Gay Marriage Meets the Immigration Debate: A Bill Would Allow Sponsoring a Same-Sex Partner

By Valeria Fernández, FI2W contributor

Photo: Richard Settle/Flickr.

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.


  1. I, too, live in Amsterdam, The Netherlands with my same-sex partner because I, as a US citizen, cannot sponsor my partner for immigration purposes. We both want to move back to California now! Please pass UAFA!

  2. Josh

    I am moving with my partner to UK in October only because there is no way for me to stay in US. I will close my business and lay off bunch of Americans and other workers only because US Government doesn’t, od didn’t believe, we can be family-like couples running family-like lives.

  3. Rob

    I support equal rights for ALL US citizens. The USA needs to understand that we can not take everyone who wishes to come here–we just can not do it. It’s like a middle class family saying they would like to adopt ALL the poor kids of the world.

    We take over 2 million legal immigrants a year. Illegal immigrants have shown little to no concern for our borders and laws. I say enforce the laws on them and they will leave on their own.

  4. I have lived in South Korea for 4 years now and am a U.S. citizen. Because my partner is Korean, and the quota’s on allowing visa’s is filled for Asian’s, It looks like I will be stuck living here until some sort of reasonable bill is passed allowing same sex partners to sponser thier long time partners. My family wants to meet him in person, we cannot proclaim to immigration that we are gay because this country does not recognise any rights for gays. We are considering both becomming Canadian citizens.

  5. MIchael

    Dont want to rain on this parade, but there is a separate prohibition under federal law for immigration of anyone who is homosexual. I, too, have a partner who is my life and my love, and we have a strong family and are constructive members of our community. THis law would be a great solution to our dilemma, which if not solved this way, would force us to move out of the country and lose our large business interests, or continue to live under the fear of arrest and deportation for being who we are. That is neither just nor fair. America’s view of democracy must be broad enough to allow good people who work hard and are law abiding to make a positive contribution to this country and offer them permanent residency on an equal basis with all others who apply for residency on an equivalent basis. Gender, sexual orientation, or “gayness” are not legitimate or rational bases to deny entry or residency to the US.

  6. Dave

    I came to South Korea five years ago to teach English. My SK partner and I have been together for 4 1/2 years and we are very much in love. We want to spend the rest of our lives together. We would prefer to be together in the USA. We live with the fear of his family and friends finding out about our love and, although it doesn’t appear to be enough to be grounds for his asylum to the US, it is a fear we both live with. There could be a violent reaction towards him and towards me. What price is freedom?

    Others might blame our love. I blame the US and others’ draconian, small-minded definitions of love.

    It is so frustrating to see almost every other civilized country providing same-sex immigration benefits in one form or another to gay couples while the US effectively says, “You’re up a creek!”.

  7. Loren

    Gay people pay tax too. Therefore, we deserve equal rights as straight people. If straight people can sponsor their partners, our right to sponsor our partners shouldn’t be demolished. If we can adopt a child from overseas, how come we can’t “adopt” our lover? USA should pass UAFA.

  8. Carey

    I’m a 50 year old gay male- I’ve lived in this country all my life. I meet my male partner (Kaz) 15 years ago. He is 12 years younger and is from Japan. I meet him through my best friend- they use to date for a year or two. We fell in love after their relationship ended, have been in a committed relationship and have been living together for over 13 years. He came to this country 18 years ago- spoke little English and became part of the Mormon Church and was a Mormon Missionary in L.A. /California for about two years. He took English classes in L.A. and learned the English language- better than most Americans. He later moved to Seattle where we met, he put himself through collage and got a degree in business. Now after working legally for many years after collage for a Japanese company here in the Seattle area we decided to go ahead and buy a house 50/50 and grow old and stupid together. Six months after buying the house Kaz had to go back to Japan (point of origination) and renew his US Visa. He was nervous, I thought it was no big deal. He hired a Immigration attorney (@ $14,000 bucks) to fill out and file all the immigration “bull-shit” paper work. Well,- his Visa was denied: due to the fact that he had no specialized skills to continue to work in the US. I could not believe it. He makes the average American (including myself) all but looks like “trailer trash”- but he cannot continue to work in the US? He was given 90 days to vacate the US. We had not even finished unpacking after buying our new home. He left the US at the end of the 90 days. I dropped him off at the airport- he left with the clothing on his back, one suitcase and his Laptop computer. That was two years ago- I haven’t seen him scene. We speak to each other every week using the computer /web camera (Skype). I told him I would wait for his return- no matter how long it takes. Last April our dog that we both raised as a puppy died and I had to bury him by myself. Each day I look at his clothing that hang in our closet- wondering if he will ever ware them again. I look at this pictures and the ribbons that his/our dog had won in conformation dog shows that we won from all the dog shows we use to enjoy going to all over the Pacific North West. He can no longer pay his half of the $2000 mortgage we have to pay each month on the house- and at the same time pay for his Tokyo apartment and his other living expenses in Japan. I sold my business I owned for over 25 years about 7 years ago and thought I would retire early. Now after buying the house and the collapse of the US economy my investments and cash reserves are all but gone. I’ve rented out the four extra bedrooms of our home to help pay the mortgage, car payments and other bills- and we/ I’m now almost three months behind on our mortgage payments.

    Two and a half years ago we were both on top of the world. Each night before I go to bed I look at a suicide kit that sits at the bottom of my night stand. Each night I pray and ask for God’s help. If they end-up taking our house… they can also take my body out in a body bag. I’m way too old to start over. I’ll never find another love of my live like Kaz. And I don’t plan on looking for one ever again.

  9. william

    This is a must pass bill. I am old now and can’t move to other countries to live with my partner. We just wanna live in my homeland with my partner. May God Bless the USA and his gay and lesbian children!

  10. K.S.

    I’m only 23 years old (Canadian), and I feel like my heart was just ripped out of my chest, and I’m currently going through major depression symptoms because I recently had to breakup with my girlfriend of 4 years who is an American Citizen.

    I loved her with everything that was in me, and still do… but we couldn’t stay together because of the American Immigration system.

    My ex-girlfriend 🙁 and I met and fell inlove in Canada in the summer of 2005 and maintained a long distance relationship for a year until it just didn’t work for us anymore and we just needed to be together without 2000 miles seperating us. So I came out to California from Canada in the summer of 2006 to attend school, but due to the fact that I was an international student I had to pay tution that was the equilvalent of the cost of 4 american kids going to the same University I went to. I was not permitted to work off campus and campus jobs were very hard to obtain for international students because of immigration red tape. Suffices to say that after one year of school I could not affoard to go back the following simester to finish my school.

    And so my student visa expired… but I loved her so much I couldn’t leave and end our relationship so I stayed in the country illegally so that we could stay together.

    Because I couldn’t work it put a huge financial strain on our relationship, she was working and paying all the bills, and because I couldn’t leave the country for fear of not being able to return to my girlfriend I was not able to see my mother and sister, who I am very close to for the last 3 years.

    My immigration status plagued me daily and I felt guilty everyday of the strain I put on her, so I ended the relationship and let her go because we could not be legally and comfortably together because of the US’s refusal to recognize gays as people too.

    I have lost the love of my life, I will nevr love anyone like I love her again.

    So now I’m here, I have built a life in california and I have friends that are like family and I do not want to up root, so now I’m caught in a situation where I will have to de-nounce my sexuality in order to find a husband so that I can stay in the place that I have grown to love.

    Whenever I sit down and think about my situation I cry and sometimes have thoughts about ending my life because the pain of being away from her is so great, but I couldn’t put her through this anymore, and I just want to feel safe and secure and have the luxuary of visiting my family in canada without worrying about being denied entry upon my return to the U.S..

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