This month, Judy Rickard will permanently leave the United States in order to reunite with her partner, Karin Bogliolo, a UK national. To do so, she’s taking an early retirement and a reduced pension after twenty-seven years teaching at San Jose State University.
Because unlike nineteen other countries–including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, South Africa and the United Kingdom–the United States doesn’t recognize permanent same-sex partners for legal immigration. Since immigration is a federal matter, even married same-sex couples in states that recognize their marriages have no legal basis for an immigration claim.
“The result is a loss for my district and a loss for the university,” California Democratic Representative Mike Honda writes of Rickard’s departure in a Roll Call op-ed. “There are tens of thousands of lesbian and gay families for whom immigration reform cannot come soon enough,” says Steve Ralls, director of communications for Immigration Equality. “Every day, Immigration Equality hears from partners who are separated, or facing separation, because of our discriminatory immigration laws. Nearly half of those impacted are raising children.”
When it comes to family reunification, the antiquated immigration system is broken regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
“Our family-based immigration system has not been updated in 20 years,” writes Honda, who chairs the Congressional Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “With nearly 6 million people stuck in a perpetual wait, this is both insufferable and inexcusable. Five-year separations, keeping spouses, parents and children apart, are quite common; so are 20-year estrangements from siblings and elderly parents.”
That’s why Honda has reintroduced the Reuniting Families Act, which would address many of the obstacles to family reunification, including discrimination against nearly 36,000 binational, same-sex couples living in the United States.
The Reuniting Families Act would eliminate discrimination against permanent same-sex partners seeking to reunite. It would recapture immigrant visas lost to bureaucratic delays and mandate action on them within the next fiscal year, and reduce the backlog for families trying to reunite by classifying spouses and children of permanent residents as “immediate family” exempt from caps on family immigration. Currently, the visas issued to citizens of any one country cannot exceed 7 percent of the total number of visas issued by the United States; the bill would raise the cap to 10 percent (while most nations don’t reach the current 7 percent cap, it will make a big difference for countries like India and China that reach their limits very quickly). Honda’s bill also provides for equal treatment under all immigration laws for stepchildren and biological children.
These issues are also of particular concern to the Asian-American community and the caucus Honda chairs. In 2008, Asian immigrants received 39 percent of the 400,000 family immigration visas issued by the State Department, and 90 percent of legal immigration from Asia was family-based. Asian-Americans are also the most likely to have family members caught up in the visa backlogs, which now number 5.8 million people.
One LGBT activist I spoke with was pessimistic about likelihood of legal immigration for binational same-sex couples anytime soon. “The reunification bill has been around forever,” she said.
And she’s right. Representative Jerrold Nadler has worked on his Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) to address same-sex permanent partner immigration benefits for nine years. But as a senior aide for Honda notes, “This marks the first time UAFA has been included in a larger immigration reform bill.” That fact alone–that an LGBT issue is being considered as part of broader immigration reform–should be considered a progressive victory.
According to the aide, there is “a commitment” in both the House and Senate–where Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has also introduced the Uniting American Families Act–to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill early next year.
“Congressman Honda’s Reuniting Families Act will be a key component,” Honda’s aide says, “ensuring that family reunification remains a cornerstone of our immigration system.”
Honda’s bill now has seventy-five co-sponsors, and over seventy organizations–including civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups and faith communities–have endorsed it as well. Advocates also note that President Obama has committed to addressing discrimination against LGBT families through broader immigration reform legislation.
“Quick action by Congress may well mean the difference between [children] remaining in the United States with both of their parents, or having their families split apart,” says Ralls. “For them, time is of the essence and Congressional leaders like Mike Honda, Patrick Leahy and Jerrold Nadler have ensured that momentum is, at last, on their side.”
This momentum needs to carry into next year. Progressives should fight for this legislation just as hard as we have fought for a public option in healthcare reform. Not only will family reunification have a real impact on millions of lives, it will say much about the character of the United States as “a nation of immigrants” in the twenty-first century.
Tell your legislators to support the Reuniting Families Act in the House, and the Uniting American Families Act in the Senate.