26 June 2012
Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's immigration policy got me to thinking about someone in a weekly support group I attended early in my transition.
Fahrida (not her real name) had a smile that made people feel that everything was going to be OK. As I came to know her, I realized that her smile didn't belie her experiences; rather, it was a kind of reward, like the rays of sun you see after a terrible storm.
No one who met her outside of that group would have guessed she had ever lived as male, or that she ever had so much as a male cell in her body. She was so beautiful that when we were shopping, two other women sighed about what kinds of clothes they could wear if they had her body, and about what their lives would be like if they had her face.
I always wondered why someone with her looks, and her mind, was driving a gypsy cab. Don't get me wrong: I don't look down on such work. But it's not work that many other women do, and I worried about her safety. Then again, at least she wasn't doing sex work, I told myself.
Well, after knowing her about a year, I found out why she was driving that gypsy cab: Her pay was "off the books." That meant, of course, that she didn't pay taxes. But more important, it meant that she didn't need a Social Security Number or any other documentation certifying that she could work in this country.
The next-to-last time we met, I found out why she needed such work. You guessed it: She entered this country illegally. She couldn't have afforded to enter any other way, she told me: She was so poor that she couldn't afford the papers she needed, which cost about half a worker's yearly pay in the country of her birth. She got to this country, she said, by hitchiking across a two continents and stowing herself away in a transoceanic freighter.
By the time of our penultimate meeting, she was facing deportation. Going back to the country of her birth would have been, in essence, a death sentence: She had no way of supporting herself there, save through sex work, and she would have faced almost certain violence. Plus, all of her family had disowned her.
The last time we met, she told me she was going to a third country. She hoped to re-apply for asylum in the United States, she said, because she had found a "community" here. However, if that failed, she said, she believed that she could stay in the third country, where she had some ties and laws about immigration and LGBT people are, arguably, less restrictive than they are in the United States.
I mention Fahrida because I suspect that there are many other cases like her. Contrary to what people think, not all LGBT people are rich. In fact, very, very few T's are. That is one reason why they, like many other immigrants, come to this country illegally: They can't afford to do so legally. So they are forced to live "in the shadows," doing all sorts of low-paid work that doesn't offer any security: that is, if they can get such work. Others, who are less lucky, end up in sex work and other kinds of illegal and dangerous occupations.
On top of what I've mentioned, there's another issue: Many LGBT couples are split up because of immigration policies. I know of illegal immigrants who entered into sham heterosexual marriages so they could stay here, but why should anybody have to resort to something like that? Even if they live in states that allow same-sex marriages (including New York, where I live), they could still be split up if one of them is here illegally because same-sex marriages are still not recognized under Federal law.
In fact, even if both members of the couple are here legally, immigration policy can still split them up. That is what happened to my former doctor: Her partner, a native of Scotland, came here to study and eventually started a business that employed other people. She paid her taxes and never ran afoul of the law. However, four years ago, the State Department would not renew her visa and the United Kingdom (of which Scotland is a part) is not eligible for the so-called "Green Card Lottery."
My former doctor went to Scotland with her partner. She has since earned an additional degree in public health policy and has attained a position with a local ministry. She says she and her partner are happy there, although they think about what could have been.
To me, it seems such an appalling waste. Think of the education, skills, talent, experience and ambition my former doctor and her partner have. What country wouldn't (or shouldn't) want those things? I could say similar things about Fahrida: Though she doesn't have the formal education or credentials of my former doctor, she is very intelligent and self-taught in a number of areas. And she's more than willing to work. Plus, any country would be graced by her sheer presence.
Her story, and that of my former doctor and her partner, show how immigration policies are inequitable on so many levels--particularly for LGBT people.