Crossing Borders

Gay Americans have long been denied the right to live at home with their noncitizen partners. But Congress may finally be on the verge of changing all that. 

BY Andrew Harmon

August 04 2009 11:00 PM ET

The Uniting American Families Act -- a gay-specific proposal originally introduced in 2000 under a different name by New York representative Jerrold Nadler -- is part of Honda’s more expansive bill, known as the Reuniting Families Act. UAFA’s centerpiece is a new federal classification for same-sex relationships known as “permanent partners.” The criteria for that status range from the concrete (individuals must be 18 years or older and cannot be married to another person) to the complex (they must be “financially interdependent” and “intend a lifelong commitment”). Applicants would be required to “prove” their relationship with ample documentation, such as joint bank account statements, leases, mortgages, and adoption papers for any children dependent on both individuals. The process likely would be more rigorous for gay couples than for straight married couples seeking the same immigration rights, sources predict. “Apply any test you want,” Matthew says of the regulations. “We would pass every one of them.”

Immigration Equality’s lobbying strategy has worked so far, primarily because the organization focused extensively on building bridges with mainstream immigration groups and faith-based organizations, Ralls says. “For the first time, groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and faith communities such as the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and others have come together in support of including LGBT families in a critical piece of larger legislation,” he says. “It’s an important lesson for the LGBT movement. If you can build coalitions outside of the community and work with those coalitions for inclusions in larger efforts, victory is possible.”

Not everyone is on board, of course. Conservative think tanks and influential religious organizations like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quickly denounced Honda’s bill as a poison pill for substantive reform.

The arguments against gay inclusion in an immigration omnibus bill are hardly surprising. Rampant sham relationships would overwhelm the system, critics argue. They also assert that any federal recognition of same-sex relationships is in violation of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, thus undermining traditional marriage. That argument makes Honda bristle. “I’m not expanding marriage rights,” he says. “But I am cognizant of the rights of partners in committed relationships. All citizens should be afforded the same legal right to apply for a visa for their partner.”

Backroom deals and last-minute trade-offs are the currency of Congress, and gay immigration rights are not exempt from such treatment. Supporters, however, point to several promising factors. Leahy, the Senate sponsor of UAFA, is chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. Charles Schumer -- who is New York’s senior senator, a tenacious deal-maker, and chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security -- is supportive of Leahy’s bill and is pushing for a comprehensive Senate bill to be crafted by Labor Day. “This is Leahy’s baby, and he’ll fight for it. Schumer knows that,” says one insider.

The Obama administration also has recently indicated support for UAFA: “The president thinks Americans with partners from other countries should not be faced with a painful choice between staying with their partner or staying in their country,” White House director of specialty media Shin Inouye says in a statement.

Matthew has had to live with that choice for more than two decades. “But I’m hopeful,” he says, “and that hope sustains [us] until one day when we can go home.”  

 

 

Tags: Politics

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