Thursday, July 09, 2009

Bi-National Gay Couples Cry Out for Security

This is an issue facing many LGBT Foreign Service families. Our heterosexual colleagues can fall in love overseas and get immigration visas for their spouses. IN fact, because of their service, heterosexual Foreign Service Officers can get what is referred to as "expeditious naturalization" for their spouses, meaning the spouse does not have to live in the U.S. the requisite amount of time before being naturalized.

Not so for LGBT folks in the Foreign Service. We are still often not allowed to bring our partners back to the U.S. if we want to do a D.C. posting (which is necessary to advance your career) unless we can get them a student visa or, if possible, a work visa. And forget retiring to the country you spent your life serving unless you plan to leave behind the partner who served it with you.

Bi-National Gay Couples Cry Out for Security

Shortly before dawn on Jan. 28, a knock at the door turned the idyllic life of Shirley Tan and her family upside-down.

Agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement handed a deportation letter to Tan, the stay-at-home lesbian mom of 12-year-old twin boys. Stunned, Tan, who describes herself as a "housewife," told the agents she had never before seen the letter, dated 2002.

"I was handcuffed and taken away, like a criminal," Tan recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which called a first-ever hearing to look into the outrageous harm done to gay bi-national families by locking them out of the protections built into immigration law for heterosexual spouses of U.S. citizens.

"I was put into a van with two men in yellow jump suits and chains, and searched like a criminal. ... All the while, my family was first and foremost the center of everything on my mind," Tan added, as her son Jashley wept so hard that Chairman Patrick Leahy temporarily halted the hearing.

"Young man," the senator said, "your mother is a very brave woman."

Tan testified that she had applied for asylum in the United States after the release in the Philippines of the man who had killed her mother and sister and brutally beaten her. She said she thought her slow-moving appeal was still pending.

Over the years, Tan had built a good life in Pacifica, Calif., with her American partner, Jay Mercado, their sons and their Catholic church, where the couple sings in the choir and Tan is a Eucharistic minister.

Because Mercardo (like their sons) is a U.S. citizen, she could sponsor Tan for permanent resident status if they were a heterosexual married couple.

According to the 2000 Census, 36,000 mixed-nationality same-sex couples are in the same boat.
Nearly half, 16,000, are raising children. (For more information, go to

Tan remains in her adopted homeland thanks only to a two-year reprieve arranged by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

It's wrong for partners of gay U.S. citizens to be so vulnerable. And it's long past time for Congress to help gay bi-national couples, many of whom now must live apart, connected only by cell phones and occasional visits.

The Uniting American Families Act, pending in the House and Senate, would fix the problem by recognizing gay "permanent partners" in immigration law.

The legislation — sponsored by heavy-hitters Leahy in the Senate and Jerry Nadler, who chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee — would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act so partners of gay U.S. citizens or of lawful permanent residents could legally settle here.

Eligibility rules — and the hefty penalties for fraud — would be virtually the same as for married heterosexuals. Nineteen countries — including Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain and Spain — have already taken such steps.

The Leahy-Nadler push recently got a boost when President Barack Obama put overhaul of the nation's broken immigration system on one of his White House's front burners.

If Congress finally passes immigration reform, the Leahy-Nadler fix might be folded into the overall package, finally giving the Tan-Mercado family and thousands of others the security they are crying out for.

As Tan told senators: "After 23 years building our life together, Jay and I know that our family is still at great risk of separation. We have a home together. Jay has a great job. We have a mortgage, a pension, friends and a community. We have everything together, and it would be impossible to re-establish elsewhere."

Basic fairness says they shouldn't have to try.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues. To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at

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