Pass the Uniting American Families Act

What is remarkable is that soon they may be forced to choose whether they will separate or leave the United States in order to remain together as a committed couple.

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Greg and Jaime are both men, and Jaime, who was born in Argentina, is not a U.S. citizen. Because they are not a heterosexual couple, current immigration law does not allow Greg, who is a U.S. citizen, to sponsor Jaime for lawful permanent residence. When Jaime’s visa expires, in order to live together lawfully, they may have no choice but to leave the United States. This would mean abandoning their friends, Greg’s extended family and Jaime’s career. And then, where could they live together with immigration rights as a gay couple? Not Argentina.

Another couple, with the U.S. citizen a native of Vermont and his partner a Brazilian national, made this hard choice recently. The U.S. citizen was forced to sell his Vermont family farm and move to London in order to be able to live with his partner without violating immigration laws.

These couples are not alone. There are an estimated 36,000 other couples in America that face the same tortured predicament, in which one member of a same-sex couple is not a citizen and cannot be sponsored by his or her U.S. citizen partner for residence. There is no lawful manner for a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident to apply for a family-based visa for his or her partner if they are of the same sex. Our laws break apart these couples for no reason other than that they are of the same gender. This is unjust, cruel and unnecessary.

It is not only same-sex couples that are harmed by this harsh and discriminatory system. Innocent children suffer when one partner loses his or her lawful immigration status and families are torn apart by deportation of the non-citizen partner. Almost half of gay or lesbian bi-national couples have children.

Extended family, communities and employers are also affected when these couples are needlessly separated. At a time when our economy is suffering, it makes no sense to drive skilled workers away or put unnecessary strains on hardworking Americans.

Moreover, in a society where a premium is placed upon strong, stable and intact families, it is strikingly backward for the United States to have a policy that destabilizes American families. The principle of family unification is a hallmark of American immigration policy. We must apply this principle to lesbian and gay couples too.

This issue is about civil rights, not about same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships or civil unions. To fix this problem, we need not re-open same-sex marriage laws; we simply need to modify our immigration laws to treat bi-national couples equally. Nineteen other countries, many of which are our closest allies, provide immigration rights to same-sex couples. The United States can and should follow suit.

We have introduced legislation to right this wrong — the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) of 2009. This bill would grant same-sex couples the same immigration benefits — and responsibilities — as opposite-sex couples, under the same existing legal framework. 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. 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.

NOTE: Greg and Jaime are a genuine couple. Their names were changed to protect their privacy but all details are accurate.

Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nadler is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.