Houston, TX – Eddy Arias didn’t know he was undocumented when he came to the United States at the age of 14. That didn’t stop immigration authorities from detaining Arias two years ago, during a routine traffic stop.
He spent 61 days in an immigration detention center – and because he is gay, he was put in solitary confinement.
“I felt I was losing my sanity, day after day, in a 6 by 7 foot cell,” said Arias.
LGBT inmates in immigration detention often are put in solitary confinement, ostensibly for their own protection from the general population of detainees.
But Arias said he never felt that the other detainees posed a threat to his safety. Being in solitary, he said, just made him feel like he was going crazy.
His attorney was able to help get him out of solitary confinement after a week, and eventually he was able to leave the detention facility. Now Arias is moving on with his life, taking classes so he can apply to med school.
But the other detainees, who didn’t have representation, weren’t so lucky.
“The other people I was in with have been deported,” said Arias. “I am here now but they’re not. They were exactly like me. They were no better and no worse than me.”
Arias spoke at a recent community forum in Houston, where some 50 organizers for LGBT rights, women’s rights and immigrant rights met to discuss how they could work together to defend the rights of all of their communities.
Organizers said the forum, co-hosted by New America Media and the non-profit organization Neighborhood Centers, Inc., was the first public discussion in the city of its kind.
“I don’t think we’ve really had that discussion here in Houston,” said Frances Valdez, an immigration attorney with Neighborhood Centers, who represented Eddy Arias during his immigration case. “We have people working on all of those things but they don’t talk [to each other].”
Immigration attorney John Nechman noted that until 1990, the United States barred admission to people just because they were homosexual.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark decision of Lawrence v. Texas, struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law, making same-sex sexual relations legal in every U.S. state.
“Gay people weren’t criminals anymore,” said Nechman, “and that really helped in my asylum cases because I [was arguing that] they were criminalized in their home country [for being gay] — but we were doing the same thing here.”
Today, those fighting for the rights of LGBT immigrants have seen some progress: The Supreme Court’s striking down of part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allows same-sex couples who are legally married to petition for a green card for an undocumented spouse, a right that has long been available only to heterosexual couples.
But same-sex marriage still isn’t legal in most states, including Texas, and undocumented immigrants – both gay and straight – continue to face record deportations, which are expected to top 2 million under the Obama administration.
“We’ve achieved equality for LGBT people in immigration law, at least on paper; we’ll have to wait and see if it happens in practice,” said Nechman. “Now we need immigration reform.”
Texas has successfully defeated anti-immigrant bills modeled after Arizona’s state immigration law SB 1070. But activists say it is a slow road to progress.
“Women in Texas are absolutely under attack. Latinos in Texas are absolutely under attack,” said Ray Guerra, who attended the forum and calls himself “an engineer during the day and an activist and organizer at night.”
Women are fighting back against a new abortion law that could close a third of the state’s clinics and make accessing abortion in rural areas virtually impossible.
“In Texas, we have a double whammy,” said Rogene Gee Calvert, cofounder of HOPE Clinic, which provides multilingual health care services in Southwest Houston. “Not only are we not doing the [health care] exchange, but women’s health services are being cut drastically.”
Gordon Quan, who in 1999 was the first Asian American on the Houston City Council, said he once asked California Congressmember Mike Honda for advice in passing laws that expand the rights of immigrants.
“I said, ‘Mike, how do you get these laws passed?’ He said, ‘We go out and hustle and get these communities to the polls.'”
But organizers said there is also a role for local mobilizations, such as the Dreamers in Arizona who were able to stop a bus full of deportees in an act of civic disobedience in August.
“These activists did what we couldn’t even do sometimes for clients,” said immigration attorney Valdez.
Immigrant rights activist Maria Jimenez has been working with the California non-profit Water Station, which taught Texas organizers how to build water stations in the desert to reduce heat-related deaths.
Jimenez said they have developed relationships with ranchers, including one man who has saved 60 lives on his ranch alone.
“We may look at a complicated problem, like the militarization of the border, and find some local solutions,” said Jimenez. “[They’re] not complete solutions, but [they’re] something.”
Today’s organizers, Nechman said, can also learn from HIV activists of decades ago – who reached out to allies in different communities to strengthen support for their cause.
At a time when “the government was denying the existence of people dying from this disease,” Nechman said, “an extraordinary group of people got together,” leading demonstrations on Wall Street, at the CDC and the FDA to call for effective and affordable HIV drugs.
“Gay groups went to women and said, ‘This is a women’s issue.’ They went to immigrants and said, ‘The government is not letting you in because of your HIV status,'” said Nechman. “They changed the way people thought about it.”
As deportations continue at a record pace in Texas — which has more immigration detention beds than any other state — Arias reminded the attendees that the people being deported were just like them.
“I am an ‘illegal’ human being,” said Arias. “That was the crime I was accused of, a crime I didn’t choose to commit when I came here as a child.”
“When I was there at the detention center, I didn’t really find people who were a threat to society,” he said. “They were just stopped during a traffic stop or something insignificant. These are the people we’re deporting.”
During his time in solitary, Arias thought about the other detainees who would come after him.
“I left a message of hope written on the wall,” said Arias. “‘God is here, He will never abandon you.'”