Hill Dems Boost Bi-National Couples

Bucking the GOP, two gay allies introduce legislation to redress immigration inequality

On June 21, two Capitol Hill Democrats introduced legislation that would make it legal for the foreign-born partners of American gays and lesbians to obtain legal U.S. residency.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, introduced the Uniting American Families Act, and in the Senate, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced a companion bill.

Similar congressional legislation has previously been called the Permanent Partners Immigration Act.

In the Republican-controlled Congress, the legislation stands an uphill chance at best, but its introduction, coming as it did during a month of gay and lesbian heritage celebrations, is clearly meant as a tribute to a core bloc of Democratic voters who have been targeted by a series of anti-gay legislative measures, including the Federal Marriage Amendment, which seeks to permanently prohibit same-sex marriage in the Constitution.

“This is a matter of fairness and compassion,” Nadler said at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the legislation. “Our immigration code recognizes that it’s excessively cruel to keep couples and families apart, and the Uniting American Families Act would simply extend that recognition to same-sex couples.”

Federal law permits only married heterosexuals to sponsor each other for citizenship. Nadler’s bill would add the words “or permanent partner” to the sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to married couples.

“Permanent partner” is defined in the bill as an adult individual in a lifelong, committed relationship with another adult. The partners must be financially interdependent, not married or in another partnership with a third person and legally disqualified from marrying the other person. Furthermore, the partners must not have a blood relation.

The legislation specifically disqualifies heterosexuals, whose foreign partners are legally entitled to marry and be conferred legal residence.

Nadler’s bill arrives on a Capitol Hill wary of expanding avenues for legal immigration.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House’s judiciary committee, where the bill will face hearings, recently sponsored the successful passage of the Real ID Act, a law that tightens the requirements under which asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the U.S., a measure that requires states’ motor vehicle departments to verify the immigrant status of all those applying for a driver’s license.

Matt McTigh, a public policy expert for the Human Rights Campaign, the capital’s gay and lesbian lobbying group, acknowledged that particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, “there’s not much of an appetite” with federal lawmakers for immigration reform.

“Even though some lawmakers might be wary to support it because of how they or their constituents view gay people, I think most opposition will come from those against expanding immigration rights,” said McTigh, who is HRC’s point person for the bill. Speaking candidly, he added, “It’s going to be an extremely hard uphill battle. But we have to introduce a bill, even if it won’t pass. It’s difficult to talk about a bill if you don’t introduce it. At least this way, you have a real reason to talk to members, to tell them how people are affected without this legislation, to try to get their support.”

In the past four congressional sessions, the Permanent Partner Immigration Act failed to win passage.

“We need the help of the rest of the gay community on this one,” McTigh said. “They need to write their congressmen and tell them why this is important.”

The House version has more than 80 co-sponsors, but only one Republican, Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is gay.

Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican, is a co-sponsor of Leahy’s bill. A spokesman for Chafee, Steve Hourahan, said the senator’s sponsorship reflects his belief that sexual orientation discrimination is morally wrong. Chafee “wants to level the playing field for gays and lesbians when it comes to civil rights, be it taxes, inheritance or immigration,” said Hourahan.

Outside a legally recognized marriage, immigration challenges for same-sex partners separated by national borders must be navigated with skill and sometime, even stretches of the truth.

Steven Boullianne and Olivier de Wulf, a San Francisco bi-national couple who spoke at Nadler’s press conference, illustrate the plight of many others in a similar predicament. Partners for 13 years after they met in Brussels, they are the adoptive fathers of two boys, Reese and Laurent. However, because de Wulf is not a U.S. citizen, he must return to Belgium every two years to renew his “permanent temporary visa,” an ambiguous status that can be renewed indefinitely but is fraught with the perils of less-than-permanent conditions.

Because the visa is based on de Wulf’s profession as a software businessman, he must show that his company has met a certain profit level every time he renews his visa.

“After 9/11 and the stock market crash, the economy went bad in San Francisco, and Olivier had his visa revoked in 2002,” Boullianne said. “It was only after a month of wrangling and appeals did we get it back.”

The worst part of it, according to Boullianne, is that de Wulf can never tell American immigration officials the real reason he wants to stay in the U.S.—to be with his family.

“If you do that, they consider you an overstay risk and will never grant you entry. It’s humiliating that you can’t tell anyone the number one reason you want to stay here,” Boullianne said.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act—which prohibits the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriage—precludes Boullianne and de Wulf from avoiding their problems by getting married in Belgium, where gays are allowed to marry but not adopt children.

At least 16 countries allow residents to sponsor same-sex permanent partners for legal immigration, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Immigration Equality, an LGBT immigration rights group, has estimated that based on the 2000 Census, there are 36,000 gay and lesbian bi-national couples in the U.S., “a number we consider an extreme undercount given the fact that many people are not willing to release their immigrant status or sexual orientation to the government,” said Adam Pedersen-Doherty, a policy expert at the organization.

“After ten years here, you’ve built a life,” Boullianne said. “You have your career, your house, your plants, your favorite restaurants, your friends, your kids’ teachers,” all facets of a typical American life that immigration officials can snatch away in “30 days,” said Boullianne, once they have “decided you have to go.”

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