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Queer, Undocumented, and Undeterred

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LGBTQ immigrants call on community to help fight ‘sanctuary cities’ ban.

By Josh Inocéncio

When Adonias Arevalo was 11, he fled El Salvador after witnessing the murder of his father. He moved to Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico before reaching the United States.

Now, with Senate Bill 4 targeting so-called “sanctuary cities” in Texas, Arevalo could face deportation back to one of the most anti-LGBTQ places in the world, where the gangs that control El Salvador target both gay and transgender people.

“The reason why SB4 is more dangerous [for queer people] is because it puts us at risk of deportation to countries where we’ve fled violence,” said Arevalo, a Houston-based statewide organizer for United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant organization in the U.S.

“Plus, when people who are undocumented are put into deportation proceedings, they are in detention centers, which are places where our community is being brutalized,” Arevalo added. “The conditions for trans women are deplorable. And then they are deported to a death sentence.”

Arevalo addresses the crowd through a megaphone at a rally to protest Senate Bill 4 outside the Harris County Republican Party headquarters.

Arevalo’s first experience in the U.S., at 13, was at a detention center where he shared facilities with adult men. “It was a very traumatizing experience,” he said. “And it’s no secret that undocumented immigrants are seen as a profit item for detention facilities. They can spend years in deplorable conditions while the government profits from their lives.”

SB4, set to take effect September 1, allows law-enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they legally detain—not just arrest—and punishes elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents.

In 2011, another queer undocumented immigrant, who asked to be identified as Andres Rodriguez to protect his safety, said he was racially profiled by the Houston Police Department and was jailed for 61 days after an officer inquired about his immigration status. “I was driving around Montrose, and stopped by a police officer who asked me where I was from,” said Rodriguez, who is also an organizer for United We Dream. “I told him I was from Mexico, and he said, ‘Hah, I knew it!’ And then I was detained and spent 45 days in the Harris County jail.”

The officer accused Rodriguez of driving under the influence. After the officer asked where he was from, Rodriguez stopped answering questions.

Rodriguez passed a field-sobriety test, but the officer also demanded that he undergo a Breathalyzer test. Rodriguez refused, instead demanding a blood test.

When results from the blood test finally came back, they showed that Rodriguez wasn’t intoxicated. However, upon his release from the jail, he was sent to an immigrant detention center for three weeks—one of which he spent in isolation due to his sexual orientation.

“And this was all before SB4,” Rodriguez said. “Now, we can only expect to see more cases like this—and at the expense of tax-payers.”

Raed Gonzalez, senior attorney at the Gonzales-Olivieri immigration law firm, said SB4 will especially hurt trans people, who’ve also been demonized by efforts to pass a so-called “bathroom bill.”

“Just imagine—if they stop you at some point and there’s a discrepancy between your ID and your identity now, it will bring a lot of questions,” Rodriguez said. “Officers will arrest them as they have in the past by saying ‘We can’t verify you.’”

Gonzalez said racial profiling is already a problem, but will only get worse under SB4. He pointed to the case of state representative Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), who threatened to have ICE arrest SB4 protesters at the capitol  in May. “He did something we’re all afraid of,” Gonzalez said. “He assumed everyone there was undocumented, and they were not. There were lots of citizens in the protest.”

Despite the dangers posed by Senate Bill 4, Arevalo and Rodriguez are undeterred. “We mobilize local populations across Texas so that they can fight SB4,” Arevalo said of United We Dream. “My role is training and engagement, reviewing policy, meeting legislators in Austin, and getting the stories of undocumented people out there.”

In addition to education and advocacy, opponents of SB4 have turned to the courts. On June 21, at the request of Mayor Sylvester Turner, the Houston City Council voted to join Texas’ other three largest cities—Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio—in a lawsuit challenging the measure.

Gonzalez said he thinks the plaintiffs have a case. “The police can ask about immigration status in a situation where you have been arrested,” he said. “If it’s a lawful stop, they will ask you about your status. But we’re telling undocumented immigrants—if they haven’t committed a crime or if they’re not under lawful detention—to not answer questions about status. Everybody has that Fifth Amendment right under the Constitution.”

Gonzalez, whose firm has long served the queer undocumented community, urged those who might be affected by the law to meet with an immigration attorney as soon as possible. He’s hosted forums at local churches to give legal advice. “Educate yourself about your options and how to get ready,” Gonzalez said. “People need to understand they have rights. An ICE deportation warrant doesn’t allow them to come into your house unless you let them. You need to know your rights in your home, in your workplace, and in your car.”

Meanwhile, Arevalo and Rodriguez are encouraging the LGBTQ community, undocumented or not, to join the fight against SB4. “We need to create conversations and spaces where the lives of black and brown queer and trans people are represented,” Arevalo said.

“I want the queer community to take action on this,” Rodriguez said. “Call your elected officials. The immigrant community has a lot of shared struggles with the gay community, in that we have both been marginalized and persecuted. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. Before people are immigrants, they are human beings.”

If you are a queer undocumented immigrant in Texas and have any questions about how to prepare for the enforcement of SB4, call the ACLU hotline at 1.888.507.2970.

This article appeared in the July 2017 issue of OutSmart Magazine. 

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Josh Inocéncio

Josh Inocéncio is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine, a playwright, and a freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theatre studies at Florida State University and produced his first play, Purple Eyes, before returning to Texas last May.

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