Later this morning, the United States Senate will make history as it convenes the first-ever hearings on lesbian and gay binational couples. At 10am today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to discuss The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), a critically important bill that would modify U.S. immigration policy to treat LGBT families equally under the law. (The hearing will be streamed live online at The Senate Judiciary Committee website.)
Even as the Committee begins to consider the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court - an event that usually halts all other business in official Washington - Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has asked Committee members to come together to hear about the plight of couples, and families, who are officially discriminated against under current immigration law. Leahy, who is also the lead Senate sponsor of UAFA, is sending an unmistakable message that, as the country begins to consider comprehensive immigration reform, our families must be part of that coming effort in Congress.
Indeed, no reform can be truly comprehensive unless it includes LGBT families, too. And among those testifying in the Senate this morning will be an unlikely heroine whose story may be the tipping point in the national debate about the rights of same-gender binational couples and their families.
Shirley Tan, a 43-year-old housewife and mother of twin sons, will appear before the Committee to recount her family's struggle to remain together, despite the government's best efforts to separate them. Tan has traveled to Washington with her partner of 23 years, Jay Mercado, and their 12-year-old twins, Joriene and Jashley. Shirley's partner, and her children, are all American citizens. They are unable, however, to petition for her to remain in the United States. If Jay were a man, the story would be entirely different. But because Shirley is in a lesbian relationship, Jay cannot sponsor her for a green card, and she is facing the very real possibility of deportation to her home country of the Philippines, where members of her family were brutally murdered, and Shirley was shot in the head, by a relative who has now been released from prison.
On the morning of January 28, immigration officials knocked on Shirley's door, handcuffed her, and sent her to detention. Though she had applied for asylum years before, she was unaware that her application, and subsequent appeal, had been denied. (The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), in a ruling earlier this year, also verified that there was no evidence Shirley had received proper notification of the denial of asylum.)
All the while, Shirley and Jay were building a life together in California, where Shirley has been a frequent volunteer at her sons' school . . . serves as a Eucharistic Minister in her local church . . . sings in the Sunday Mass choir . . . and is the primary caretaker for Jay's elderly mother. As she will tell the Committee this morning, "We have everything together and it would be impossible to re-establish this life elsewhere."
Yet, under U.S. immigration law, Shirley's family is virtually invisible. Like an estimated 36,000 other lesbian and gay binational couples - nearly half of whom are raising children - Shirley and Jay face the very real possibility of being separated or of having to uproot their family and move to a country their children have never known, and where Shirley fears for her life. Unless and until UAFA becomes law, these families face an untenable choice between family and country that no one should be forced to make.
Meanwhile, communities across the country - and our country as a whole - face the prospect of losing respected neighbors like Shirley and Jay.
"Our friends, mostly heterosexual couples, call us the 'model family,' and even said we are their role models," Shirley will tell the Judiciary Committee this morning. But, nonetheless, that family is in jeopardy of being ripped apart because the United States refuses to recognize them under the law.
For families like Shirley's, today's hearings aren't just history . . . they're hope, too.
President Obama has said he supports keeping binational lesbian and gay couples together. And Senator Leahy, a vocal champion of families like Shirley's, has demonstrated, by scheduling today's hearing, that he, too, intends to make this part of the national conversation on comprehensive immigration reform.
Even in the midst of a Supreme Court nomination, UAFA has become the LGBT bill that could.
"The hearings are really tremendous and an indication of the momentum and traction that the issue has on the Hill," Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, recently told The Advocate, "particularly in the context of everything else they have on their plate right now."
And they may be the first sign of the last, best hope that Shirley and Jay - and 36,000 other families like them - have for staying together.
For more information on the plight of binational couples and The Uniting American Families Act, visit Immigration Equality online. And to tune in - live - to this morning's hearing, visit The Senate Judiciary Committee website and click on the "webcast" button on the UAFA hearing page.