Friday, May 11, 2007

The Anti Gay Bias Of U.S. Immigration Policy

On a cold night this past February, around 20 New Yorkers gathered in an upper west side brownstone to view and offer support to filmmaker Sebastian Cordoba and his latest project, a documentary film called “Through Thick and Thin.” The movie details the uncertain plights of seven bi national gay and lesbian couples, who, under current U.S. immigration laws, often face devastatingly difficult choices, including if and how to stay together.

The film takes on added relevance after Federal legislation was re introduced this past week in Washington that seeks to address the issues illustrated in the film.

Unlike heterosexual bi-national couples who can choose to get married, and then legally sponsor their spouse for immigration purposes, the legal options available for gay and lesbian bi national couples are virtually non existent, often resulting in daunting choices with uncertain outcomes.

“You meet somebody and you fall in love, maybe you move in together and then you both realize, that perhaps you’ll either have to move, or even worse, separate” said filmmaker Cordoba of a current common scenario among bi national same sex couples in the United States.

But, this past Tuesday May 8th, New York Representative Jerrold Nadler re-introduced the Uniting American Families Act, or UAFA, formerly known as the Permanent Partners Act or PPIA. If UAFA were passed into law, a new option would be opened for such couples.

UAFA would provide a mechanism under the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents in bi national same sex relationships to sponsor their foreign born partner for immigration benefits to the United States.

Under the UAFA, to qualify as a permanent partner, a person would have to show commitment, financial interdependence, exclusivity, the inability to marry in a manner that is “cognizable” under the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as the absence of blood relationship.

As current immigration law now stands, bi national same sex couples in the United States are sometimes forced to relocate to the country of the foreign partner, if that country offers immigration benefits to same sex partners, or, face long periods of separation or even still, face what some would say is a cruel and imposed breakup

“The most cruel form of anti-gay discrimination is to physically separate a couple from one another” said Rachel B. Tiven, a lawyer and Executive Director at Immigration Equality, a national organization that seeks to end discrimination in U.S. immigration laws.

She says current U.S. immigration laws create a situation by which the benefits of American citizenship are being denied because of one’s sexuality.

“The end consequence is that they lose the person they love the most in the world” said Tiven of scenarios where couples are forced to separate.

In 2006, after his organization Human Rights Watch compiled a 196 page report on the plight of same sex bi national couples in the United States, Scott Long, Director of the organization’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights program, said that “Discriminatory U.S. immigration laws turn the American dream into a heartless nightmare for countless U.S. citizens and their foreign partners.”

In the same report, Human Rights Watch noted that U.S. immigration policy has deeply rooted anti-immigrant policies where sexuality has long played an exclusionary role. For instance, from the McCarthy era until 1990, U.S. law barred foreign born lesbian and gay people from immigrating into the country.

Around 35,820 of the 594,394 “unmarried” same sex couples counted in the 2000 United States census included one U.S. citizen, and one non-citizen. According to a report by Gary J. Gates, Phd., at the Williams Project on Sexual Orientation at The University of California in Los Angeles, 79 percent of those bi-national couples include a foreign partner who comes from a country that does not provide immigration benefits to same sex couples.

Currently, 19 countries recognize partners of same sex couples for immigration purposes, including, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Spain Sweden and the United Kingdom.

But, in United States, the tone is not as accepting. In fact, some observers have gone so far as to warn gay foreigners with non-immigrant visas in same sex relationships, that they should avoid local domestic partner registrations, civil unions, commitment ceremonies or any other public acknowledgement of a coupling, because this would signal immigration officials that the foreign partner is planning, or desires to, stay in the country, which is grounds for deportation.

The current UAFA legislation introduced this past May 8, does not have any status outside of immigration laws. It would not create any kind of relationship recognition separate from the immigration benefits. In other words, the policy is not a step towards gay marriage, a fear expressed by those who oppose any legal sanctioning of gay couples.

As filmmaker Sebastian Cordoba points out, of those countries that do recognize same sex partners for immigration purposes, only three have legally sanctioned gay marriage.

One of the couple’s highlighted in Cordoba’s film are Mark and Fred of Harrisburg, New Jersey. Fred, a native of France, has been able to stay in the United States through work and student visas. But, when Fred’s last work visa came to an end, the couple, who have two children, faced tough choices, they would have to find an employer that would be willing to go through the process of sponsoring Fred, or the couple would be forced to move to France.

After a great deal of contemplation, the couple is planning on moving to France this summer.

“We don’t want to move to France, we do much better here in Harrisburg if we’re both working” and if we do move, “I won’t be able to work” which Mark worries will put a real financial strain on the family of four.

Mark, who’s been a registered Republican most of his life, often finds himself discussing his situation with conservatives. He says that he just deals with the facts based on tax and laws.

“I don’t go into the emotions” he said noting his argument doesn’t go near gay marriage or other hot button social issues. He speaks of the contribution Fred makes as an educator, teaching people a new language, and the fact that they both contribute to their community, pointing out that most of his friends and neighbors are heterosexual and don’t understand why the couple has to leave in order to obtain some sense of normalcy.

“Fred can’t work, even though he has his doctorate in education” noted Mark of his highly skilled partner who he can’t sponsor for a green card.

But, then, during the same conversation, basic human emotion seeps in, as Mark shares the pain and fear of what could happen to the couple and all they’ve tried to accomplish together “all I’m talking about is two people staying together, all we want is to just stay together” he said as his voice cracked.

“One of the rights of Americans is to pursue happiness” said Mark

“I don’t even have a chance to pursue it, if my partner and family is taken away from me, one of my fundamental rights is gone” he said of the current immigration laws that do not allow him to continue living life in the United States with his partner of 15 years.

And, Mark says he is concerned about his children, ages 3 and 6, who are used to life in small-town United States, and how the cultural adjustment to France will affect them.

Regardless, he says he’s exhausted from worrying about it all and has given up on the struggle to try and stay in the United States legally.

“The life if the fight is gone, which is sad for me” he said with a sigh.

Back in 1996 when the Senate approved and then President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, marriage for all purposes of the federal government was defined as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

A consequence of DOMA’s quick passage was the foreclosure of any possibility that foreign, permanent same sex partners of U.S. citizens could be recognized as “spouses” under current immigration laws.

The current legislation proposed by Congressman Nadler in the House (HR-3006) and Senator Patrick Leahy in the Senate (S-1278), would add “permanent partner” to sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act where “spouse” now appears.

On background, some political observers expressed some doubt that the law would see passage while the current administration is in office. But, they noted that with Democratic majorities in both houses, as well as increased public awareness of the often cruel outcomes that immigration policy bias has imposed, there was still hope.

So far, most Democrats appear to be on board with the current proposal including House Speaker Pelosi.

“The speaker supports Congressman Nadler’s efforts in this area and has co-sponsored the measure in the past” said Drew Hammill, Deputy Press Secretary for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

While most supporters of the bill agree, that part of the key to successful passage is the education of Americans about current policy, some worry that the gay community itself has not been exercising its own political activist connections in seeking eventual passage. They point out that current immigration policy is one of the most blatant, clearly spelled out examples of lesbian and gay inequality in the United States.

“The first thing is to tell gay people that this point in time, they are not equal to straight men and women in the United States” said Sebastian Cordoba.

“To educate America at large about this painful issue, is just too much for one little film” he said of his film “Through Thick and Thin”.

Cordoba hopes his film reaches, and inspires the gay community to be more actively involved in politics, and that all Americans who see it are able to relate to the basic human emotions communicated by its subjects.

If the tears flowing down faces at the viewing this past February were any indication, the film’s doing its job in showing the devastating impact that politics can have on human beings and their day to day lives.

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