Family unity, redefined

By Michelle Chen Jun 03, 2009

Immigration and LGBT rights seem like two political third rails that wouldn’t cross in Washington. But a Senate hearing today discussed legislation that would elegantly fuse the two, by equalizing immigration law for same-sex partners. The Uniting American Families Act would remove major legal barriers currently facing binational same-sex couples with citizen or permanent-resident partners, allowing individuals to sponsor immigrant partners for legal status. According to Immigration Equality, there are reportedly about 36,000 binational same-sex couples nationwide, nearly half of whom are raising children in their homes. The Senate testimony of Shirley Tan, a Filipina immigrant who has raised two sons in the United States with her partner, who is a citizen, describes how the threat of deportation may loom even heavier for same-sex couples:

In an instant, my family, my American family, was being ripped away from me. And when I did return home, I had an ankle monitoring bracelet. I went to great lengths to hide it from my children. I have a partner who is a U.S. citizen, and two beautiful children who are also U.S. citizens, but not one of them can petition for me to remain in the United States with them. Because my partner is not a man, she cannot do anything to help me. Nor can my children, who keep asking why this happened to us and what will ultimately happen to our family.

This bill promises plenty of cannon fodder for the anti-immigrant, anti-gay right. Yet it could be a platform for further bridging the marriage-equality movement with civil rights and immigrant rights struggles. There are also nuances within the immigration debate surrounding the treatment of LGBT individuals, especially on human rights and asylum claims. In one case reported on the Law Profs blog, a Moroccan man’s asylum claim was initially denied on the grounds that he just didn’t seem homosexual enough to incur persecution in his home country. Yet those systemic biases didn’t stop anti-immigrant activists from trying to rattle fears that the legislation could open the floodgates to fraud, by people posing as same-sex partners and slipping through legal loopholes. Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies told Senators:

There is no mechanism to officially recognize or sanction "permanent partnerships", at least not in more than a few states and foreign countries, that consular officers and USCIS adjudicators can rely on to determine the eligibility and legitimacy of individuals who are applying for benefits.

(One way to deal with the legality problem, of course, would be uniform, federally based recognition of same-sex marriage or domestic partnership. But if the goal is excluding more immigrants, why change irrational policies that serve as a convenient pretext for rejection?) Immigration equality for same-sex couples wouldn’t stem structural discrimination in U.S. society or abroad, much less fix the overall dysfunctionality of the immigration system. But in the policy world, it would help demonstrate that an inclusive society embraces a global concept of family: one that stretches across national borders, and thrives in a full diversity of forms. Image: AFP