I don’t often get the opportunity to share my reporting experiences in academic settings. Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve often heard academic scholars discount the work of journalists as theoretically unsound, or overly simplistic.
Last weekend, the Union of Political Science Students (UPSS) of the New School for Social Research hosted its annual graduate student conference, themed “Amplification and Resistance: Introducing Politics of the Globe.” I was invited to speak on the “Queer Migrations” panel, based on my reporting for Feet in Two Worlds.
My article was about Monica Alcota and Cristina Ojeda, a lesbian couple that may one day have to leave the U.S. because of immigration difficulties. Monica is an Argentinian immigrant who came to the U.S. to escape homophobia in her home country. Her visa expired years ago and in July 2009 she was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol when they randomly searched a Greyhound bus on which she was a passenger. She was subsequently detained for 3 months. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits Monica from applying for citizenship in the U.S. through her legal marriage to Cristina because they are a same-sex couple. If they were a heterosexual couple, Cristina could apply for citizenship for Monica, and her expired visa status could be pardoned.
People come to the U.S. for countless different reasons, but only heterosexuals have the option to remain in the country through marriage to a U.S. citizen. This has created a rather large population—as many as 35,000 according to one report from UCLA—of same-sex couples with immigrant partners who do not have equal access to citizenship through marriage.
I used Monica and Cristina’s case to tell a larger story about DOMA’s history, and how President Obama’s recent decision to challenge it’s constitutionality might have an immediate impact on LGBTQ immigrants who are legally married to—or plan to marry—U.S. citizens.
Reporting on LGBTQ immigration issues can be challenging. It is an emotionally charged topic that brings up issues faced by all immigrants while simultaneously focusing on government policies that explicitly discriminate on the basis of sexuality. When I interviewed the couple in March, I sat with them as they wept about their experiences. Their emotional responses to my questions about Monica’s arrest were heart wrenching. It seemed as fresh as if it had happened yesterday, and I struggled at times to maintain my composure while these two women lamented their situation, wondering aloud why the U.S. government discriminates against LGBTQ couples.
Camilo Godoy, a Colombian visual artist and immigration rights activist, also spoke on the panel. Camilo is a photography student at the New School, and offered a personal, more artistic counterpoint to my presentation on DOMA policy issues. Last year, his boyfriend—who was in the U.S. for work—was arrested at the airport, held in the Elizabeth Detention Center, and deported soon thereafter. Years before they met, Camilo’s boyfriend married a woman in the U.S. for citizenship purposes, something he felt was necessary since he could not become a citizen through marriage to a man. That marriage fell apart and left him in a compromised immigration status, which led to his arrest years later.
Camilo’s presentation was heartfelt and touching. He showed a series of photographs juxtaposing two images—one of his boyfriend, and another taken in the same location after he was deported, to reflect absence and the sense of loss he felt. He also shared a series of videos he is producing in collaboration with people who have family members in the Elizabeth Detention Center, where he often goes to visit immigrant detainees and often acts as a bridge between them and family members who cannot visit because of their own undocumented status.
The “Amplification and Resistance” conference at the New School provided a platform for sharing contemporary issues related to LGBTQ immigration among students interested in politics and migration. As a graduate student at New York University, I often feel frustrated when academic discussions insist on theoretical conversations that are so dense and circuitous that lived experiences get lost. Conversation between journalists and academic scholars is necessary to maintain an active dialogue between the fields—one that yields a more robust understanding of any topic.
Von Diaz is a Feet in Two Worlds LGBT reporting fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.