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Earlier this year, 11 community groups in Illinois received word from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) that their funding was in jeopardy.

LGBT Immigration Equality

A Chicago-based immigration coalition to which the groups belonged had endorsed a gay marriage bill in the state Legislature that spring. If the groups didn’t renounce membership in the coalition, CCHD would cut them off.

The ultimatum came as a shock. For years, CCHD had supported these groups with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants. Beyond that, the religious group that works on reducing poverty is one of the most stalwart allies of immigration reform nationwide. But when it came to gay marriage, the church said, there would be no compromise.

A controversial funding issue in Illinois involving the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and organizations affiliated with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights shed light on the growing partnership of immigration and LGBT groups on the issue of equality. Photo illustration of Associated Press images by Equal Voice News

Call it “guilt by association,” as some critics did. Call it a principled decision to follow Catholic teachings, as church supporters said. Either way, it amounted to a shakeup for just about everyone involved.

The ultimatum forced the community groups – many of which had never even considered gay marriage before, much less endorsed it – to have some tough conversations. At the same time, the incident highlighted a growing connection across the country between two movements: Marriage equality and immigration reform.

“At the national level and at the local level,” said Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of We Belong Together, “people have been making the case that we’re stronger together.”

She leads an immigration reform campaign made up of women’s organizations, community groups, children and families.

Meanwhile, the Chicago-area groups were faced with a stark choice: Stick with their longtime supporters, the CCHD, or get behind gay marriage.

More Similarities Than Differences

At first blush, immigration reform and gay marriage may seem like very different topics. What, exactly, does immigration reform have to do with LGBT rights?

A lot, says Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a national group that advocates both immigration reform and LGBT equality. Immigration law is family-based, she explained. For instance, U.S. citizens can sponsor their spouse for legal residency, but in many states, gay couples don’t have the right to marry, so they’re out of luck.

“If everybody’s family counts but yours, you’re truly boxed out,” Tiven said.

When Tiven’s group formed in 1994, the issue of gay rights appeared to be a lot harder to pitch than immigration reform. Back then, LGBT groups hoped for strength in numbers. “If we’re going to win equality,” the idea was, “we need to get Latinos on our side,” she recalled.

“It would have been inconceivable that, 20 years hence, the gay rights movement would be immensely successful and the immigrant rights movement would still be fighting like hell to get a bill passed in Congress,” she noted.

Yet, that’s what happened. And immigration reform groups took note.

“We knew there was a lot we could learn from their experience,” said Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, a Seattle-based social justice organization.

Immigration reform groups noticed that gay rights groups were able not only to change laws but also to refocus the debate: Gay marriage wasn’t only a sexual orientation issue; it was an equality issue. The immigration reform movement has seized upon that message, as well. Still, gay marriage is a difficult concept for some.

When an organization that Jayapal founded and later became OneAmerica intervened in a lawsuit on behalf of gay couples a decade ago, the debate among members was heated. Much of it centered on issues of faith. Among the organization’s constituency were many Catholic and Muslim immigrants, who cited religious objections. Nonetheless, Jayapal maintained it was the right thing to do.

“A lot of the discussions I had with people were around the nature of discrimination,” she said. “Discrimination against one group – immigrants – is the same as discrimination against another group, LGBT.”

That discussion is still going on today in immigration reform groups all over the country. But Jayapal has noticed a change.

“Over the last decade I think, across the country people have really recognized that our struggles are connected,” she said.

LGBT rights groups and immigration reform groups are not only endorsing each other’s causes, they’re taking public action. Recently, LGBT activists were arrested at a rally for immigration reform in Washington, D.C. There’s also the rise of the so-called DREAMers, undocumented youth who were brought to the country by their parents. Their core leadership includes people who have come out as LGBT.

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Meanwhile, immigrant groups have thrown their support behind gay marriage ballot measures across the country. In Washington state, for instance, OneAmerica not only endorsed marriage equality, it paid for advertisements supporting a gay marriage ballot initiative.

Once again, the ads provoked intense debate within the organization. But Stolz says, the result has been positive.

“We worked through those tensions and had some really provocative and deep conversations with our members,” he said.

Some Fallout

Still, the growth has not come without a cost. Stolz said that after the marriage equality campaign in Washington state, his group was no longer welcome to hold meetings in some Catholic churches.

“It has impacted our organizing,” he said. “We’ve had to develop relationships with different kinds of congregations.”

Nationally, some groups have chosen not to seek CCHD funding because of their stance on marriage equality. Others, like Jayapal’s We Belong Together, say they were turned down for CCHD grants after making it clear they would seek equal rights for gays and lesbians.

For the past few years, the church has been under increasing pressure from traditional Catholic groups not to fund organizations that are at odds with church teachings.

This year, it was Chicago’s turn to wrestle with this issue. Both CCHD, which is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) – whose decision to endorse gay marriage led to this Illinois flap in the first place­ – declined to comment to Equal Voice News.

In an open letter to the community, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, explained that CCHD donors give “with the understanding that their money will be passed on to organizations that respect the teachings of the Catholic faith.” Grant recipients, in turn, must agree to respect those teachings, too.

Of the 11 groups warned by CCHD that they would lose their funding if they remained in ICIRR, just three decided to leave ICIRR. One of those three decided to forego church funding anyway, effectively declining to choose either side.

But the rest stuck with ICIRR.

Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, which works to reform the temporary labor sector in Chicago, said his group hadn’t given gay marriage much thought before the ultimatum from the CCHD. Yet, when they got the call from CCHD, they made a “pretty quick decision.”

“Notwithstanding the exact issue, we didn’t think that was the kind of relationship we wanted to have with a funder: You do this or else,” he said. But more than that, “we simply felt it was more important to stay united supporting immigration reform in general.

“We need Blacks, whites, Latinos, gays, straights, tall, short, men, women – we need all workers to be united so all of our working families in Chicago can be better off.”

His group has received funding from CCHD for at least a decade and was expecting at least $30,000 a year for the next three years, which amounts to about 10 percent of the group’s budget.

Albany Park Neighborhood Council (APNC) also decided to stick with ICIRR and forego the church funding, despite a long history of working with CCHD. “We believe in equal rights for all people,” said Jenny Arwade, executive director of APNC.

They had been counting on a $20,000 grant to support a bikes-for-youth program.

Despite losing their funding, many of the groups say they understand the church’s position. The church “has the right to decide who they support,” Bicchieri said. He hopes his group and CCHD can work together in the future.

In the meantime, donors pulled together to set up a fund to help the organizations fill in the gaps. Money is still flowing into the fund, and it hasn’t been divvied up yet, so no one’s quite sure how big a hit each organization will take. But several groups said they’d find a way to save the programs that were funded by the CCHD, despite the cuts.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the immigration reform and LGBT rights movements continues to grow.

Said Immigration Equality’s Rachel B. Tiven: “I think there’s been really meaningful and beautiful investment by real people that we’re all in this together.”

Maureen O'Hagan
Equal Voice News