The US Senate held a first ever congressional hearing on GLBT immigration equality that would stop gay and lesbian families from being torn apart, on June 3.
Sen. Patrick Leahy ( D-Vermont ) introduced the Uniting American Families Act ( S. 424 ) earlier this year; it has 18 cosponsors. The bill would allow same sex couples the same immigration rights as married heterosexual couples. Passage of the bill is likely to be tied to overall immigration reform.
"The preservation of family unity is at the core of our immigration legal system. This American value must apply to all families … Federal policy should encourage rather than restrict our opportunity as Americans to sustain the relationships that fulfill our lives," chairman Leahy said in opening the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
He acknowledged the potential for fraud but thought that US immigration officials would be just as capable of identifying fraud committed by homosexuals as that committed by heterosexuals.
Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions ( Alabama ) complained that the bill would constitute "a redefinition of marriage," contrary to the Defense of Marriage Act ( DOMA ) , which was passed in 1996.
"It would create a federal recognition of same sex marriage, which reverses current law." While he acknowledged that people are free to create relationships of their choosing, Congress has decided to "draw the line" at special status only for traditional marriages.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler ( D- New York ) is the lead sponsor of companion legislation in the House ( H.R. 1024 ) , which has 102 cosponsors. He told the committee the current policy "means that tens of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans face a terrible choice between leaving the country to be with the person they love or remaining here in the United States and separating from their partner."
Shirley Tan's story illustrated that plight. The 43-year old mother of twin boys, 12 and US citizens, spoke of leaving the Philippines as a young woman, falling in love with Jay Mercado, and living in the San Francisco bay area town of Pacifica as a happy, productive family.
She applied for asylum in 1995 – a cousin had brutally murdered her mother and sister and she feared for her life when he was released from prison – and bureaucratic snafus ensued. She was arrested in January of this year by immigration authorities for ignoring a 2002 deportation letter that she had never received.
Tan remains in the country only through the actions of Rep. Jackie Speier ( D ) , who introduced her at the hearing, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose intervention has delayed her deportation for two years.
Tan's sons broke into tears as she recounted her ordeal and her fears of the family being torn apart if she is forced to leave the country.
That prompted Sen. Leahy to break into her testimony, speaking to the boys saying, "I just want you to know, your mother is a very brave women. You should be very proud."
Gordon Stewart's Brazilian partner Renato was denied reentry to the US in 2003 on a student visa, to continue law school. Stewart commuted to Brazil ever other weekend for a year and a half until his employer, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, arranged to transfer him to London, where both might live together.
Stewart has had to travel to family events alone as Renato cannot obtain even a tourist visa to visit the US. And last year Stewart sold the family farm in Vermont, where his parents are buried, "because I cannot travel there with Renato … Despite the fact that I am a tax-paying, law-abiding and voting citizen, I feel discrimination from my government."
Julian Bond, the lion of the civil rights movement, threw the support of the National Association of Colored People ( NAACP ) behind the legislation "because the NAACP strongly believes that the definition of 'family is not restrictive and can and should also include non-traditional family units." He is the chairman of the board of the group.
"Too much of the debate [ on immigration reform ] has focused on enforcement and undocumented workers," Bond said the NAACP feels strongly that the focus should be on a reinvigoration of the reunification of families.
Christopher Nugent spoke for the American Bar Association and its support for the bill. "The current failure to recognize same-sex permanent partnership for immigration purposes is cruel and unnecessary," he said.
Opposition came from Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, a grassroots group dedicated to reducing the number of immigrants to the US. He offered what often seemed to be a loopy combination of nativist and environmental arguments against the bill.
The gist of his argument was that immigration is the source of all population growth in the US, as the fertility of native-born is below the rate of replacement. And that is putting an intolerable burden on health and energy services and the environment.
Beck opposed the Bush administration's immigration reform efforts because "it added lots of green cards," the document issued to legal immigrants in the US.
Jessica Vaughan, with the Center for Immigration Studies, worried that creation of the "permanent partner" status would create an administrative and enforcement nightmare for those who have to implement the policy.
She said the bill "is addressing the issue from the wrong direction … The target really should be the Defense of Marriage Act, not the Immigration and Naturalization Act."
Supporter Sen. Charles Schumer ( D-New York ) argued, "What truly engenders fraud is the current broken system that lamentably places binational same sex couples in the dilemma of either being torn apart from their loved ones, or breaking the law." He chose to focus on "the sanctity of preserving the family structure in whatever form it may take."
A sunken-cheeked Sen. Arlen Specter noted that a number of states have moved forward with marriage equality and other forms of partner recognition with a rapidity that could not have been envisioned when DOMA was passed. "I believe it is entirely consistent to [ accord them ] equal standing, as a civil rights issue."
"I think Sen. Leahy's legislation goes in the right direction. I support it." Specter had not previously been a cosponsor of the bill.
"We are delighted that Sen. Specter announced his support," said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of the group Immigration Equality, which is pushing the issue. She declined to speculate on whether the legislation is more likely to move forward as a separate bill or as part of comprehensive immigration reform.
As to whether the large bill might move without a GLBT inclusive provision, she said, "We are fighting like hell to keep gay and lesbian families where they belong, which is in family immigration reform."