Sept. 15 marked the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month — or, as it is known in Spanish, Mes de la Herencia Hispana — a time when the United States pays tribute to the history, culture and contributions of past and present Hispanic Americans.
According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million Americans identify as Hispanic — and that number is growing. Immigration has long been a part of America’s national history, and the role that immigrants have played — and still play — in building this country is one of the reasons “the American dream” is still shared around the world today. America is a place where new beginnings and new lives are possible.
Over the next month, msnbc.com will be profiling outstanding Hispanic activists who are making a difference in the fight for immigration reform and who are providing critical support services to undocumented communities.
Name: Michelle Gonzalez, Esq.
City, State: New York, NY
Occupation/Organization: Immigration Equality, Cardozo Immigration Justice Fellow
How did you get involved with immigration advocacy?
I first became interested in immigration because I was raised in an LGBT immigrant household. My grandmother, godmother, godfather and stepfather all came to the United States from Cuba. At the time my grandmother and godmother, who share a romantic relationship over four decades long, fled Cuba, the revolution had camps for unwanted homosexuals. Yet, my family was very lucky in that they had a path to citizenship in this country as Cubans. I want to make sure that all immigrant families have a chance at this path as well.
Give us a sense of what your day looks like:
I spend about a third of my time screening and representing individuals in immigration detention, another third at the office and another third in court or preparing for court. The majority of my time is spent advising people who are scared and seeking help because they were violenty harmed in their home country because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
What is the biggest misconception about immigration reform/undocumented immigrants?
By far the biggest misconception in our work is that the use of immigration detention is reserved only for immigrants who commit crimes. Before 1996, there were less than a handful of immigration detention centers. Now, there are over 250 jail or jail-like facilities used to detain immigrants on a daily basis. What most people do not realize is that in order to seek asylum, you must be in the United States. The countries people need asylum from the most are often the most difficult countries from which to obtain a travel visa to the United States. If you are found entering the country without a visa or using a visa obtained by lying, you will be placed in immigration detention, even if you are fleeing for your life. Even our clients who walked up to border agents and explained, “I am here because I am scared and need asylum,” were subsequently placed in immigration detention and subjected to a deportation hearing. Moreover, there is no right to a government-appointed lawyer in immigration hearings. This means that the laws and policies in place make it so that credible asylum seekers in this country are subjected to jail-like detention where making phone calls to the outside world costs money and where fighting your own immigration case likely requires more knowledge in immigration law and the English language than most asylum seekers have. Unfortunately, there are not enough pro-bono attorneys to go around, and this system often means some form of injustice will result. In my personal experience, I find that hardly anyone knows or understands that this systemic problem occurs on a daily basis.
What is your expectation of President Obama and Congress in regard to the border crisis?
We need to hold all decision-makers accountable. President Obama must provide immediate relief from deportation for the more than 267,000 undocumented LGBT adults in this country. Our community can’t afford to return to the violence and intimidation they fled in the first place. Similarly, Congress has the power to create lasting solutions to our nation’s broken immigration system. We need them to pass humane and comprehensive immigration reform. We need Congress to protect asylum—a life-saving system. We also need all decision-makers to show their leadership by reforming the dangerous conditions in immigration detention centers. LGBT people, particularly the transgender community, are suffering unnecessarily. We need leaders who understand our community.
What type of help is most needed on the ground and how can one get involved?
There are many ways to move our community forward. This year for example, is an election year. We all need to use our voice at the ballot box and elect legislators who share our values. Voter turnout at midterm election is often low, we can reverse that trend. Also, at Immigration Equality, we manage a national pro-bono network that helps LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants around the country. If you are an attorney, even if you don’t practice immigration law, we would love to talk to you about ways to get involved.
Was there ever an instance when you felt defeated? What made you keep going?
I feel defeated in little instances almost everyday. I feel defeated every time I am on the phone with a gay man from Nigeria or transgender woman from Honduras trapped in detention in another state too far away for me to directly represent them. I feel defeated when I cannot find local attorneys to help these individuals. I feel defeated when they are subjected to homophobic or transphobic violence in detention and I cannot secure their release. Hope for change is what keeps me going every day. I am able to keep this hope alive every time we win asylum for one of our clients and every time we secure the release of our detained clients. This too happens almost every day.
Keep in touch with Michelle on Twitter @IEquality
For more profiles, check out speakout.msnbc.com
(Responses were edited for clarity)