Will LGBT Binational Couples Be Included in Immigration Reform?


February 15, 2013; SourceMetro Weekly

Last week, two bills that address the plight of gay binational couples were introduced in Congress. Gay U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, unlike their straight peers, are not able to sponsor spouses or partners for green cards because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Family Equality Council, an organization that represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) parents and their children, points out that there are more than 36,000 binational couples in the country, about half of whom are raising children. These families run the risk of being torn apart by limited immigration options under the current system.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced that they would reintroduce the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which seeks to eliminate the discrimination suffered by LGBT families under immigration law. The following day, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Reuniting Families Act (RFA), which aims to shorten the long wait times for family-sponsored visas and also allows gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born partners.

“Our family-based immigration system has not been updated in 20 years, separating spouses, children and their parents, who have played by the rules for years,” Honda said in a statement. “My proposed legislation is in line with American family values and with our need to grow our economy and save taxpayer money. American workers with families by their side are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those distanced from loved ones for years on end. Our country deserves an immigration system that honors and supports key family values, like keeping families intact.”

“Family is the universal source of success and happiness for people of all faiths, nationalities, and sexual orientations,” said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBT immigrants. “With family by your side, every American and every newcomer can work hard, study, and achieve.”

It is highly unlikely that either legislation will gain enough support to pass through both chambers of Congress. Instead, the best solution for LGBT immigrant families might be their inclusion in any comprehensive immigration bill. President Barack Obama’s immigration plan includes LGBT families, but the Senate’s bipartisan plan does not.

Many conservatives have expressed opposition to any law that would make allowances for gay binational couples and their families. It remains to be seen whether there may be enough equality-minded lawmakers in Congress to stand up for the rights of LGBT immigrant families.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Nonprofit Newswire

Will Immigration Reform Be Comprehensive and Inclusive?

Pelosi and Boehner. (Photo: Flickr/talkradionews)

Republican leadership in Congress now appears to be on board with immigration reform, shocked into action by the potency of the Latino vote and awakened to a new political order that includes people of color. But will reform be truly comprehensive, offering a path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized immigrants? Will it be inclusive, embracing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrant families?

Speaker Boehner, supported by talking heads who dramatically “evolved” on the issue a day after Gov. Romney’s drubbing, seems determined to fix our immigration system and address the plight of our undocumented neighbors. There are those in the GOP however, who bristle at the idea of a compromise that goes beyond tighter border enforcement and visas for much needed scientists and farm workers.

While I remain skeptical about any major legislation breaking Washington’s congressional impasse, comprehensive immigration reform is conceivable if both parties harken back to the day, not too long ago, when they actually agreed on a comprehensive immigration framework. I am concerned however that along the way, gay binational couples will be thrown under the bus as lawmakers “compromise.”

Steve Ralls, Director of Communications at Immigration Equality assures me that this is unlikely to happen. Immigration Equality has been at the forefront of pushing immigration reform that is both comprehensive and inclusive.

“All signs are pointing to an immigration reform effort early in the new Congress,” Ralls said. “Immigration Equality is confident we can ensure that effort will include LGBT binational families. The combination of steadfast allies on the Hill; a president who has vowed to end the separation of our families; and a vigorous grassroots mobilization makes us more optimistic than ever that we can win this within the next year.”

His confidence stems from having key lawmakers such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the side of LGBT immigrant families.

“Leaders on immigration and LGBT issues – such as Congressman (Jerrold) Nadler (D-NY), Congressman (Mike) Honda (D-CA), Congresswoman (Zoe) Lofgren (D-CA) and Congressman (Luis) Gutierrez (D-IL) – have committed that they will work for an inclusive bill,” he added. “And in the Senate, any immigration reform measure will first have to be approved by the Judiciary Committee before moving to the full Senate for a vote.”

The Judiciary Committee is chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), a lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)which brings equality to gay couples under immigration law. Senator Leahy has promised that only an inclusive bill will leave his committee, and that he will work hand-in-hand with other lawmakers – including Republicans – to make that a reality.

One of these Republicans is Senator Susan Collins. When asked whether Senator Collins would support an inclusive immigration reform bill, her office sent a statement reiterating her commitment to UAFA.

“This legislation would simply update our nation’s immigration laws to treat bi-national couples equally,” Collins said. “More than two dozen countries recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. This important civil rights legislation would help prevent committed, loving families from being forced to choose between leaving their family or leaving their country.”

Another key player is the president himself who received overwhelming support from LGBT and immigrant communities in his bid for reelection.  Mr. Obama has signaled action on immigration in 2013.

“Immigration Equality’s team has already started reaching out to our key allies – on the Hill, in the Administration and among LGBT and immigration advocacy organizations – to ensure we have the public support, Congressional votes and allied support we need to get an inclusive bill introduced and passed,” Ralls said. “The seismic shift on LGBT and immigrants’ rights issues that has taken place in Washington and across the country makes us believe that passage of an inclusive bill isn’t just possible, but indeed is likely.”

Let’s hope so.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, November 19, 2012 and the Huffington Post, November 20, 2012.

That’s My Issue: Binationals and Gay Marriage

that's my issue square logo

On March 9, 2010, lesbian and gay couples were finally able to legally wed in the District of Columbia. On April 5, John and I finally got married, eleven and a half years after we moved in together.

Friends and family were happy for us. Many were relieved. Our “problem” was solved.

Like most immigrants, I came to the United States with my American dream. I was going to work hard, improve my lot, and give back. I was going to live openly and with integrity. I was also going to fall in love, settle down, and have my own family.

For the most part, I have been fortunate and have done okay. I am working part-time while completing a doctoral degree. I volunteer and help out when I can. I am doing what I love and believe that in my small way I am making a difference. Best of all, I have fallen in love, settled down, and started a family with someone whom I share the same faith and core values.

Until we had the freedom to marry, John and I did our best to get whatever legal protections were doled out to same-gender couples. While living in New York, we registered as domestic partners. Upon relocating to Washington, we again signed up as domestic partners and eventually got a marriage license.

Although no one can deny the fact that we are a married couple, the hard and unfair reality is that our marriage license isn’t worth much outside the District. Because of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which precludes the U.S. government from recognizing lesbian and gay unions, we and thousands of other committed couples are denied over 1,100 benefits and privileges blessed upon straight couples. Only because of whom we love.

Even though we have been paying our taxes and contributing to Social Security, neither of us will be entitled to the other’s benefits. Anything we give or bequeath each other – property, money, and other material possessions – will be taxed. The list goes on.

My mother was among those who thought my marriage to John solved the problem. When I shared the news, she congratulated us and said “Great, so he should be able to sponsor you.”

Thanks to the vagaries of our immigration system, I still do not have a green card, a Damocles sword that has hung over our heads since we committed to each other fourteen years ago.  I may consider the United States my home, having lived here legally for over two decades, and in my heart feel American, but at the end of the day I am still technically a foreign visitor, a foreign student.

I explained to my mom that because immigration is a federal matter, John will not be able to sponsor me for legal permanent residency. If we were a straight couple however, I’d have a green card by now. In the meantime, the choice we face is to find some way to keep me here legally or leave friends, family, and country we love once I get my Ph.D.

Originally posted on WNYC It’s A Free Country, August 20, 2012.

Gay Binational Couples React to DHS Deportation Guidance

A protest against the Defense of Marriage Act in Chicago

A protest against the Defense of Marriage Act in Chicago. (Photo: Michael Lehet/flickr)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent guidance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys Thursday which clearly identified enforcement priorities among pending deportation cases. In short, it said who should be deported and who gets to stay.

The directive clarified the “Morton Memo” released last June which listed some factors ICE officers, agents and attorneys should consider when apprehending, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants.

Many immigrant advocate groups welcomed ICE’s new policy, which is intended to focus deportations on high-level criminal offenders. But gay binational couples and their advocates are up in arms because the new guidelines do not specify gay unauthorized immigrants married or partnered to American citizens as deportation cases that should be “carefully considered for prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis” by ICE .

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), released the following statement Thursday:

I am very concerned by the Administration’s failure to state in its written Guidance to ICE attorneys, released today, that families of LGBT binational couples should be treated equally, like all other families in America. While I appreciate prior commitments by DHS that LGBT family ties will be taken into account in immigration enforcement decisions — and that this will be explained to ICE agents — without such a directive in writing, there is a serious risk that such families could be wrongfully divided. With the Administration taking an otherwise positive step to make immigration enforcement fairer, it is extremely frustrating that families of LGBT binational couples remain at risk. I will be working to ensure that those families are also protected.

Steve Ralls, Immigration Equality’s Director of Communications told the Washington Blade that the omission of gay binational couples “isn’t just deeply disappointing; it is also detrimental to LGBT immigrants and their American spouses and partners.”

“By declining to address, in writing, the unique circumstances surrounding those couples, DHS has left too much room for interpretation and left too many couples vulnerable to separation,” Ralls said.

Judy Rickard, an American citizen married to a British national and the author of Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Lawis directly affected by ICE’s policy. Judy and her wife were hoping for deportation reprieve through the use of prosecutorial discretion by ICE attorneys. The exclusion of gay binational couples from the DHS guidelines has left Rickard disappointed and anxious.

“By not making clear and unambiguous directions to DHS and ICE employees, we are at risk for variations in interpretation of the procedures that have been ‘understood’ but unevenly applied already this year. If I were to be subject to the process without crystal-clear and enforceable directions, I would be in fear of separation. LGBT binational couples have been assured by President Obama, Attorney General Holder, Secretary Napolitano and Director Morton that we would not be in imminent danger of deportation, that our families would be kept together. Now, this move to create the language that will be used for agents across the country leaves us out and that does not bode well for how things will go. I am upset and fearful for us all,” Rickard said.

Lin McDevitt-Pugh, an Australian national who lives with her American wife in the Netherlands where their marriage is recognized, also feels let down by the Obama administration.

“An American citizen should have the right to live in their own country, with their legal spouse,” she said. “This is the case for heterosexual couples, and not the case for homosexual couples. When love exile Bob Bragar met Presidential candidate Barack Obama, Obama asked why he lived in the Netherlands. When he heard that Bob could not live with his Dutch husband in the US, Obama said ‘That’s not fair, that’s really not fair.’”

McDevitt-Pugh and her wife moved to the Netherlands because they feel “wanted and honored” there. Gay marriage has been legal in the country since 2001. ”We don’t live in the US because we can’t,” she stressed. “We have been actively pushing for change in the US immigration law since 2002. Living in the Netherlands, we have tasted fairness. We like it. We want it in the USA. We want US immigration law to include same-sex permanent partners.”

As a foreign-born spouse of an American citizen myself, I am not disappointed only because this comes as no surprise. As a minority multiple times over —immigrant, gay, and of color—I realize that people like me have little political clout and are the first to be thrown under the bus.

I am also aware that full reprieve for binational couples like us will only come either through the repeal of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or passage of immigration bills such as the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). Neither of which will happen anytime soon because of the political stagnation in DC.

This does not mean that I or others in my situation are powerless or without hope for the future. We continue to speak out and tell our stories. We support and work with organizations and individuals who are committed to justice and equality for all people. We remind our neighbors of our nation’s founding ideals and appeal to our better angels.

We ask friends and family, especially those whom politicians and political parties listen and cater to, to be proactive.

Last week, while visiting my husband’s family in North Carolina, my sister-in-law asked me what she can do to help us. I told her that she could share our story and explain the challenges faced by thousands of gay binational couples to those who might not be aware of this injustice. I suggested that she contact her congressperson and senators and ask them to sign on to the repeal of DOMA and cosponsor UAFA. These politicians would at least welcome a straight, married, professional and church-going woman to their offices.

The omission of gay binational couples from DHS’ deportation guidelines is unfortunate, to say the least. All the more reason to keep the fight and not lose hope. History is on our side and we will prevail.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, November 21, 2011. Also reposted on WNYC It’s a Free Country, “DHS Deportation Guide Leave Questions for Gay Binationals,” Novmber 21, 2011; and Huffington Post Gay Voices, December 5, 2011.

The Michael Eric Dyson Show Interview: Immigrants and Gay Marriage

New York’s Gay Pride Parade last weekend was a bit more festive than usual, as participants also celebrated the legalization of same-sex marriage. The reaction was a bit more muted, however, for gay immigrants, who will still face some of the same hurdles when it comes to getting permanent residency for their partners. Erwin de Leon, columnist on immigrant and LGBT issues for Feet in 2 Worlds, an immigration news website, discusses the passage of same-sex marriage in New York and what it means for gay immigrants.

Click here to listen to the audio.

The Morton Memo on Immigration Enforcement: What About Gay Families?

John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), released a memo to employees of his agency to clarify how ICE personnel should use their time, energy and resources in deporting undocumented immigrants and more importantly, who among undocumented immigrants should be deported.

The memo augers well for some immigrants, particularly those who were brought to the United States as children. These are kids, teenagers and young women and men who know no other home and consider themselves American. Morton includes among “positive” factors which “should prompt particular care and consideration” minors and elderly individuals as well as individuals present in the United States since childhood.

As the foreign-born half of a gay binational couple, I can’t help but wonder how the memo would affect me, my spouse and thousands of other legally married or partnered couples like us.

Gay rights advocates have been quick to express their concern. Although ICE representatives are encouraged to consider whether an individual has a spouse who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, it is not clear whether this applies to lesbians and gays. Immigration status is a federal matter, and legal gay marriages and civil unions are not recognized by the U.S. government thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration equality argues:

“While ICE has taken a significant step in recognizing that tearing families apart should not be a government priority, it must be explicit that lesbian and gay families are protected, too.”

She adds, “Given the absence of any LGBT family recognition at the federal level, the decision not to explicitly include our spouses and partners in the ICE memo is striking.”

The Morton memo nonetheless leaves me cautiously optimistic, since it has additional criteria that can be read as benefiting gay immigrants and their families. ICE personnel, for instance, are advised to take into account whether a person has a child or is the main caretaker of an ill spouse.

Fact is however, ICE employees are all too human and “prosecutorial discretion” can easily be influenced by a person’s background, political and religious beliefs, and deep-seated biases. Those who believe that all people should be treated equally and fairly will most likely execute the memo’s guidelines mindful of gay families. Those who are prejudiced against gays can choose to judge harshly.

This can be the case not only with lesbians and gays but with immigrants in general. Racism and nativism can surface alongside homophobia.

While the Morton memo is a step forward, it is merely an exhortation, not by any means an enforceable regulation or law. The disclaimer at the end makes it very clear that ICE personnel still can and will deport undocumented immigrants.

Until LGBT-inclusive comprehensive immigration reform is passed, what is needed is an executive order that halts the deportation of foreign-born spouses and recognizes gay marriage and domestic partnerships for immigration purposes. Ultimate resolution of the plight of gay binational couples can only come through federal legislation such as the Uniting American Families Act or the Reuniting Families Act which seek to treat LGBT families equally and fairly. Or through repeal of the patently unfair and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, June 23, 2011.