By Steve Ralls
Congress has promised to begin the process of reforming America's broken immigration system later this year. There is widespread consensus that reform is urgently needed, and a growing insistence among lawmakers that any reform effort must adhere to our nation's long-standing commitment to family unification. Under current immigration law, millions of families remain separated because of inexcusable visa backlogs, unnecessary bureaucratic paper trails and discriminatory policies that do not recognize lesbian and gay families for the purposes of equal immigration rights.
For all of those families, time is of the essence. Every day, loved ones are forcibly separated from each other. For too many, the American dream is one that cannot yet be shared with their spouse, sibling or significant other.
This Friday, Congress will hold two briefings which signal the beginning of immigration reform efforts. Those two events -- one focused on family immigration policies and one on the much-needed DREAM Act -- will also be a starting point to ensure that critically important components of reform, like young people and families, aren't left on the Congressional cutting room floor.
So it's no mistake, and welcome news, that Friday's family immigration event will include a voice from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, too. And in the days leading up to that event, Members of Congress are speaking out in the press about the need to ensure that LGBT families are not left behind.
Friday's conversation on family immigration issues will include Steve Orner, a gay American citizen whose Indonesian partner was forced to leave the country -- earlier this morning -- because Steve is unable to sponsor him for residency in the United States. Steve and his partner were forced to sell the home they bought together because, under U.S. immigration law, they do not qualify as "family."
That would be news to Steve's 88-year-old father, Allen Orner, who will travel from Connecticut to Washington on Friday to join his son on Capitol Hill and tell Congress how the American immigration system has ripped his extended family apart.
"This has been devastating and very sad for the entire family," Allen recently said. "[Steve and his partner] bring such happiness to every gathering, cheerfulness to every event, as well as concern for anyone who is having problems. They are favorite uncles for the young people in our family. A loving, devoted couple, they bring much joy into our lives."
"Our family needs our missing spouse/son/brother/uncle back at the Thanksgiving table where he belongs," Steve's mother, Doris, added.
An estimated 36,000 LGBT binational families, like Steve's, are either already separated or facing separation soon.
That has led a growing chorus of lawmakers to publicly call for an end to discriminatory immigration policies that impact gay families. In two op-eds published this week in prominent Capitol Hill newspapers, three Members of Congress have called on their colleagues to join them in passing immigration reform legislation that will benefit all families, including LGBT families, too.
In Monday's issue of Roll Call, Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA), the lead sponsor of The Reuniting Families Act in the House of Representatives, wrote that the issue of inclusive reform is one that hits home for families across the country ... and in his home district, where Aung Moe and Vivek Jayanard are waiting for their wives to be able to obtain residency in the U.S. and Judy Rickard is preparing to leave the country in order to remain with her long-time partner, Karin."
Honda writes that "Judy Rickard will permanently leave America this November in an effort to keep her family together. Under U.S. law, she cannot be reunited with her partner, Karin Bogliolo, a UK national. Judy would have preferred to keep working at San Jose State University and sponsor Karin for residency in America, just as married heterosexual couples can. But U.S. law does not allow for that. Judy is taking early retirement from her 27-year employment at San Jose State. Facing reduced pension for the rest of her life, Judy is choosing Europe because our country will not let Judy and Karin live together. The result is a loss for my district and a loss for the university."
"In an effort to safeguard Aung's, Vivek's and Judy's families," Honda writes, "I reintroduced the Reuniting Families Act (H.R. 2709) in Congress to allow all Americans to be reunited with their families. I did so because I know that the more educated, legal and healthy immigrants become, the higher their income, the higher their taxes paid, and the fewer emergency and social services used.
"Furthermore, the more reunited immigrants are, and thus happier, the fewer dollars we lose in remittances to other countries."
"Failure to pass this legislation," the Congressman continues, "means failure to provide American workers with a critical support system. Families do together what they cannot do alone -- start family businesses, create American jobs and contribute more to this country's welfare."
"Failure is simply not feasible," he concludes. "We must seize every opportunity this year to get our economy back on track, and one clear way of doing so is to reunite America's workers with their families. The irony with anti-immigration sentiment, which fears a further recessed economy if liberal legislation passes, is that, in fact, it is more fiscally prudent to pass policy that legalizes, insures, employs, reunites and educates our immigrants."
And in today's issue of The Hill, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) call on lawmakers to support their bill, The Uniting American Families Act, and include the measure in upcoming immigration reform bills.
"This bill would grant same-sex couples the same immigration benefits -- and responsibilities -- as opposite-sex couples, under the same existing legal framework," they write. "It is cosponsored by 22 senators and 117 members of the House of Representatives and has the support of a diverse coalition of businesses and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the American Bar Association and the Anti-Defamation League."
"We must change the law to end the gratuitous cruelty being imposed on Greg, Jaime and the thousands of other couples just like them around the country," the two continue. "We urge Congress to incorporate UAFA into the forthcoming comprehensive immigration reform. No immigration reform we enact can be truly comprehensive unless it also addresses this deprivation of the civil rights of bi-national families. There is no rational reason to continue this discriminatory treatment. It is long past time that Congress did something about it."
Those words are welcome news to Steve Orner's mom, who notes that, "[T]his is not just Steve and Joey's story. It's the story of tens of thousands of others caught in the same situation."
"I hope that when Congress realizes this discrimination is bringing such pain to families like ours," she added, "they will act to remedy the situation."
As Congress begins to debate immigration reform, all of our families -- gay and straight -- can stand together to ensure that none of us are left behind. If we do, Aung Moe and Vivek Jayanard can welcome their wives to the U.S., and Steve Orner can bring his partner back home.
It's a win-win situation that makes countless families' lives immensely better.