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Nadler: Why We Must Pass the Uniting American Families Act

While there has recently been unmistakable momentum toward equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in parts of the country — with marriage equality for same-sex couples in nine states and D.C., federal cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the debate on an immigration overhaul — we cannot afford to pat ourselves on the back.

We still have laws — such as DOMA — that openly discriminate against LGBT Americans, and we have yet to extend basic civil rights protections at the federal level and in many states. LGBT Americans are still treated as second-class citizens in many ways, and they remain vulnerable to discrimination in critical areas such as employment and housing. And, of course, 39 states still prohibit gay and lesbian residents from marrying the person they love. Our collective failure to fully embrace our LGBT colleagues, neighbors and relatives within this nation’s great tradition of equality and freedom is an outrage that I have devoted much of my career to fixing.

One of the biggest, and most easily fixed, problems is the gratuitous harm that our immigration law inflicts on binational same-sex couples. Unlike other committed couples, which can sponsor partners for immigration purposes, our law treats devoted gay and lesbian couples as complete strangers.

For example, Santiago Ortiz and Pablo Garcia of Queens, New York, have been in a committed relationship since 1991. Ortiz was born in New York in 1955, has a master’s degree in psychology and has now retired from a career in school psychology.

Garcia was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1960 and writes Spanish-language plays. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Hispanic literature and volunteers for youth arts programs.

After their relationship evolved, Garcia decided to extend his stay beyond the scope of his visitor’s visa, hoping eventually to find a permanent option for remaining with Ortiz.

They were legally married in Connecticut on May 2, 2011, and, soon after, filed for Garcia to receive legal residency. Because they are gay, DOMA requires the federal government to deny them the chance to remain in this country together.

As a result, Garcia has been unable return to Venezuela to visit his family, attend his father’s funeral or visit his grave. They remain in legal limbo, scared for their future.

Garcia and Ortiz are not alone. There are perhaps 40,000 same-sex, binational couples in America — many with children — that are in danger of separation and deportation. Deportation, and the threat of deportation, not only harms adults; it also inflicts a terrible punishment on children, extended families, communities and workplaces.

There simply is no legitimate reason for these harms. Loving couples should not be forced to choose between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love. Families and communities should not be torn apart.

Instead, our policies should support strong, stable and united families of all varieties, and they should foster a strong and stable economy that attracts and maintains skilled workers.

The answer is to follow the example of 31 other countries and pass legislation to update our immigration codes and allow LGBT Americans to sponsor their permanent partners for immigration purposes. I have introduced the Uniting American Families Act in the House, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has done so in the Senate.

As we debate comprehensive immigration changes in Congress, UAFA must be incorporated into any legislative vehicle. No immigration overhaul we enact can be truly comprehensive unless it includes LGBT families. It’s time for Congress to act and take another step toward full equality for LGBT Americans.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, and the lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act.

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