|Olivier De Wulf, Steven Boullianne (and their sons Reece and Laurent), Congressman Nadler, Chris Labonte of HRC, and Adam Francoeur of Immigration Equality at Nadler?s press conference announcing the re-introduction of his bill.
This Tuesday, Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat introduced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) that would allow gay U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their partners for residency in the United States.
A companion bill was introduced on the same day in the Senate by Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. In previous sessions of Congress the bill was called the Permanent Partners Immigration Act.
â€śThis is a matter of fairness and compassion,â€ť Nadler said at a press conference announcing the legislation. â€śOur immigration code recognizes that itâ€™s excessively cruel to keep couples and families apart, and the Uniting American Families Act would simply extend that recognition to same-sex couples.â€ť
Currently U.S. law only permits only married couples to sponsor each other for citizenship. Nadlerâ€™s bill would add the words â€śor permanent partnerâ€ť to the sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to married couples.
â€śPermanent partnerâ€ť in this case is defined as anyone 18 or older who is in a committed intimate relationship with another individual 18 years or older which both parties intend as lifelong commitment; is financially interdependent with the other person; is not married or in another partnership with a third person; is not able to legally marry the other person; and is not a first, second or third degree blood relation.
The language means specifically that heterosexuals cannot use this law to sponsor partners for U.S. residency unless they marry them.
The bill comes at a time when there is considerable wariness over expanding avenues for immigration.
he chairman of the committee where UAFA will face hearings, James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, recently sponsored and passed the Real ID Act, a law that made it more difficult for asylum seekers to remain in the U.S., as well required state DMVs to verify the immigrant status of all those applying for drivers licenses.
â€śThereâ€™s not much of an appetite in Congress for immigration bills. Itâ€™s always a touchy subject, but since 9/11 itâ€™s become more so,â€ť said Matt McTigh, a public policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). McTigh is HRCâ€™s head lobbyist for Nadlerâ€™s measure. â€śEven though some lawmakers might be wary to support it because of how they or their constituents view gay people, I think most opposition will come from those against expanding immigration rights.â€ť
McTigh was also candid on the billâ€™s future. â€śItâ€™s going to be an extremely hard uphill battle. But we have to introduce a bill, even if it wonâ€™t pass. Itâ€™s difficult to talk about a bill if you donâ€™t introduce it. At least this way you have a real reason to talk to members, to tell them how people are affected without this legislation, to try to get their support.â€ť
In the past four sessions of Congress the Permanent Partner Immigration Act has failed to win passage. â€śWe need the help of the rest of the gay community on this one,â€ť McTigh said. â€śThey need to write their Congressmen and tell them why this is important.â€ť
The House version has more than 80 co-sponsors, but only one Republican, Jim Kolbe of Arizona. Senator Jim Chaffee, a Rhode Island Republican, is a co-sponsor of Leahyâ€™s bill. A spokesman for Chaffee, Steve Hourahan, said Chaffeeâ€™s sponsorship reflects his belief that sexual orientation discrimination is just wrong.
â€śThe Senator has been a major supporter of the LGBT community since the beginning. He wants to level the playing field for gays and lesbians when it comes to civil rights, be it taxes, inheritance or immigration.â€ť
Without legally recognized marriage, immigration is another murky area for gays and lesbians that must be navigated with skill and sometimes even stretches of the truth.
This was made evident by a San Francisco bi-national couple at the press conference, Steven Boullianne and Olivier de Wulf. The two men have been together for 13 years after meeting in Brussels. They are both the adoptive parents of two boys, Reese and Laurent. But de Wulf, because he is not a U.S. citizen must return to Belgium every two years to renew his â€śpermanent temporary visa,â€ť a strange term for a visa that has no final expiration date as long as the holder keeps it current.
Because the visa is based on de Wulfâ€™s status as an IT businessman, de Wulf must show that his company has met a certain profit level every time he renews his visa. â€śAfter 9/11 and the stock market crash the economy went bad in San Francisco, and Olivier had his visa revoked in 2002,â€ť Boullianne said. â€śIt was only after a month of wrangling and appeals did we get it back.â€ť
Boullianne also said that since the September 2001 terrorist attacks the bureaucracy and scrutiny one must get past in order to remain in the U.S. has gotten much tougher and much more intolerant of the reasons people want to stay. The worst part of it, according to Boullianne, is that de Wulf can never tell American INS officials the real reason he wants to stay in the U.S.: his family. â€śIf you do that, they consider you an overstay risk and will never grant you entry. Itâ€™s humiliating that you canâ€™t tell anyone the number one reason you want to stay here,â€ť Steve said.
The U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which prohibits the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriage also prevents Boullianne and de Wulf from avoiding these problems by getting married in Massachusetts or Europe.
At least 16 countries allow residents to sponsor same-sex permanent partners for legal immigration, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Immigration Equality, an LGBT immigration rights group, estimates based on the 2000 census that there are 36,000 gay bi-national couples in the U.S. â€śA number we consider an extreme undercount given the fact that many people are not willing to release their immigrant status or sexual orientation to the government,â€ť said Adam Pedersen-Doherty, Program Associate for Immigration Equality.
But even for people like Boullianne and de Wulf who have family in Belgium, being forced to move there someday because de Wulfâ€™s visa is revoked is not merely an inconvenience. â€śAfter 10 years here, youâ€™ve built a life,â€ť Boullianne said. â€śYou have your career, your house, your plants, your favorite restaurants, your friends, your kidâ€™s teachers. All these things that the INS gives you 30 days to back out of once theyâ€™ve decided you have to go.â€ť