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Congress Considers Bill Allowing Equal Immigration Rights For Gay Couples

By L. K. Regan

Soon after the election, President-elect Obama promised change on LGBT civil rights. Now, an early piece of legislation central to those issues is being introduced to Congress this week. At stake: equal immigration rights for gay and lesbian couples.

In 16 countries, citizens can sponsor their same-sex permanent partners to become legal residents. Not in the U.S., however, which means that unmarried partners of U.S. citizens—including same-sex partners—cannot legally live in the States. In fact, the U.S.'s Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing any union other than that between one man and one woman as a marriage, prevents even those same-sex couples legally married in California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Canada or the Netherlands from being legally recognized for immigration purposes. This legal situation forces horrible choices, between illegally staying in the country, living in forced separation, or unwillingly emigrating (assuming the couple can find a country to host both of them).

In response, New York representative Jerrald Nadler, along with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (both Democrats), in 2007 introduced the Uniting American Families Act, which allows for permanent partners of U.S. citizens, including same-sex couples, to gain the right to residency in the U.S.. The bill would simply add the words "or permanent partner" to current immigration law every time the word "spouse" appears. The bill failed on Republican dominated Capitol Hill at that time. Today, Congressmember Nadler intends to reintroduce it in the hopes of finding better favor under a new administration and new congressional leadership.

The U.S. issues one million green cards annually, giving non-citizens the right of residence. According to the ACLU, 75 percent of those go to family members of Americans, and of that 75 percent most are spouses. None, however, are same-sex spouses. Even so, the 2000 census notes that fully six percent of the U.S.'s same-sex partnerships are between a citizen and a non-citizen. And that is in the absence of legislation permitting legal immigration for such couples! Clearly, the Uniting American Families Act could do a great deal of good for those couples, if passed. But—will it pass?

In its first trip through Congress in 2007, the bill picked up 118 co-sponsors. In the Senate, however, then-Senator Obama was not a co-sponsor. On the campaign trail last year, candidate Obama spoke of his support for the bill, and a desire to improve it. What that would mean is a subject of some debate. In 2007, when the bill first came through Congress, an Obama supporter sent the activist gay blog Citizen Craine a letter from an Obama campaign representative explaining that Obama was concerned about security issues with the present bill. As the representative's letter read, "Precisely because same-sex couples are not allowed to enter into civil unions, domestic partnerships, or other legally-recognized unions throughout the country, [Obama] believes we need to make sure that we have adequate safeguards against fraud." In sum, as an effect of gays' and lesbians' inability to marry—itself a result of discriminatory policy—an immigration system that recognized same-sex partnerships would effectively discriminate against straight couples by forcing them to meet a higher bar for immigration than gay couples. Or, as the Obama representative more delicately put it, "He would like to see the Act get more specific with regards to defining 'financial interdependence' and the documentation required as proof in order to establish relationships." In other words, since gays can't marry, how does one prove they are truly couples?

All of this tortured reasoning indicates that, in the absence of a federal answer on gay and lesbian marriage, there is not likely to be an easy solution to immigration for same-sex couples. What are couples of different nationalities to do? While you wait for answers, here are the 16 countries that allow citizens to sponsor same-sex partners; hopefully one person in your relationship hails from someplace on the list: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.