As Arizona's immigration saga drags on, a more pluralistic kind of immigration reform is gaining momentum in Chicago, and it's giving LGBT families hope for a brighter future.
At a press conference on May 24 at the Center on Halsted, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., along with U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., who is openly gay, announced their support for allowing same-sex couples to be included in "any comprehensive immigration reform" legislation that makes its way through Congress. The law, known as the Uniting American Families Act ( UAFA/H.R. 1024 ) would allow LGBT people to receive the same rights as heterosexuals seeking legal status in the United States.
"Comprehensive immigration reform must be truly comprehensive and by that I mean that the provisions of the Uniting American Families Act, that would help same-sex couples secure legal immigration, must be a part of immigration reform," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez, an outspoken critic of America's current immigration laws, authored the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 ( CIR ASAP/H.R. 4321 ) , which would allow non-documented LGBT individuals already in the U.S. the ability to apply for legal immigration status; the stipulation being that applicants pay fines and submit to a criminal background check.
Under the current system, LGBT people are excluded from applying for immigration visas. And, unlike heterosexuals, they cannot apply to adjust their legal immigrant status. For example, binational, heterosexual couples have the option of getting married to secure their family's status as legal U.S. citizens. Same-sex couples cannot because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage.
"Family unification is the bedrock principle of America's immigration laws, and same-sex partners in committed relationships must be allowed to stay together, just like heterosexual couples can," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois.
The addition of the UAFA bill would do just thatnamely, recognize LGBT families in the immigration and naturalization process.
Grant Gochnauer, a guest speaker at the press conference, knows firsthand how emotionally taxing current immigration law is on binational same-sex couples. He thinks about it everyday. For him, the choice is clear, but not easy: Spouse or country?
"It's the uncertainty that eats away at you over time. My partner's visa expires in two years. After that he can't stay here. How can you plan a life with someone if you don't know whether or not you're country will have the both of you. With the way things are now, it's hard to imagine planning our lives together in the U.S. We'd have to go somewhere else. I hate the thought of having to leave my immediate family," Gochnauer told Windy City Times after the event.
And, while Monday's announcement is encouraging to the LGBT community, other lawmakers see including LGBT provisions in reform legislation as politically risky, especially during an election year. When asked if pushing for LGBT-inclusive immigration reform, without exception, could slow down his overall reform efforts, Gutierrez said, "Making this a priority means doubling our efforts, especially after Arizona. Everyone working together on this makes us stronger."
Citing the encounter First Lady Michelle Obama had with an elementary school student who told Mrs. Obama that her mom was undocumented, Congressman Gutierrez noted that there are "too many hard working families who are living in fear in this country" of being separated for being undocumented. He added, "What have they done wrong? What's she doing [ for work ] ? Probably wiping the back of an American citizen's child, maybe washing dishes and making our beds, or maybe she's in a meatpacking plant. She's doing and she's working. Allow her to work and cherish and raise that child in America. The same goes for same-sex families. They've got the kids, they've got the dog, they've got the mortgage; now let them get the visa, too, to guarantee that their family is together."