Immigration, Marriage Equality, and “Coming Out”

Written in collaboration with Attorney Jessica Oliva-Calderin.

The “coming out” process is a recurrent topic of discussion in the LGBTQ community. Exposing an area of our lives so intrinsic to ourselves could be menacing due to prejudice and stigma. However, what happens when there are three areas of our lives that are hidden in the closet? Many Latinos in the United States face the struggle of what is commonly known as the “triple coming out”. These individuals are often ashamed or scared of revealing that they are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, HIV positive, and undocumented. Fortunately, with the overturn of DOMA, undocumented Latinos and Latinas in same-sex loving relationships now have the same legal right to immigration benefits when married as heterosexual couples. Hopefully with this change, the “triple coming out” process will be less excruciating for some.

Following the repeal of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, the United States Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) has been directed to review immigration visas in the same manner as those filed on behalf of an opposite-sex spouse and to treat same-sex marriages exactly the same as opposite-sex marriages.

Today, the place-of-celebration rule will govern same-sex marriages in exactly the same way that it governs opposite-sex marriages. Meaning that unless this marriage is incestuous, polygamous, or otherwise falls within an exception to the usual rule, the legal validity of a same-sex marriage is determined exclusively by the law of the jurisdiction where the marriage was celebrated. The domicile state’s laws and policies on same-sex marriages will not bear on whether immigration authorities will recognize a marriage as valid.

In this regard, an applicant’s eligibility to petition for a spouse will not be denied as a result of the same-sex nature of the marriage.  Immigration authorities will apply all relevant laws to determine the validity of a same-sex marriage exactly the in the same manner as an opposite-sex marriage. USCIS, however, has made it clear that civil unions or domestic partnerships will not be recognized.

The evidentiary burden is on the applicant seeking the benefit.  However, USCIS understands that because of the nature of a same-sex marriage, some evidence may not be available.  Rather than focus on the evidence that is unavailable, immigration officials will review the evidence that is in the record. The only issue is whether the petitioner met his or her burden of proof (either by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing evidence) in proving a bona fide marriage relationship. Individuals should not be penalized for failing to produce certain documents that the adjudicator may expect, but rather will be flexible.

The fact that marriage is now an option to solve immigration status helps our Latinos/as open one of the closet’s door more easily. However, opening this door often requires opening the closet’s door of being LGBTQ, and sometimes the closet’s door of being HIV positive to friends and family members. This is not an easy task to do since stigma is still highly present in the conversations of Latino families. These conversations more often require an understanding of acculturation and generational differences among family members. When deciding to conduct these conversations, the partner or couple should consider the following three tips: (1) Talk first with the family member that would be more likely to assimilate the information in a less judgmental way; (2) Try to anticipate the best outcome, worse outcome, and more realistic outcome of the conversation; (3) Decide what place and time is best to disclose the information. Many reasons why these conversations are difficult to have in Latino families is because of language differences when expressing feelings, stereotypes perpetuated for many generations, misinformation about the topics, and sometimes due to religious beliefs. The individual should try to answer questions as honest as possible, thus opening a channel for healthy heart-felt communication.

Getting married is already a stressful and life-changing event in our lives. Adding an HIV positive status or LGBTQ identity does not make it an easier journey for the couple. Optimistically, one day everyone will be able to adopt Elvis Presley’s words “When I get married, it’ll be no secret.”

Luis R. Alvarez works as a psychotherapist and bilingual medical social worker with the HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ, and Latino populations.

Jessica L. Oliva-Calderin is an immigration attorney and managing partner at Calderin & Oliva, PA. See more about Mrs. Oliva-Calderin and her work at

The Multiple Faces of Immigration

The topic of immigration in the social policy arena has always been a big debate. It is such a controversial issue that it is almost a “bad word” that comes out of the mouth of those sitting on the legislative floor. However, immigration also seems to be a popular theme in mainstream media nowadays. We see on the news those who want an immigration reform hold signs in front of the groups that want immediate deportation of “illegal aliens”. These images imprison our society between solely two options that have been colored by the sensationalism of biased reporters. Therefore, immigration is seen as a good-and-evil battle, an illegal-legal argument, a homogeneous issue. Perhaps immigration and those who are part of this movement have diverse stories and reasons that triggered the action of moving from their country of origin. Even though we are only exposed to images of poor, dirty, native-looking immigrants crossing the border, immigration has multiple faces.

For millions of years, people have migrated around the world… for freedom, for economic opportunity… for the pursuit of happiness (Calderin-Oliva, 2014). Currently in the United States of America (USA) for example, “one out of every five children under the age of 18 in the United States is the child of an immigrant and about two of five Hispanics are foreign-born” (De Haymes & Kilty, 2007, p. 104). The USA was built by immigrants who in part moved to the western hemisphere for freedom of religion. This opened the door (or coasts and borders) to others who were seeking different types of freedom. Currently, some of the reasons for immigration respond to personal issues, familial problems, and community discord.

It has been said in the past that many young men from Mexico and other countries in Latin America migrated to the USA as a form of right of passage where those considered “men” would move away to work and provide for their families. While poverty and limitation of financial and human resources in some countries are considerable reasons for immigration, money is not the only trigger for it. To consider this last statement individuals need to understand that immigration not only has the face of Latinos that cross the border, but the faces of families that come from all around the world. The immigration issue is not a matter of “poor illegal Mexicans”, it is a matter of universal freedom.

As a social worker I have worked with immigrants from many countries of origin. These individuals narrate to me their stories, and one time after another, they are never the same. However, sometimes these stories are framed by a common theme: violence. For example, there are people that move out of their country of origin due to domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence arrive daily fleeing from their oppressors. On the other hand, some people migrate due to community violence underscored by drugs and gangs. This violence is hurting those who need us the most, the children. The reality is that,

Three years ago, about 6,800 children were detained by United States immigration authorities and placed in federal custody; this year, as many as 90,000 children are expected to be picked up… a vast majority of child migrants are fleeing not poverty, but violence. As a result, what the United States is seeing on its borders now is not an immigration crisis. It is a refugee crisis. (Nazario, S., 2014).

On the other hand, immigrants are also motivated to scape by hostile political situations. These immigrants seek a country where they are not harassed by police officers, by laws, by criminals supported by lawmakers. Violence is the root of many of our social problems and, therefore, for immigration. However, violence perpetuates a repercussion of other social problems that also provoke exile.

Many immigrants come to the USA for better education or access to education. Others come following a better healthcare system or a more accessible healthcare industry. I have heard of people staying in the USA due to better access to HIV/AIDS care, services, and medications, for example. Furthermore, others escape religious oppression (just like our ancestors) and seek a place that fosters freedom of religion. Others migrate to escape the stigma, prejudice, and hatred targeted towards their sexual orientation or gender identity. Even though there are many more reasons for immigration, these should not be consider as exclusive since an intersectionality of situations are the norm.

The USA seems to have been developing a hostile sentiment towards immigrants based on the ignorance of the abovementioned factors. This sentiment misrepresents the identity of those who arrive in the USA for diverse reasons and with diverse intentions. Entitlement is not a reason I have yet seen in immigrants in my practice as a social worker. Perhaps when we are able to see the multiple faces of immigration we will able to formulate an informed-based opinion and empathy for those who just want a chance for a better life while helping sustain the country’s economy. Our immigrants made the decision of becoming one at the high cost of leaving their children and families behind and at the mercy of faith, death, and illness. Their many faces reflect blood, sweat, hope, trauma, bravery, love, and willingness.

References and Sources:

De Haymes, M., & Kilty, K. M. (2007). Latino population growth, characteristics, and settlement trends: Implications for social work education in a dynamic political climate. Journal of Social Work Education, 43(1), 101-116.

Image retrieved from:

We Are All “Conchita”

Have you seen the bearded guy that wears dresses on TV? Who hasn’t!? Conchita Wurst has been all over the news after winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The fact that Conchita won shouldn’t be impressive since the girl can really sing. However, most of the news regarding Conchita have been around the fact that she looks “different”. Many may say she is talented, some that she is weird, others that she is… eccentric.

The word eccentric typically appeals to the “weird”, “abnormal”, “strange”, and in some occasions to the “bizarre”.  So yes, maybe we don’t see many bearded ladies walking down the street everyday and it can seem “strange” to some people. However, that is the beauty of diversity; the fact that many of us have distinctive traits not shared with others. Furthermore, Emig (2003) states that “Eccentricity becomes a viable and necessary cultural concept when culture begins to be perceived as having centres and margins”. Centers? Margins? Eming (2003) further explains,

“The concept of eccentricity serves as a field of experimentation, but also tolerance and compromise in times of cultural self-interrogation.  The eccentric is on the margins of the acceptable and conventional, but not outside it. The eccentric is not strange, ill, criminal or perverse, although the borderline towards becoming an excluded ‘Other’ remains close. At the same time what is at the centre of culture at any given time in this concentric model now requires the continual reference to its margin (p. 380).”

So the question is: Who is in the center? Who is in the margin? When someone is displaced into the margins he or she becomes marginalized. Marginalization of individuals who seem “different” has been historically a reality. No, I am not going to start talking about witches or wizards, nor of slaves or indigenous populations. However, we need to address the present marginalization of those who look “eccentric” to society. Those who are physically disabled, dress different, wear different clothes (or none at all), who love someone of their same gender, have a different skin color, who are polyamorous, who talk different. In one way or another, we all fit one or more of these marginalized populations. Hence, how could we establish what is “abnormal” or “bizarre” in our community? 

Every individual should be treated as unique, as eccentric. Prejudice, maltreatment, oppression, and marginalization should not be happening in 2014 when our communities are composed by diversity. At the end of the day we are all eccentric in our very own way. At the end of the day we are all Conchita.

21. Lifeball AIDS HIV Charity Magenta (Red) Carpet

Photo source:



American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatry Publisher.

Emig, R. (2003). Eccentricity begins at home: Carlyle’s centrality in Victorian thought. Textual Practice, 17(2), 379. doi:10.1080/0950236032000094890

Silver Linings in Modern Society

Social media is the biggest and more influential resource of information in our Century. Many may think only Facebook and CNN modify how we see the World; however, music and movies impact our life perspective as well. It is said, for example, that individuals that watch romantic comedies could expect their relationships to work the same unrealistic ways. In fact, many of the recent movies released portray the story of two characters that, after some cathartic moment, come back together and live happily ever after. Independently of your taste in movies (or even if you don’t have time to watch one due to your agitated professional life), you have to accept that lately, many movies and TV shows are displaying a different society.

More than sixty years ago we could see a black and white Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (“Ricky” Ricardo) laughing through adventures as an interracial couple in the “I Love Lucy” show. Ricky’s accent was delightful and Lucy’s naive occurrences were to laugh out loud. They were an adorable couple and America has loved them throughout the years even when the show stopped airing way before many of us were born. What is it that made this interracial couple likable in a prejudice America back in the 1950’s? That despite their diverse cultural backgrounds, they were a traditional family. However, today we see a different scenario.

We can watch TV show “Glee” with a student with disability character (and more recent a transgender) and “The New Normal” narrating the story of a gay couple and their separated surrogate mother-to-be. A more diverse population pops-up in our TV and in front of our children and youth. Why? Well, because that is America. On the other hand, disability and homosexuality are becoming more and more present in our lives. Hence, our tolerance or acceptance of related stories in the media. These characteristics are most of the time visible and we either understand them or at least normalize them. This leads us to a deficit in diversity. What happens with those differences we cannot see or understand? Do we segregate them? Do we condemn them? The movie “Silver Linings Playbook”, however, transports us to this more diverse and realistic world.

“Silver linings” is a metaphorical term or expression that refers to the brighter side of a dull situation (like when a gray cloud has spots of light). Similarly, “Silver Linings Playbook”, directed by David O. Russell, highlights the story of Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Pat and Tiffany have multiple mental health diagnosis. Even though the movie is also guided by the stereotypical Hollywood story line, it is not playing in every movie theatre. In fact, I watch it in the movie theatre were they play “foreign” or “alternative” movies. Maybe it is because Pat and Tiffany’s stories are still an “alternative” life style to our society, or even “foreign” to many’s eyes. Hence, the movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, touches the topic of psychological disorders like bipolar, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, “Silver Linings Playbook” explores relationships, grieving, sexual promiscuity, mental health medications, and dance therapy. Yes, this couple is the couple you wouldn’t invite to Thanksgiving dinner because they do not have a filter when they express their opinions.

Our diverse society is being more aware of each other differences. We are seeing diversity and we are trying to understand it. However, are we ready to see invisible differences? Are we ready to be aware of the “silver linings” in others? The answer relays on each individual and its contribution to the collective. Until then, many Pats and Tiffanys will be segregated and misunderstood and mental health will still be stigmatized as a decease rather than a diverse characteristic of an individual. We can only hope social media will portray more and more differences, not from a pathological perspective, but from an inclusive an more comprehensive point of view.