UAFA would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow American citizens in same-sex relationships with people living in other countries to sponsor their partners for immigration to the United States, a policy currently reserved only for heterosexual married couples.
The legislation has been introduced in Congress in every session since 2000, but has never been voted out of committee and never been considered in a committee hearing.
Testifying at the hearing in favor of the bill were individuals such as Shirley Tan, whose family’s struggle against U.S. immigration laws has made international headlines.
Tan, a native of the Philippines, currently lives in California with her partner of 23 years and their twin 12-year-old sons, but is facing deportation if UAFA does not pass. California’s legislature passed stand-alone legislation in April granting Tan a temporary stay in the United States until the end of the current Congressional session.
Tan related her story to the committee, describing how immigration officials came to her home in January to present her with a deportation letter and summarily handcuffed her and took her away. One of Tan’s sons became emotional during his mother’s testimony, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Va.), chair of the committee and prime sponsor of the bill, told the boy that his “mother is a very brave woman” and that he “should be very proud of her.”
The Advocate reported that during this exchange, committee member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) grumbled, “Enough with the histrionics.”
Also testifying was Gordon Stewart, an American who moved to the United Kingdom to be with his Brazilian partner.
“I love my country, I love my family, and I think it is unfair that I have to choose between my partner and my family and the country that I love,” Stewart said.
Leahy related to the committee that the situation faced by Stewart and Tan is one that has played out countless times in the country.
“For too long, gay- and lesbian- American citizens whose partners are foreign nationals have been denied the ability to sponsor their loved ones for lawful permanent residency,” Leahy said. “Under current immigration law, many citizens have been forced to choose between their country and their loved ones. No American should face that choice.”
Immigration Equality, which works for equal rights for LGBT individuals in U.S. immigration laws, estimates there are about 36,000 same-sex bi-national couples who are struggling with that decision.
Julian Bond, chairman of the board of directors of the NAACP, noted the Immigration and Nationality Act needs to be updated to account for evolving notions of the term “family.”
“For the most part, our nation’s current immigration laws promote family unity,” he said, noting, however, that “the definition of ‘family’ should not be interpreted so stringently as to omit people who are in loving, committed relationships but happen to be of the same gender.”
Testifying against the bill were Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an organization that opposes the expansion of immigration in order to control population growth, and Jennifer Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. Vaughan argued that it would be too difficult to distinguish between credible same-sex relationships and individuals who would take advantage of the law to gain entrance to the country.
Christopher Nugent, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s immigration committee, refuted those claims — which have long been echoed by opponents of the bill — detailing the requirements needed to qualify for “permanent partnerships,” such as financial interdependence, exclusivity, absence of a close blood relationship and the intent to remain in a life-long commitment with one another; and the penalties, including fines and jail time, if fraud is discovered.
Leahy introduced UAFA in February and the bill currently has 19 cosponsors. The House version, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), has 105 cosponsors, including local Reps. Michael Doyle (D-14th Dist.) and Chaka Fattah (D-Second Dist.). U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-First Dist.) also signed on to the bill this week.
Nadler, along with committeemembers Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), voiced their support for UAFA during the hearing.
Leahy, Schumer, Specter and Sessions were the only committemembers, out of 19, who attended the hearing.
In an interview with the Washington Blade last month, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, postured that LGBT activists “don’t have a shot” at passing UAFA this session, asserting that there aren’t enough votes to favor the bill as stand-alone legislation.
Also this week, U.S. Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) introduced the Reuniting Families Act, a broader immigration-reform bill that includes UAFA.