by Cameron Albert-Deitch
Attorney Michael Jarecki recently had a client who was struggling to keep her British partner in the United States.
Ordinarily, this situation wouldn’t be a problem.
United States immigration law allows American citizens to petition for a company to sponsor a foreign spouse for lawful permanent resident status. Alternatively, the spouse could apply for a student visa or apply for political asylum.
But Jarecki’s client, whose name has been kept confidential, wasn’t married. She was lesbian in a committed relationship. And keeping a foreign permanent partner in the United States is nearly impossible.
“She tried to get her partner sponsored from different companies,” says Jarecki. “She tried to look at the student visa route. Everything kept coming up no, no, no.”
The client, a doctor working in New York, decided that it was easier to move to Great Britain with her partner than to continue their fight with the United States government. She closed her practice, a clinic for HIV-positive people, and shut the doors on established relationships with her patients.
As a private immigration practitioner with L.L.M. Law Group in Chicago, Jarecki witnesses these types of stories on a semi-regular basis and shakes his head at how short-sighted these immigration barriers can be. American citizens are often forced to uproot their lives, and, in Jarecki’s eyes, it only deprives the United States of job skills and expertise.
“The ripple effect of these discriminatory laws is much bigger than just the two individual people,” he says.
Luckily, Congress seems interested in ending discrimination against the LGBTQ community in immigration law. A primary example is the Uniting American Families Act, often referred to as UAFA.
UAFA, designed to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, would permit permanent partners of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to obtain lawful permanent resident status in the same manner as spouses of citizens and of lawful permanent residents.
UAFA has been in Congress since April of 2011 and has faced significant obstacles from Republican lawmakers. But House representative Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) is confident that this newly elected Congress will do what needs to be done.
“I’d like to think that the election has sent a message that we do need comprehensive immigration reform. It’s the right thing to do. I think it’s taught Republicans that it’s the politically smart thing to do, too, and that hopefully, the Uniting American Families Act will be part of comprehensive immigration reform as well,” says Quigley.
Comprehensive immigration reform is a proposed style of immigration reform, which would primarily create legal status for illegal immigrants already in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform proposals have been floating around Washington D.C. since 2009. Prior to the 2012 elections, it was consistently and repeatedly shut down by Republican members of Congress.
Now, post-elections in 2012, House and Senate Republicans seem to be changing their tune. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has long resisted any broad immigration proposals, spoke just weeks after the November 6 elections seemingly in support of opening pathways to legal status for illegal immigrants.
“A comprehensive approach is long overdue,” Boehner said in an interview with ABC News. “A common-sense step-by-step approach that would secure our borders, allow us to enforce our laws and fix a broken immigration system.”
But while Republicans may be changing their positions on comprehensive immigration reform, Democrats know that finding bipartisan support on legislation like UAFA might be extremely difficult. Douglas Rivlin, director of Communications for longtime House representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), has been working in Washington D.C. on immigration-related issues since 2001. He knows that it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen in Congress.
“You can talk to 20 different people and they’ll give you 20 different opinions about how likely or not likely it is that we’ll get immigration reform,” says Rivlin. “You talk to that same 20 people, you’ll probably get different answers about how likely it is that federal law about same-sex couples will be changed in that immigration reform.”
“I think there will be a good fight. I think the most likely outcome is that it’s one of the things that gets compromised away [in order to gain bipartisan support], but that’s all speculation.”
Rivlin still notes that even if UAFA does not get passed, the fact that immigration is being reformed at all will have a “tremendous impact” on the LGBTQ community.
“If you go by the conservative estimate that 10 percent of the population is queer in some form or fashion, that maps onto the population of 10 or 12 million undocumented immigrants [and] you’re talking about a lot of lesbian and gay immigrants who are getting legalized,” he says.
“While the goal is to include provisions of UAFA, we should always keep in mind that immigrants are people too… immigration reform, just from the perspective of the LGBT community, is nothing to sneeze at. It would be significant for a lot of people, and that’s something that gets lost a little bit.”
Rivlin doesn’t just believe that comprehensive immigration reform will be passed. In his opinion, it will be passed within the next two years.
“I’m very optimistic that we will get immigration reform … before the next House elections,” he says.
Quigley agrees. “I’m looking forward to a reborn Congress after these last elections. We’re ready to look at issues that got ducked at the 112th [Congress],” he says. “Then again, I’m a Cubs fan, so I don’t know if I’m a good judge of hope. But I’m very optimistic.”
Cameron Albert-Deitch // MEDILL