In his State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Barack Obama said, “We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system… and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.” A problem in the LGBT community is a great example of where we can start. Under current laws, gay citizens aren’t allowed to transfer citizenship to immigrant spouses like straight couples. This is an example of “our broken immigration system” and the passage of the Uniting American Families Act would be a great first step to fix it.
Meet Gordon Stewart. Stewart is an American citizen who currently lives in the United Kingdom with his partner of more than nine years, Renato. Renato lived with Stewart in 2003 while he was studying in the United States, but had to return to his home in Brazil when his visa expired. He was unable to get it renewed, and Stewart could not sponsor his partner because they were not married or otherwise related.
After years of continuing their relationship on two continents, the couple decided to move to the United Kingdom, where they could live together. However, in his testimony before Congress in June, Stewart (who traveled to testify alone because Renato is still unable to get so much as a tourist visa to the United States) explained the reality of this situation.
“I am furious that we can not visit or live together in the US,” Stewart said. “Despite the fact that I am a tax-paying, law-abiding and voting citizen, I feel discrimination from my government…I would like to be able to come home; I should have the right to come with my partner to visit or to live; but we can’t.”
Sadly, Stewart’s story is not unique. Shirley Tan, whose stay in the United States is currently contingent on the existence of a private bill by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, is dealing with the same situation, and faces deportation to the Philippines if the Uniting American Families Act does not pass while the 111th Congress is in session. Tan has lived in the United States for more than two decades, and she and her partner have two sons. The family goes to church, the parents are involved in the school, and the kids get good grades. Essentially, they are exactly the type of person that most Americans would want in this country. However, because Tan and Mercado cannot get married, Mercado cannot sponsor Tan for citizenship.
The Uniting American Families Act would right these injustices, as well as rescue the lives of thousands of Americans who are risk deportation because they cannot get married. UAFA would change the wording of the Immigration and Nationality Act, adding the words “permanent partner” and “permanent partnership” after the words “spouse” and “marriage” to relevant parts of the bill. This would allow immigrants who are in long-term committed relationships to have a pathway to citizenship in the same way that heterosexual couples can, and those who violate the law would face the same penalties as their heterosexual counterparts, including up to five years imprisonment or a fine of $250,000.
Though some may think that fraud would increase with the passage of UAFA, it is not unfounded to believe that many homosexual couples could prove — just as their heterosexual counterparts can — that they are part of a committed, long-term relationship. After Renato was denied entry to the United States, for example, Stewart commuted to Brazil from New York every other weekend for more than a year. When the financial burden of this task became too much to bear, the couple moved to England, where they could still be together. Though most heterosexual couples are never asked to do things this extreme, the strength of their commitment is never questioned.
The United States would not be unique by providing immigration rights for homosexuals with the passage of UAFA. Eighteen countries have similar laws, and these countries include Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, Spain, South Africa, Germany, and France.
UAFA has been introduced in every Congress since 2000, and has never made it out of the Senate Judiciary committee. This bill affects far too many people for it to fail again, and must either pass on its own or be included in any comprehensive immigration reforms considered by the 111th Congress.
Gordon Stewart is an American citizen. He votes in elections, abides by laws, and pays taxes from abroad. As such, he is guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So is Jay Mercado, Shirley Tan’s partner of over twenty years. Neither of them, however, will have the right to the pursuit of happiness until the passage of the Uniting American Families Act.
Elyse Toplin is a sophomore in Newcomb-Tulane College. She can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.