Why We Need the Uniting American Families Act
U.S. CITIZENS or permanent residents currently have the right to petition for their heterosexual spouse to immigrate legally into the country. Same-sex unions confer no such rights. As of January 2010, there were over 36,000 binational couples in the U.S. living in the fear that a partner might be deported. Provisions in our current immigration reform are especially important for glbt families as this is the only chance they have of being treated fairly and having the same rights and protections as heterosexual families.
Current immigration law enforces strict penalties against glbt foreign nationals who remain in the U.S. illegally for more than a year. Penalties include deportation, a ten-year ban on re-entering the country, and denial of any claim to legalize their status. Nineteen countries allow their citizens to petition for same-sex immigration rights, but the U.S. is not one of them. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (doma), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, same-sex couples who have been legally married in U.S. states or in foreign countries are not able to immigrate based on this union.
There are few options for binational couples, none of them particularly desirable or commensurate with the options available to heterosexual couples. A binational gay couple can split up or they can live abroad, in which case the U.S. citizen is effectively living in exile with a foreign national. Observed the American Bar Association earlier this year: “Other options would require the couple to break the law: the couple could live underground or the gay foreign national could commit marriage fraud by marrying a U.S. citizen of the opposite sex in a ‘sham’ ceremony.”
The Uniting American Families Act (uafa) provision was written to eliminate discrimination in current immigration law by permitting partners of American citizens or permanent residents to apply for permanent legal status in the same way that heterosexual couples can. This provision is important not only for same-sex couples but also for any children they may have. Many same-sex couples fall in love while one is in the U.S. on a student or work visa. Going back to the country of origin for the partner whose visa expired is a possibility (as opponents of the uafa point out), but these countries often do not recognize the status of their children, who would then be forced to leave and re-enter the country every six months. This is extremely disruptive to the children and expensive for the family.
The uafa would create a new category of relationship called “permanent partnership,” which is recognized under the Immigration and Nationality Act. The rights provided would be similar to those under current local domestic partnerships, but not the same as the rights of married couples. However, it would allow glbt couples to apply for the necessary rights in order to stay legally in the U.S.
We are at a crossroads where comprehensive immigration reform is being written at this very moment. In order for this reform to be equal and truly comprehensive, we must include glbt couples and their families. The Unifying American Families Act isn’t being written to legalize gay marriage, as opponents have claimed. It has been written to allow glbt couples the right to be considered permanent partners and raise a family in the same way that heterosexual couples can.
Through the passing of the uafa, at least 36,000 glbt couples will be allowed to remain in the U.S., almost half of whom are in fact raising children here. We must pass this provision so that immigration policy can continue to fulfill one of its primary missions, which is to unify families.
Juliet Schiller is a doctoral student in education at the University of San Francisco.