Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Uniting American Families--Equally and Fairly

This morning, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held its first ever hearing on LBGT discrimination in family immigration law.

The hearing in particular examined the Uniting American Families Act (S.424), a bill which would afford equal rights to same-sex partnerships under U.S. immigration law by allowing U.S. citizens and permanent residents to petition for their foreign-born partners under the family immigration system. Testifying were two bi-national same sex couples--one who has been issued orders of deportation that would separate her from her partner of 23 years and her twin sons and another who has moved abroad to be with his partner. Also testifying was a representative of the American Bar Association.

To share a couple of the key points of the testimony:

Gordan Stewart, a man who sold his family farm in Vermont and moved to London where his partnership with a Brazilian man would be recognized said--

"The United States' discriminatory immigration laws have also affected my extended family. I am lucky to have five siblings. In August, I will attend my niece's wedding in California. It will be a big family reunion but my partner will not able to join us. Renato cannot even get a tourist visa to visit the US. Imagine what that means.

If I want to be with my family for important occasions such as weddings, graduations, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the recent baptism of my godchild, I have to travel alone and leave Renato in London. Or if we want to celebrate an important occasion together, it is usually the two of us alone, far away from our family and close friends.

Recently, when my sister was diagnosed with cancer, Renato could not travel with me to visit her and I could not spend as much time with her as I wanted because I live and work in London. That is the reality of our life together.

Last year, I reluctantly and sadly sold our family farm in Goshen, Vermont because I cannot vacation there with Renato. Our family had the farm from when I was 6 years old, and our parents both died and were buried there. Imagine what it is like to own a property to which you cannot travel with your partner. It is impossible to maintain a 19th century farmhouse from the other side of the Atlantic. That is the reality of American immigration law for couples like us."

Shirley Tan, a Phillipino woman married to a US citizen who has two twin boys and cares for her partner's elderly mother shared--

"Our lives, I can say without any doubt, were almost perfect until the morning of January 28, 2009. That morning, at 6:30 a.m., Immigration Custom Enforcement agents showed up at my door. They were looking for a "Mexican girl," and, having nothing to fear, Jay did not think twice about allowing them into our home when they asked permission to search it. It turned out they were really looking for me.

The agents showed me a piece of paper, which was a 2002 deportation letter, which I informed them I had never seen. Before I knew it, I was handcuffed and taken away, like a criminal, as Jay's frail mother watched in hysterics. I was put into a van with two men in yellow jump suits and chains and searched like a criminal, in a way I have only seen on television and in the movies.

All the while my family was first and foremost the center of everything on my mind.

How would Jay work and take care of the kids if I was not there?

Who would continue to take care of Jay's ailing mother, the mother I had come to love, if I was not there?

Who would be there for my family if I was not there?

In an instant, my family, my American family, was being ripped away from me.

And when I did return home, I had an ankle monitoring bracelet. I went to great lengths to hide it from my children.

I have a partner who is a U.S. citizen, and two beautiful children who are also U.S. citizens, but not one of them can petition for me to remain in the United States with them. Because my partner is not a man, she cannot do anything to help me. Nor can my children, who keep asking why this happened to us and what will ultimately happen to our family.

Passage of the Uniting American Families Act, UAFA, will not only benefit me, but the thousands of people who are also in the same situation as I am. And so I respectfully submit to the committee today that changing the immigration laws of this country to include permanent partners will serve in the long run to keep families like ours together. Americans will be able to live at home with their partners rather than living in fear or in exile."

One of the most encouraging points of the hearing was the emphasis that this bill is simply a matter of civil rights. As Senator Russ Feingold quoted the American Bar Association as saying, "The current failure to recognize same-sex permanent partnerships for immigration purposes is cruel and unnecessary." Senator Patrick Leahy said "unequivocally that the issue of gay rights is an issue of civil rights." He then quoted Chairman Bond as saying, "Gay and lesbian rights are not special rights in any way. It isn't 'special' to be free from discrimination. It is an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship."

FCNL applauds Senator Patrick Leahy for holding this hearing. To read the written testimony that we submitted for the hearing, click HERE.

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