BY Andrew Harmon
August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET
One element is certain: Gay immigration rights advocates have earned a spot at the bargaining table, and they have arrived with a much-needed spokesperson. In the early morning of January 28, Shirley Tan, a 44-year-old mother of 12-year-old twin boys, awoke to the sound of two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pounding on the front door of the Pacifica, Calif., home she shares with her female partner, Jay Mercado. “It was unbelievable, something you only see in movies,” recalls Mercado, 49.
Tan was detained for 14 hours at a San Francisco facility and fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet that she tried to hide from her children. A native of the Philippines, she fled her home country in 1989 after a cousin, who was convicted in the murder of her mother and sister, was released from prison following a 10-year sentence. Tan, who was also hurt in the attack, was denied political asylum and subsequent appeals. She faced near-certain deportation this spring were it not for what is known in congressional parlance as a private bill -- a law that applies to a particular individual or group. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced the bill in April, giving Tan a reprieve from deportation -- allowing her to stay in the States with her family -- until 2011.
The maneuver was no isolated incident of political mercy. In June, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy held the first congressional hearing on binational gay couples. Delivered in measured tones, Tan’s harrowing testimony -- and the unstoppable tears of one of her sons, who sat directly behind her -- created a rare moment of emotional drama for C-SPAN. Suddenly the Bay Area housewife was thrust into the role of national symbol.
“Until recently, this wasn’t on the radar for a lot of people,” says Steve Ralls, spokesman for the nonprofit legal aid and lobbying group Immigration Equality. “It’s really the little gay issue that could.” Ralls is fond of that sound bite, a turn of phrase that might be annoying if it weren’t true. While national gay organizations historically have paid scant attention to the topic as they juggle more marquee (and bankable) issues like marriage rights, Immigration Equality has lobbied key lawmakers and immigration rights groups with a staff of nine employees and a budget shy of $1 million (by comparison, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay lobbying group, has an annual budget of over $40 million).
Bills addressing immigration rights for gay couples have been percolating in Congress for almost a decade, but none have gained traction on Capitol Hill until now. One of the movement’s newest allies is California representative Mike Honda, a Bay Area Democrat who in June introduced a bill that includes gay couples in expediting immigrant family reunification. “I couldn’t say I was working for all families if I didn’t include a category of committed partners whom I would certainly consider to be equal,” Honda says.