” exclaimed Miguel Montalva, an activist with the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition (LBIRC). “We are really seeing such pivotal change in our communities.”
Montalva is one of a number of Long Beach residents who self-identify as “undocuqueer,” a term applied to LGBTQ undocumented immigrants. He added that the court’s decision was long overdue.
“It’s about time this happened; we’ve been waiting long enough,” Montalva said. “People can now petition to sponsor their spouse. This is a benefit that has always existed for opposite-sex marriages, but has been denied to same-sex relationships.”
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA, the first same-sex visa petition was approved for a gay couple in Florida.
Still, Montalva acknowledged the unique challenges that undocuqueers like himself face.
“When you join the immigrant rights struggle, sometimes those spaces are not very queer friendly or they choose not to address that [issue] because they feel you’re diverting the cause. It’s a very intricate process or state of being,” he said.
Nevertheless, Montalva is optimistic about the ability of the immigrant rights community to embrace change. “I think our community tends to be a lot more accepting, but it will take some time.”
In August, the nation’s highest court confirmed the right of same-sex couples who are married in one of the 13 states where same-sex marriage is legal to access the same benefits as heterosexual couples. These include creating a pathway for gay U.S. citizens to sponsor their immigrant partners for legal residence, which means bi-national gay couples can now marry and apply to live together legally in the United States.
The ruling will benefit an estimated 28,500 bi-national same-sex couples living in the country previously denied the benefits of legal marriage.
The Supreme Court also struck a blow to Proposition 8, California’s 2008 voter-approved ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. The ruling means that same-sex couples in California are once again able to marry. The decision represented a huge win for many in Long Beach, home to a sizable immigrant population and one of the largest LGBTQ communities in the state.
“We have an incredibly large, strong and vibrant LGBTQ community,” said Porter Gilberg, administrative director of The Center, which provides services for the city’s LGBTQ community. “Marriage equality is now the law of the land in California. This will have a tremendous impact on bi-national couples in Long Beach as they now know that they [undocumented and non-citizen partners] can be sponsored for citizenship.”
Jackie Valdez is one of those celebrating the decision. “We have rights now. Not only to get married but to be heard,” said the Long Beach native and activist with Transgenders in Action. “I think I’m going to get married. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 12 years.”
Gilberg’s Center will soon partner with LBIRC in hosting workshops to guide Long Beach’s undocuqueers through the marriage sponsorship process. “The community is going to have a lot of questions,” Gilberg noted.
Montalva said his group is also planning a series of “beach socials” for undocuqueers, events intended to help build solidarity and exchange information on how to meet he challenges ahead, many of which are directly tied to the debate surrounding immigration reform.
Currently, obtaining citizenship or a green card through marriage means navigating a complicated immigration process, where applications can take over a decade to finalize.
“You are still bound to policies that heterosexual couples are bound to,” Montalva said. “This doesn’t automatically expedite the process. If you came with a visa that expired, you may have a different wait or process … there can be anywhere from a three or 10-year bar.” During that time, he continued, applicants go through a series of interviews and other requirements meant to determine whether the marriage is legitimate.
But in a nod to the community’s concerns, outgoing Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano announced soon after the SCOTUS ruling that she had “directed the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to review immigrant visa petitions filed on behalf of same-sex spouses in the same manner as those filed on behalf of an opposite sex spouse.”
It was another shot in the arm for supporters of same-sex marriage and the undocuqueer community, which stands at the forefront of what many say is a growing convergence between gay rights activists and those pushing for immigration reform.
Asked about what lies ahead for the undocuqueer movement, Valdez said, “I think we’re going to be [seeing] more activism.”
If you are undocumented and LGBT in Long Beach, you can access resources here
Or contact The Center for more information: 2017 E. 4th Street, Long Beach, CA 90814 or call (562) 434-4455
Get answers to frequently asked questions about same sex marriage here
Fact sheet on same sex marriage benefits.
Long Beach Voice Waves is a youth-driven media project of New America Media.