02.12.09

Leahy Introduces Bill To Provide Equality Under Immigration Law

WASHINGTON (Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Thursday introduced legislation to allow American citizens to sponsor same-sex “permanent partners” applying for legal residency in the United States.  The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) would amend provisions in U.S. immigration law that bar Americans in same-sex relationships from using the family immigration system and sponsoring their partners.

Under current law, an American citizen is permitted to sponsor his or her spouse for a green card under the family immigration system.  The UAFA would extend this right to same-sex couples by adding “or permanent partner” to sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to legally married couples.  Under the proposed legislation, a “permanent partner” is described as an adult who is in a committed, intimate, financially interdependent relationship with another adult in “which both parties intend a lifelong commitment.”

“Like many people across the country, there are Vermonters whose partners are foreign nationals and who feel abandoned by our laws in this area,” said Leahy.  “The promotion of family unity has long been part of federal immigration policy, and we should honor that principle by providing all Americans the opportunity to be with their loved ones.  I hope all Senators will join me in supporting equality for all Americans and their loved ones.”

The Uniting American Families Act would apply the same restrictions and penalties to same-sex couples that are applied to opposite-sex couples under the Immigration and Naturalization Act.  Any individual found to have entered into a fraudulent, permanent partnership for the purposes of obtaining a visa for another individual would be subject to the same penalties: maximum five-year imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, or both.  The legislation also requires bi-national couples to provide proof that they meet the definition of “permanent partners” as defined in the bill. 

Companion legislation was introduced Thursday in the House of Representatives by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).  Cosponsoring Leahy’s Uniting Americas Families Act in the Senate are Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Chris Dodd (D-Conn).

At least 16 countries recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes:  Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Introduction of the Uniting American Families Act
February 12, 2009

I am proud to reintroduce the Uniting American Families Act.  This legislation will allow U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to petition for their foreign same-sex partners to come to the United States under our family immigration system.  I thank Senators Whitehouse, Kerry, Schumer, Feingold, Wyden, Cardin, Menendez, Murray, Brown, Akaka, and Lautenberg for their support of this legislation.  I hope that the Senate will act to demonstrate our Nation’s commitment to equality under the law by passing this measure. 

I am also grateful that Congressman Nadler is introducing this same measure in the House of Representatives.  Congressman Nadler has been a steady champion of this legislation, and I commend his efforts.

When the marker for the Senate’s comprehensive immigration legislation was introduced at the beginning of this Congress, I said that among the changes needed in our immigration laws is equality for gay and lesbian Americans.  The burdens and benefits of the laws created by the elected officials who represent all Americans should be shared equally, and without discrimination.  With an historic election behind us, and the promise of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous world ahead of us, let us begin to break down the barriers that still remain for so many American citizens.  

Under current law, committed same-sex foreign partners of American citizens are unable to use the family immigration system, which accounts for a majority of the green cards and immigrant visas granted annually by the United States.  As a result, gay Americans who are in this situation must either live apart from their partners, or leave the country if they want to live with them legally and permanently.   According to the most recent census, there are approximately 35,000 bi-national, same-sex couples living in the United States.  It is all but certain that many of these couples will eventually be forced to make a choice with which no American should be faced—to choose between the country they love and the person they love. 

Some have expressed concern that providing this equality in our immigration law will lead to more immigration fraud.  At best these concerns are misguided, and at worst they are a pretext for discrimination.  This bill retains strong protections against fraud already in immigration law.  To qualify as a permanent partner, petitioners must prove that they are at least 18-years-old and are in a committed, financially interdependent relationship with another adult in which both parties intend a lifelong commitment. They must also prove that they are not married to, or in a permanent partnership with, anyone other than that person, and are unable to contract with that person in a marriage cognizable under the Immigration and Nationality Act.  Proof could include sworn affidavits from friends and family and documentation of financial interdependence.  Penalties for fraud would be the same as penalties for marriage fraud – up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for the U.S. citizen partner, and deportation for the foreign partner.  Discrimination based upon sexual orientation should play no role in guarding against those who seek to abuse our immigration laws. 

Like many people across the country, there are Vermonters whose partners are foreign nationals and who feel abandoned by our laws in this area: Vermonters like Gordon Stewart who has come to talk to me about the unfairness of our current laws, or a committed, loving couple of 24 years in Brattleboro, Vermont, who travel back and forth between Vermont and England, and who wish nothing more than to be able to be together in the United States.  This bill would allow them, and other gay and lesbian Americans throughout our Nation who have felt that our immigration laws are discriminatory, to be a fuller part of our society.  The promotion of family unity has long been part of Federal immigration policy, and we should honor that principle by providing all Americans the opportunity to be with their loved ones.  

The idea that immigration benefits should be extended to same-sex couples is not a novel one.  Many nations have come to recognize that their respective immigration laws should respect family unity, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation.  Indeed, 16 of our closest allies – Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom – recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes.

I would ask all Senators to take heed of what my friend Congressman John Lewis has said about discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans, when he wrote in 2003: “Rather than divide and discriminate, let us come together and create one nation.  We are all one people. We all live in the American house. We are all the American family. Let us recognize that the gay people living in our house share the same hopes, troubles, and dreams. It's time we treated them as equals, as family.”  Congressman Lewis is right.  I hope all Senators will join me in supporting equality for all Americans and their loved ones. 

I ask unanimous consent that the full bill text be printed in the record.

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