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Immigration bill would protect same-sex couple where one partner is not a U.S. citizen

The proposed Uniting American Families Act would allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration purposes.

In some states, gay couples can marry. Other states allow for same-sex civil unions. But for gay and lesbian Americans who fall in love with non-U.S. citizens, both categories are meaningless.

“The federal government doesn’t recognize the immigrant partners for the purposes of allowing them to stay in the country,” says Monica Meyer, public policy director for OutFront Minnesota.  “Even in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the couples who have been married there do not have access to the rights that have been given to straight couples.”

The Uniting American Families Act (PDF) would change that. The bill — introduced just before Valentine’s Day — would allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration purposes.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., first introduced the bill in 2000 as the Permanent Partners Immigration Act. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., brought the companion bill to the Senate in 2003, and although the bill has never passed, the number of co-sponsors has grown steadily.

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison

So far, the 2009 bill has 84 co-sponsors in the House, including Minnesota Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum. The Senate version has 14 co-sponsors. “And this is just at introduction,” said Julie Kruse, policy director at Immigration Equality.

To take advantage of the Uniting American Families Act, a couple would have to provide evidence of financial interdependence and other signs of a lifelong commitment, and there would be penalties for immigration fraud. But the bill doesn’t mention same-sex marriage, turn same-sex couples into “spouses” or have any legal impact beyond immigration status.

“It’s very clear on that,” Kruse says. “It would treat a permanent partner as an immediate relative similar to a spouse or child or parent.”

Kruse’s organization estimates that there are 37,000 bi-national same-sex couples in the United States, 46 percent of them with children.

Meyer says the Uniting American Families Act fits in well with OutFront Minnesota’s top priorities for this year. “It really is about taking some of the laws that have the biggest impact on our relationships and trying to undo that discrimination.”

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum

After introducing the bill, Nadler expressed cautious optimism. This is the first year the Uniting American Families Act has any chance of succeeding, he said in a media call, because under Bush, a veto was more or less guaranteed. And support is growing.

Immigration reform, however, remains a sticky and controversial issue, so even if permanent partnership makes it into a larger immigration bill, it will still be an uphill battle.

But Kruse is determined to at least make sure that gay and lesbian partnerships are part of the conversation on comprehensive immigration reform: “We think comprehensive is not comprehensive if it doesn’t include our families.”

You can read stories about the struggles of bi-national same-sex couples here at the website of the Love Exiles Foundation.