By Valeria Fernández, FI2W contributor
PHOENIX, Arizona — David used to be one of those people who say: “Get out of our country if you don’t belong here.” That was until he fell in love with an undocumented immigrant.
After seven years of living together, David, an American citizen, worries about his same-sex partner’s ability to remain in the country. Guille, 38, came to the U.S. over nine years ago from Colombia, and his tourist visa has expired.
While federal immigration laws allow heterosexual residents to sponsor their spouses to immigrate to the country, gay and lesbian couples are not afforded the same benefit.
“My rights are being denied because Guille is a ‘boy,’” said David, 48, who asked for both of their last names to be withheld because of his partner’s immigration status.
A bill introduced in Congress last February might open up new options for couples like David and Guille.
The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners to immigrate legally to the country in the same way heterosexuals sponsor their spouses. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Immigration Equality are supporting the bill submitted by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D.-N.Y.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.).
UAFA would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to add definitions for “permanent partner” and “permanent partnership” that would include same sex-couples in a committed relationship.
The bill provides same-sex partners the same benefits as heterosexual couples. It also includes provisions to deter fraudulent partnerships, which could be punished with prison sentences of up to five years and a $250,000 fine.
For supporters of the bill, it boils down to family unity.
“This is about whether they can be a couple at all,” said Immigration Equality executive director Rachel B. Tiven. “To say to someone ‘you can’t be a couple, you can’t be a family because you’re gay’ is just cruel.”
The absence of provisions in federal law that contemplate same-sex couples have forced many to make difficult choices, Tiven said.
A recent news story about a lesbian couple —Jay Mercado, an American woman, and Shirley Tan, her partner from the Philippines— illustrates the challenges. Despite having lived together for over 23 years and getting married in San Francisco, the government tried to deport Tan denying her claim for asylum. Eventually, Tan got to stay thanks to a private bill submitted by a California lawmaker.
More than 36,000 gay and lesbian Americans could benefit from this change in the law, according to the 2000 Census and research conducted for Immigration Equality by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. UAFA would not change the situation for people who entered the country illegally, but could benefit those like Guille with an expired visa.
“It’s been a struggle, once your visa expires you have nothing,” said Guille, 38, who drives around town with an outdated Florida driver’s license. David often worries about Guille, especially in Phoenix where there is an intense crackdown on illegal immigration by the local sheriff’s office.
Advocates recognize that with the economy being a priority, the the bill’s chances this year are slim. But some are hopeful that there’ll be support from the Obama’s administration.
In a March 26th article published in Bay Windows, a statement by White House spokesman Shin Inouye offers hope. “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. We will work closely with Congress to craft comprehensive immigration reform legislation,” Inouye said.
Couples like Guille and David have a different perspective when it comes to UAFA.
“You’re mixing groups of people that some in the U.S. don’t want to give rights too,” said David. He believes any type of immigration reform should be part of a larger comprehensive approach that focuses on the economic benefits and contributions of immigrants.
“It needs to be done in a way that does not allow extremists to preach against it,” he added. “I think this bill needs to be more educational than anything else.”
Tiven remains positive. Since the bill was introduced it has picked up support from 100 cosponsors in the House and twenty in the Senate.
“Ultimately we want it to pass, we want total equality for gay and lesbians couples,” Tiven said. “We’ll work hard on any solution. Whether is as a stand-alone bill or part of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Some believe the bill has a better chance of passing on its own than as part of a larger comprehensive immigration package.
“The issue of illegal immigration and those who are illegally in the country is too politically charged,” said Linda Elliot, co-chair of the Public Policy Committee at the Human Rights Campaign. “We have to do this in steps.”
Elliot believes it would be easier to gather public support for a bill that addresses committed couples trying to stay together by finding a way to migrate legally into the U.S.
Currently, at least twenty countries including Canada, the United Kingdom and Israel allow citizens and legal residents to sponsor their same sex partners for legal immigration.