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Same-sex couples seek immigration benefit

Sunday, July 19, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Judy Rickard took an early retirement and a reduced pension so she could be assured of more time with her partner, a British citizen whose stays in the U.S. are limited to six months.

Rickard, 61, would have preferred to keep working at San Jose State University and sponsor her partner, Karin Bogliolo, for residency in the United States, just as heterosexual couples can. But U.S. law does not allow for that.

"If you're going to have a system that's designed to keep families together, it should focus on keeping families together," Rickard said.

That could soon change, as more than 100 lawmakers in the House and about 20 in the Senate have signed onto bills that would add the United States to the 19 countries that already recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes.

Gay rights groups are encouraged that President Obama has signaled that he would like to include couples like Rickard and Bogliolo in the bills.

"In many ways, the stars are aligning to move this forward as part of a comprehensive bill," said Steve Ralls, communications director for the advocacy group Immigration Equality. "That's an opportunity we didn't have years ago."

The provisions concerning same-sex couples are part of legislation that would increase the number of visas provided to family members of people already in the United States legally.

The long-standing fight over the country's estimated 36,000 same sex couples of two nationalities is a small but emotional part of the debate over immigration reform. But including same-sex couples in the mix could make it harder to pass an immigration overhaul.

A key ally in past immigration fights, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it would not support a measure that has a same-sex provision.

Writing to Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., the organization said the provision would "erode the institution of marriage and family by according marriage-like immigration benefits to same sex relationships."

Other groups say that it is often difficult to verify the validity of same-sex relationships if one of the partners comes from a country that does not recognize or document same-sex unions.

Honda, lead author of the "Reuniting Families Act," credited Rickard, one of his constituents, for bringing the issue to his attention. Honda said his Japanese heritage contributed to his taking a closer look at protecting same-sex couples through an overhaul of the nation's immigration law.

Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during the fallout from Pearl Harbor and redefined as persons of enemy alien ancestry, Honda said.

"The lack of political leadership played a big part in what happened to us," Honda said. "And that's true in almost every civil rights case."

Another California resident, Shirley Tan, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month in favor of a comparable bill.

Tan has been in California since arriving on a visitor's visa in 1989. She applied for asylum in 1995 because she was afraid of a cousin in the Philippines who had killed her mother and sister and critically wounded her.

She was unaware the petition had been denied until federal agents took her away in handcuffs at the end of January. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has since sponsored a bill that allows Tan to stay in the U.S. until the current session of Congress ends in late 2010.

"I have a partner who is a U.S. citizen, and two beautiful children who are also U.S. citizens, but not one of them can petition for me to remain in the United States with them," Tan said.

The NAACP and the American Bar Association also spoke in favor of including "permanent partners" as part of an immigration bill, saying that current law amounts to discrimination.

Permanent partner is defined in proposed legislation as an individual 18 or older who is "in a committed, intimate relationship with another individual 18 or older in which both individuals intend a lifelong commitment."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he doubted the legislation would pass this Congress. He said it amounts to a redefinition of marriage and would give people more opportunities to come into the United States fraudulently.

"It seems we would be creating a special preference and benefit for a category of immigrants based on a relationship that's not recognized by federal law and overwhelmingly by most states," Sessions said.

Rickard said she may reluctantly move to Great Britain or another country when her partner's current travel visa expires in November. Bogliolo, however, said she would prefer to live in the U.S. for her partner's sake.

"Judy has elderly parents and family here and she's also lived here all her life whereas I've lived in many different countries," Bogliolo said. "I think Judy would find it very difficult after a whole life in San Jose to move over to Europe, so I decided if at all possible that I would move over here."


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