Stories of immigration from LGBTQ Asians

Uncovering Our Stories: Sapna Pandya

Uncovering Our Stories: Erika Nunez

Uncovering Our Stories: Tony Choi

Uncovering Our Stories: Nebula Li

Nebula Li is a queer first generation Chinese American from Chicago. Nebula’s mother petitioned for her brother as soon as she arrived in the US, but had to wait 12 years for him to immigrate. When Nebula’s mother was hospitalized for a stroke in 2012, the person she desperately wanted to see was her brother.

I am a first generation Chinese American living in Chicago. I want to share a story about my mom and her brother. My mom was the oldest of five children, but when I was growing up, she told me the most about my Uncle Stephen. When they were younger, my mom would pack his lunch, walk him to school, and help him with his homework.

My parents immigrated to the United States to search for better opportunities. My dad found work as a researcher and obtained green cards for us, his immediate family. As soon as she gained citizenship, my mom petitioned for her brother.

It took Uncle Stephen 12 years to join us in the States. That’s 12 birthdays, 12 New Year celebrations – 24 if you count Lunar New Year, too – and 12 Christmases without her family.

In August 2012, my mom had a stroke. I booked a next-day thirteen-hour bus to North Dakota. I walked into the hospital room and saw my mom lying in the bed connected to tubes. She looked scared. I felt so helpless, but through my sadness, I was relieved that I could be there with her.

We found out that she could not move the entire left side of her body; she had to practice sitting up for 30 minutes at a time, relearn how to move her entire body, and how to do everything one-handed. While she recovered, she said the person she wanted to see most was her brother Stephen.

I was able to stay with my mom during her recovery. It was especially meaningful for me to take care of her because we had a strained relationship partially due to my sexual orientation. Supporting my parents helped a lot to mend old wounds. Being there was everything.

When I think about the Senate bill’s elimination of sibling visas, I think about my mom and her brother. I think about how important my own family is to me, and how life was different for my mom without her brother. Just last Christmas, our entire family was finally able to spend the holidays at my uncle’s house in California. And although he could not attend my mom’s wedding years ago, he did attend my brother’s.

To me, family means cramming people into your house for the holidays. It means driving hours to be there. And family means taking care of each other, especially when we’re sick.

I don’t understand why immigrant families are being treated differently from other families. I wonder how members of Congress would feel being separated from their siblings for 12 years – or, if the bill passes as is, indefinitely. I wonder how they would feel knowing a family member was sick, but being unable to visit.
Comprehensive immigration reform must include all families – siblings, adult children, and LGBTQ families. Ninety percent of Asian immigration is family-based, and over 904,000 LGBT immigrants reside in this country. We will not be ignored or traded off. I am just as much an Asian American as I am queer. Comprehensive immigration reform must ensure all immigrant families are treated with the kindness and respect we deserve. That is why I will only support a version of immigration reform that prioritizes bringing immigrant families together.

Uncovering Our Stories: Rajat Dutta

When I moved from India to the USA at age eight, I experienced the challenge of “feeling different” for the first time. I was teased for the way I looked, smelled, and spoke. I tried to fit in and belong by behaving as white/American as I could. That was my first closet: when I tried to deny my skin color and ethnicity. In college I began to acknowledge the richness of my South Asian culture with the help of my girlfriend.

At the age of 26, I found the perfect woman to marry. Before proposing, I explored my subtle attraction to other men. I wondered if I might be bisexual and questioned the stereotypical roles I was supposed to play. My earlier experience of internalized racism had conditioned my unsuspecting self to exist in a second closet: that of my internalized homophobia. It took some time for me to begin to admit this to myself.

Being uncertain of my new self-discovery, a part of me wanted to run away, and I transferred through my multinational employer to India. Though all of us in my family had Green Cards sponsored through my father’s employer, I had held on to my Indian passport to maintain some sense of my origin. However, I got my US Citizenship before I left. I wanted the ability to return to the US, my home since the age of eight.

Depending on one’s immigration status, one cannot leave the country for a prolonged period of time without jeopardizing the immigration process. Even with a Green Card and almost two decades of living legally in the US, that insecurity loomed.

I knew that for so many of my immigrant peers the options were much more restrictive. They were uncertain of their future status and some never became eligible to work or become full citizens. It is very important that immigration reform expand options for employment and citizenship for people like me, the families of employment visa holders. These freedoms, to work and travel, were essential to my journey.

After spending a number of years in India testing my values and peeling back the layers of denial, I got a better sense of my own identity. Staying in the “gay” closet was not healthy. I finally acknowledged that I am a homosexual. That breakthrough led me to start building a new community. Then, after being back in the US for a number of years, I seroconverted and realized that being HIV-positive was yet a third closet to contend with. I faced further discrimination and learned even more about disparities. I now try to lead a healthy life, open, and with integrity.

I can now be at ease with myself and others. I volunteer and help others who have at some point of our lives felt the strain of isolation, stigma, or being a minority within a minority. We must work on the issues affecting our overlapping communities. I believe that by sharing our experiences we can help spare others the pain and consequences of silence. I believe that other LGBT/HIV-positive immigrants should have the chance for living with equality and dignity. That is why I support immigration reform with a fair path to citizenship.

PRODUCTION CREDITS
Asian Pride Project (www.asianprideproject.com), Kat Rabbitt Productions (www.katrabbitt.com), and Brian Chamberlain

Uncovering Our Stories: Shweta Kumar

Shweta Final from Asian Pride Project on Vimeo.

I was born in a remote area of Uttar Pradesh, in India. My parents are surgeons who run their small hospital in the area.

Education was always highly valued in my family. In high school, I was a driven student and set my sights on going to law school. Since I didn’t want to pursue the traditional Indian tracks of engineering and medicine, I independently began researching going to the USA for college.

I was also coming out to myself as a lesbian during these years. This realization began when I was 12 or 13, but reality didn’t fully hit until the age of 15. I entered into a serious relationship and, despite my stellar record, was almost expelled from school. I lived in a boarding school and the administration of the school tried to expel me because of my perceived sexual orientation. I was not out at the time and thus the school was acting based on what they believed to be my orientation.

Due to constant harassment from peers and the school administration, I began to think more and more about the implications of staying in India for college. I knew going to college in India would mean going back into the closet and, for me, it was important to be open and honest with those around me.

Thankfully, my parents and friends supported me during this difficult time, and I was accepted to UC Berkeley. An F1 student visa paved my way to the US in September 2009. At Berkeley, I majored in political science and then decided to stay at UC Berkeley to pursue my law degree.

As a law student, I can stay in the US on a student visa. If I had not gone to law school, I would have had only one year to find a job to sponsor me on an H1B visa. This can be a stressful and even hopeless process for any immigrant, given that only large companies have the resources to sponsor immigrants.

When I look at my experience and those of my immigrant peers, I believe the H1B employment visa process should be streamlined and expanded. The US (and immigrants like me) invest a lot of time and money so motivated students can become educated workers. The loss of this talent when we cannot easily stay and work in the US is a loss for the country.

It would be beneficial to increase the jobs H1B immigrants can seek, and make it simpler for students to open up their own start-ups. I have my own film production company, but would not be able to stay in this country in this capacity. After I complete law school and my student visa ends, I will only have the option of joining a large firm to get my H1B employment visa.

I hope I am on path to becoming a permanent resident. In the US, I received and continue to receive a great education. As a gay woman, I am out in my community and know it would be impossible to do so in India. If I have a partner, I would not feel comfortable raising a family in India as a same-sex couple. And, as a woman, I believe I have more opportunities and less challenges here in the US.

The repeal of DOMA relieves some of the pressure of being an LGBTQ immigrant, but it must become easier for international students like me to earn H1B employment visas. That is why I support comprehensive immigration reform.

PRODUCTION CREDITS
Asian Pride Project (www.asianprideproject.com), Kat Rabbitt Productions (www.katrabbitt.com), and Brian Chamberlain

Uncovering Our Stories: Maya Jafer

Maya Final from Asian Pride Project on Vimeo.

I was born and raised in the south of India in Madurai, Tamil Nadu with my parents, older brother and younger sister. I was born into a very religious Muslim family. My parents gave me the name Mohammed Gulam Hussain though now, as a post-operative transsexual female, I am Maya Jafer.

My journey to the US began in 2000, at the age of 30, when I moved to Seattle on a F-1 student visa to complete my second doctorate in Natural Medicine.

The past decade has been a tremendous struggle for me. Though I entered this country legally, I faced intense discrimination as a Muslim in the post 9/11-world. My last name – Hussain – did not help and I often dealt with interrogations concerning my perceived (and false) association with Saddam Hussein. I often wished for stronger protections against this profiling and discrimination in immigration and law enforcement.

In the 10 years it took me to become a US citizen, I faced financial hardship, dozens of interviews, and lived in constant fear of deportation. Despite being a highly skilled, in-demand worker as a doctor, the process was nothing short of painful. By the time I got my citizenship and gave up my Indian citizenship, I was traumatized by the US system. I even wondered whether it was worth it to get my citizenship and work here, even after the US had invested resources in educating me.

Yet, I still choose this path. I knew I was transgender and could get killed, raped or beaten if I transitioned from male-to-female in India. Surviving became more important than the continual discrimination dealt to me through the immigration process.

On May 27th, 2009, I received my first Estrogen hormonal shot to begin the physical process of transitioning. In late 2010, I received my US citizenship. Years before, I had completed my paperwork and interviews as a male for my interview so, when I applied for my citizenship certificate and saw the option of changing my name, I stated my name as Maya Jafer.

More recently, with the help of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, I was able to change my gender, and applied for a passport as a female. I was fortunate as the law had only changed 2 months prior to allow for this change. This allowed me to travel to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery on February 10th, 2011. This pivotal moment allowed me to change my name and gender on my social security card.

However, the paperwork and process has left me drained and depleted emotionally and financially. While I have official documents stating I am female, I will not have complete recognition until I get a US court order. This process takes several months and I am so tired that I have no energy to take this step until absolutely necessary.

In addition to the dual, intersecting documentation burdens of being a transgender immigrant, my family found out about my transition a few months ago. My brother and sister sent me excruciating emails filled with abuse and name-calling. They still believe they are protecting my only surviving parent by not telling her. I was suicidal for months.

I work every day to stay positive, to survive, to heal. I was and am able to survive only because of my spirituality, and my strong relationship with God. I am hoping all of this hard work will pay off some day as I continue my life as a doctor, actress, activist and dancer. While I don’t know if I have a better life here, I do have my life. I’m going to stay in gratitude and that’s how I’m going to stay alive.

Of all the traumas I faced, some can be prevented by immigration reform. We can expand and streamline the process for skilled workers and students like myself to immigrate on H1B visas. We can offer more transgender immigrants asylum from persecution, alternatives to often abusive detention, and a straightforward paperwork process. We can create real prohibitions on discrimination and profiling in immigration enforcement.

No one else should have to suffer as I have. That is why I support comprehensive immigration reform.

PRODUCTION CREDITS
Asian Pride Project (www.asianprideproject.com), Kat Rabbitt Productions (www.katrabbitt.com), and Brian Chamberlain

Uncovering Our Stories: Dhaval Shah

Uncovering Our Stories: Dhaval from Asian Pride Project on Vimeo.

I grew up in Ahmadabad, India, the largest city in my state of Gujarat. I come from a working class background. My mom is a teacher and my dad worked for the State Government. India was a wonderful place to grow up, but I knew I wanted more.

I graduated college in the mid-1990s. India had just recently opened up its economy, so there was still a dearth of professional opportunities. I knew that there were excellent education and professional opportunities available to me in the US. At the time, my sexuality did not play a role in my decision to study abroad. While I knew I was different than my classmates and friends, I couldn’t put a label or name to it. There were no open or out examples around me, so I was a closeted gay man to everyone, including myself.

Using an F1 student visa, I began to pursue a Masters in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. It was an exciting time to be a software engineer. When I graduated in 1998, the “dotcom era” was still in full force, and I received four offers from companies willing to sponsor my H1B visa. Looking back, I was very lucky. Just two years later, the bubble burst and many of my friends had, and continue to have, a tough time getting jobs and sponsorships.

With Nokia in the San Francisco Bay area, I began the arduous process of getting my H1B visa. Even as a highly skilled worker with the support of a large corporation, the process was extremely challenging and, at times, I thought I would have to move to Nokia’s Canadian or European offices. With such a restrictive visa process, the US really risks losing in-demand employees to international competition. Thankfully, I was able to get my H1B visa in time and, again with the support of Nokia, filed for my green card a couple of years later.

As I adjusted myself to this country, I started to come out to myself as gay. My parents made this discovery in 1999 when visiting from India. While my dad was supportive, my mom was very upset. She has come a long way since then, and was happy when she recently visited and saw that I had become an active member of the Bay Area South Asian LGBTQ Community.

In 2008, 10 years after arriving in this country, I became a US citizen. One of the benefits of citizenship that has recently become very important to me is the ability to move outside US borders and freely return. I will soon move back to India to pursue social impact work and take care of my aging parents. If I were still only a permanent resident or on an H1B visa, going back to India for an extended period, even to take care of my parents, would jeopardize my immigration status.

I still consider my home the USA. Even though it doesn’t personally affect me right now, the overturning of DOMA was huge news. As a citizen, I now feel the freedom to date and meet someone in India and, possibly, bring him to the USA to live safely together. It is nice to have that kind of freedom.

My immigration experience has been a positive one. The US has been good for me in terms of my education, career, and ability to live openly as a gay man. I want those opportunities for everyone, but I know many talented people who struggle to immigrate. We must streamline and expand the H1B visa program for international students, and we must expand paths to full citizenship for immigrants on employment visas. Receiving all the rights and freedoms of citizenship has been a blessing for me. That is why I support comprehensive immigration reform.

PRODUCTION CREDITS
Asian Pride Project (www.asianprideproject.com), Kat Rabbitt Productions (www.katrabbitt.com), and Brian Chamberlain

Uncovering Our Stories: John Sanchez

From my perspective as a low income individual, I have found it difficult to not only finance my education but also to apply for things like DACA. My father is able to legally work in this country; however, his annual income is approximately that of the federal poverty income level and he has been supporting a family of four for a while. This has prevented me from focusing solely on school, as I have had to work full time each semester I was attending community college in order to pay for tuition, textbooks, and living expenses. Despite my family paying taxes, undocumented students are ineligible for financial aid. This is an inconvenience especially since a portion of our tuition that we pay out of pocket is placed into a financial aid pool that we are unable to access. Fortunately California has passed a law that allows students that are qualified for AB540 to compete for State financial aid, but unfortunately many states do not or require undocumented students to pay out of state tuition.

From a queer perspective, I have had difficulties coming out to my family because of the heavy religious beliefs from my dad’s side of the family. I fear coming out because there may be a possibility that my dad would abandon me, and since I lack the ability to work legally, I will be unable to support myself and will end up homeless. Furthermore, queer undocumented individuals do not even have the option of marrying their partner in every state to obtain citizenship the way heterosexual couples do. Many of us cannot afford to travel to a state where same-sex marriage is legal in order to get married. These limitations only make it more difficult for immigrants who are minorities within the undocumented community because of the lack of equal access and support.

Lastly, from an API perspective, the amount of support and information flowing through the API undocumented communities is lacking. Since the media and many politicians have done such a great job at using Latino/a communities as a scapegoat for the immigration dilemma, the rest of the diverse undocumented populations are overlooked and underserved. Most folks tend to believe this issue does not affect the API community and despite their being a need for more organizations that cater to this community, there is almost a complete absence. In addition, the fact that immigration is highly stigmatized in the API community leads to less people revealing their immigration status publicly and even less people taking advantage of the few resources that are available to them.

We have tried stricter border enforcement in the past, but the number of undocumented immigrants have nearly quadrupled. I continue to hear that many Republicans will not support a pathway to citizenship because we need to get to the root of the problem and prevent “illegal” immigration from happening by increasing enforcement laws. This, however, is not the root of the problem. The reasons why people migrate is not being addressed. Many of us immigrate here for the opportunity to live an adequate life. Many immigrants become undocumented because the alternative of returning to a country that has been affected by US economic policies and US corporate greed has left them and many others destitute.

How can we give corporations so much power and freedom but not do the same for human beings? Immigrants are being driven into an underground economy where they work for less wages and have no rights and companies continue to produce material goods overseas so that corporate leaders can exploit the lack of labor laws, destitution, and resources of other countries. We are not the problem, we are victims, along with everyone else who has been affected by corporate greed. We need a better immigration reform bill and we need it now. Until then, we will be watching Congress, calling our Representatives, and mobilizing our communities for a reform that puts all 11 million on a pathway to citizenship.

Uncovering Our Stories: Chetam & Gaurav

Gaurav and I met in Hoboken, NJ in October 2005 through an online dating website. We both were consultants at that time. Gaurav is a US citizen and I came to the US on a work visa in 2004. We liked each other as soon as we met and started dating. We got into a relationship and moved in with each other. Since then, we have been together. A lot of our straight friends who got married around the same time have already become citizens. I am still on a work visa.

Until the recent Supreme Court decision overturning part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), my immigration process was underway solely through my employer. DOMA prohibited the US government from acknowledging legal marriages of lesbians and gays in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Now that our relationship is legally recognized, Guarav is beginning the process of filing for me. However, thousands of others on work visas do not have this option. Let me tell you what it is like to live for a long time on a work visa, with permanent status always just beyond the horizon.

Life on a work visa has been very difficult. Every time I go out of the country for a vacation, or go to get my visa stamped, the fear of getting stuck for one reason or another accompanies me. Any vacation planning revolves around my visa status. There have been times when we contemplated moving out of the country. Gaurav cannot switch jobs/cities as he is bound by my work visa situation. We cannot move even if he gets a better opportunity in a city other than the city where my work is located. We worry if I am forced to move back to India, Gaurav will not have work opportunities considering his specialized skill set. We have made a lot of compromises over the years due to my visa situation.

It is such a relief to know Guarav can sponsor me. Unfortunately, not everyone has a partner to sponsor them. Many people who are contributing to the US through their work are still facing the uncertainty and limitations of work visas. Endlessly renewing a temporary work visa is not a solution to our immigration problems. It is not a good way to live long term, to be dependent always on one’s employer. We need expanded visa programs and more green cards for work visa holders. Only then will working immigrants have the sense of security and freedom I am now beginning to feel. That is why I support immigration reform.