Immigration advocates can learn the lessons of ‘coming out’


Notarianni / MCT

The year that just ended was a victorious one for gay rights, a turning point: The Supreme Court struck down a crucial portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, which led to an increase in the number of states that allow same-sex marriage — 18 and counting, with Utah being the most recent.

Even the pope seemed to extend an olive branch to gays with his now much-quoted phrase, “Who am I to judge?” And two men from California got married atop a flowered float in Wednesday’s nationally televised Tournament of Roses Parade — a first in the parade’s 125-year history.

There are reasons to be inspired by the successes of the gay-rights movement, and I have been looking for clues as to how advocates did it, because I think there are lessons here for another marginalized group, undocumented immigrants.

Gays and undocumented immigrants have much in common. Their acts — indeed, their lives — have been deemed “illegal,” albeit for different reasons, and both have been the victims of heinous hate crimes.

Less than 50 years ago, homosexual acts were considered so abhorrent that they were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government or in the military, and many were shunned by even members of their own families — some, sadly, still are.

There were no openly gay politicians and few in the arts or in the media. Best-selling books on sexuality recommended therapy to become “well-adjusted heterosexuals,” and even the so-called “liberal media” regularly engaged in gay bashing.

So, what made a difference? It appears that the answer is as simple and as complicated as being true to oneself: coming out, which was the mantra of the first openly gay elected official in California, Harvey Milk.

Young undocumented immigrants, too, have come out. Remember the famous 2012 Time cover with 35 undocumented immigrants – from Israel, Nigeria, Mexico, India, Korea, and other countries — staring straight into the camera?

Front and center was Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who was born in the Philippines and sent to the United States at 12. He “came out” as undocumented in a piece in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011. Vargas is also gay, and coming out as such, he said, was easier than coming out as undocumented.

“It was after I finished watching a Harvey Milk documentary in my history class. I raised my hand, and announced that I, too, was gay,” said Vargas, 32, who lives in New York, has 35,000 followers on Twitter and travels the country speaking about the need for immigration reform. In all ways possible, Vargas is out.

But even before Vargas became well known in the advocacy community, four undocumented students trekked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington to bring attention and support to the Dream Act, the bill that would offer them a legal way to stay in the country. Their march garnered a great deal of press attention.

In fact, Vargas said, their courage inspired him to tell the truth about his life in the shadows. He was part of a team of Washington Post reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and few in the newsroom knew about his legal status.

Yet the Dream Act remains a dream, now folded into a larger immigration-reform bill passed by the Senate but dead in the House.

So, what gives? If photogenic, young and studious kids have failed to seize the hearts and minds of Americans the way photogenic young gays and lesbians in love did, what’s going on?

Vargas thinks the movement needs “allies,” the documented, often white, though not always, people who hire and befriend and mentor undocumented students and workers. To that end, through his nonprofit organization called Define American, he’s declaring 2014 “the year of the allies,” and has recently unveiled a video with a new symbol — the hand pledging allegiance to the flag — to help rally support for immigration reform.

A symbol is a nice touch, and a rallying cry for allies is an important step, but a successful movement in the United States also has to hit the wallets. Coming out works especially well if those who are coming out have powerful jobs in industries where they can control the message and write the big checks.

Undocumented immigrants don’t have that kind of clout. What are they going to do? Stop shopping at Target? Stop delivering Chinese food? Stop taking care of other people’s children? Perhaps. And I believe that could have an impact. But it would be limited and short lived.

It is not as if undocumented people are not intellectually or professionally ready. Some, through a combination of smarts, wits and charity, have become journalists and lawyers and even doctors and teachers, but, for most, the buck stops at graduation, if they are lucky enough to graduate.

Who’s going to hire them without papers? Where can they go without a driver’s license? Vargas still travels with his passport from the Philippines and he cannot leave the country.

Almost exactly a year ago, in Las Vegas, President Obama said that the time had come for immigration reform. Yet, the year ended with a record number of deportations and no immigration reform. How many more undocumented immigrants need to come out? What does it take? Here’s hoping 2014 is finally the year we get to find out.

Read more Mirta Ojito stories from the Miami Herald


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