The Supreme Court's recent smackdown of the Defense of Marriage Act, coupled with Congress' ostensibly bipartisan desire to reform the nation's immigration laws, seems likely to make this summer a pivotal moment in two of modern America's defining social debates. But while all eyes are on Washington to see what happens next — at least for anyone with an interest in LGBT and immigration rights — a living, breathing embodiment of both those struggles sits locked in a Putnam County jail cell.
Misael Luis Santiago, 23, is a Oaxaca native who says he's been living illegally in the U.S. since 2006, when he crossed into the country as a 16-year-old looking for work. In February, Luis was stopped for speeding on his way to work at a chicken processing plant near Crossville. He was detained when he couldn't provide proper documentation.
Opting to stay in local law-enforcement custody and await trial on identity-falsification charges instead of posting bail and risking detention by federal immigration authorities, Luis is now pinning his hopes on the possibility of asylum with the claim that, as an out gay man in a relationship with a transgender partner, he faces abuse and violence if he is forced to return to his conservative hometown.
While the prevailing narrative among pundits and pollsters is that the tide of public opinion is rapidly shifting toward greater acceptance of immigrants and equality for the LGBT community, it's unclear whether those changes will occur fast enough to make any sort of difference for anyone in a situation like Luis'.
At the Putnam County jail in Cookeville last month, Alysa Medina with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) translated for him though a wall of Plexiglas. Luis, on the shorter side with buzzed hair and a navy blue jumpsuit, told the Scene that his decision to come to the United States was made out of economic necessity. After his father's death, teenage Luis became his family's chief breadwinner, and he decided to travel north of the border looking for work to put his younger siblings through school.
The group he was traveling with made multiple failed attempts to cross the border on foot, Luis said, before finally making it far enough inland to arrange a van ride to East Tennessee, where a cousin could help him secure a job.
No longer hindered by the staunch traditionalist leanings of his Mexican hometown, Luis began dating Faviola Milan, a transgender woman, herself an undocumented immigrant. The two worked adjacent shifts at the chicken plant, he said, and enjoyed going out dancing to Latin music. Though not overtly out except among friends in the U.S., Luis believes that word of his sexual orientation has gotten back to his community in rural Oaxaca — where he says law enforcement has much less influence than local elders who don't condone homosexuality and could easily instigate violence against him.
Paradoxically, though, local activists working on Luis' behalf have encouraged him to become more vocal about his sexuality, with the idea that his best chance to stay here may be to capitalize on the groundswell of public support for gay rights and attract the notice of advocates on the national level.
Megan Macaraeg, the organizing director at TIRCC, says that for many of the cases they handle, their first tactic is to request "prosecutorial discretion" — legalese for asking to judges to go easy on immigrants who have no criminal history and are in good community standing. But that system, Macaraeg tells the Scene, gives a lot of weight to people who are married to citizens or who have children born on U.S. soil. Those options aren't open to a gay man in Tennessee.
"We said, 'Luis, you don't have a good prosecutorial discretion case, it's going to take a while to file for asylum for you, we think the only thing that's really going to stop ICE [is] ... you're going to need to come out and we're going to need to get the attention of national organizations,'" Macaraeg recalls. "So he decided to come out while in jail as an undocumented gay Mexican man ... so that we could start collecting petition signatures.
"It was this amazing brave thing that he and his partner did."
According to TIRRC, Luis' case has come to the attention of Immigration Equality, a national immigration law organization that represents LGBT and HIV-positive individuals, and they are working on his asylum request. Representatives from Immigration Equality declined to give confirmation to the Scene, however, citing client privacy policies.
Meanwhile, Luis' next county-level court appearance is set for later this month. Uncertainty looms, both over how the court will handle his criminal charges and regarding how policy changes on the federal level could affect his status. When asked about the ideal outcome, Luis thought for a moment. Through the closed-circuit jail telephone, and the further mediation of a translator, he relayed his deepest hope: He just wants to go back to work, and see Faviola.
Momentum for greater equality and legal reforms may be gathering in the nation writ large. But here in Tennessee, Misael Luis Santiago remains pinned in legal limbo.
"I don't know what's going to happen with this guy," Macaraeg says.