Senate Talks LGBT Immigration

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com June 02 2009 11:00 PM ET

The Senate Judiciary Committee held the first congressional hearing on the Uniting American Families Act Wednesday. The act would allow gay and lesbian citizens to sponsor their partners for residency in the United States.

"For too long, gay and lesbian American citizens whose partners are foreign nationals have been denied the ability to sponsor their loved ones for lawful permanent residency," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Under current immigration law, many citizens have been forced to choose between their country and their loved ones. No American should face that choice."

Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both stated their support for the bill; it was the first time Specter had gone on record in support of the legislation.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama served as the lone GOP detractor of UAFA, saying that it amounted to a redefinition of marriage. "Our Congress voted overwhelmingly that marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman," he said of the 1996 vote on the Defense of Marriage Act.

Shirley Tan, a 43-year-old Filipina who lives in California with her partner, Jay Mercado, and their 12-year-old twin sons, gave moving testimony about her family's dilemma. Her voice breaking and on the brink of tears, Tan described how U.S. immigration officials had showed up at their home at 6:30 a.m. on January 28, 2009.

"The agents showed me a piece of paper, which was a 2002 deportation letter, which I informed them I had never seen," she said. "Before I knew it, I was handcuffed and taken away, like a criminal, as Jay's frail mother watched in hysterics."

Tan's two sons, Jashley and Joriene, who sat behind their mother, became visibly upset as she revisited the moment. Senator Leahy interrupted the testimony briefly to ask if they would like to leave the room. As Jashley regained composure, Leahy said, "I just want you to know, young man, your mother is a very brave woman, you should be very proud of her."

Tan met her partner 23 years ago through family friends. "It was love at first sight," Mercado said, thumping her hand against her heart in an interview prior to the hearing. Tan was fortunate to be given a two-year stay on deportation when U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein of California took the unusual step of introducing a bill to grant her clemency while the Senate considers UAFA.

Gordon Stewart, 48, testified to represent the many Americans who now live outside the United States in order to be with their partners. "I traveled to be with you today from London, where I work for Pfizer," he said. "Pfizer is a company that recognizes domestic partnership. Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not recognize Renato, my partner of more than nine years."

Before the hearing, Stewart explained how he had traveled 10 hours every other weekend for two years to visit his partner in Brazil. During that time, he said, "I was looking for a job with Pfizer in a country that would take both of us. Eventually, I found a position in the U.K. in March of 2005."

While Stewart is grateful that his employer of 14 years helped him find a solution to what he called "an impossible situation," he added, "I love my country, I love my family, and I think it is unfair that I have to choose between my partner and my family and the country that I love."

Also testifying in support of UAFA was Julian Bond, chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He noted that family sponsorship accounts for more than 85% of legal immigration in the U.S. and the system has not been updated in 20 years.

"For the most part, our nation's current immigration laws promote family unity," he said. "The NAACP would also like to stress that the definition of 'family' should not be interpreted so stringently as to omit people who are in a loving, committed relationship but happen to be of the same gender."

Two participants testified against the bill: Roy Beck of NumbersUSA and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Beck's organization opposes immigration as a matter of population growth across the board.

"Every time U.S. citizens deal with extra cost, congestion, sprawl, or other deterioration in quality of life due to explosive population growth, they can thank one Congress after another that has either raised immigration numbers or maintained the new higher levels," Beck said.

Vaughan argued against UAFA on the basis that it would be very difficult to verify legitimate same-sex sponsors since most cannot present marriage certificates. "There is no mechanism to officially recognize or sanction 'permanent partnerships,'" she said. "If the goal is to give same-sex long-term partners equal access to immigration benefits, then the target should be the Defense of Marriage Act, not the Immigration and Nationality Act."

The White House is expected to hold a summit on comprehensive immigration reform in the next couple of weeks, and officials at Immigration Equality, the lead organization lobbying for LGBT binational families, said the UAFA hearing Wednesday was a sign that Democratic leadership is serious about the legislation.

"The timing is no accident," said Steve Ralls, Immigration Equality's director of communications. "This is a strong signal from Senator Leahy that, as the chairman of the committee of jurisdiction, he wants this to be included in comprehensive immigration reform."

The group's executive director, Rachel B. Tiven, added that they are pushing hard for LGBT inclusion in the larger debate. "We are fighting like hell to keep gay and lesbian families where they belong, which is within comprehensive immigration reform," she said.