One year ago, Gina Caprio, an American citizen living in Sacramento, CA was determined to do something to change the way unjust US immigration law was affecting her life. Caprio had fallen in love with someone in the UK a few years earlier. The relationship had taken the usual twists and turns associated with a long-distance romance, but when Caprio and her partner decided they wanted to live together in the US, a door slammed shut. Caprio’s UK partner is a woman – and together they are a same-sex binational couple – one of more than 36,000 according to a Human Rights Watch Report.
Because the US does not recognize same-sex relationships in any form at the federal level, the US half of the couple cannot sponsor their foreign partner for legal residency here. While opposite-sex binational couples have long taken advantage of marriage as a means to stay together in the US – same-sex couples, whether married or not, remain harshly discriminated against.
“When I heard the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) had just been re-introduced in Congress, I knew I had to do something that would make sure this legislation would pass,” said Caprio.
She joined Out4Immigration, an all-volunteer group made up of same-sex binational couples, their families and other supportive individuals and learned from them that UAFA needed more co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate.
While this, the fifth re-introduction of the bill by Rep. Jerrold Nadler [D-NY-8] and Sen. Patrick Leahy [D-VT] came with 80 co-sponsors in the House and 14 in the Senate, it was nowhere near the number needed to gain a judiciary hearing, much less a floor vote.
“We drafted a form letter that allowed space for people to tell how hard it was to be in a same-sex binational relationship in America and started contacting previous co-sponsors of the bill by email, fax and snail mail,” Caprio said. Out4Immigration has about 400 active members around the world. Using the Change.org website, Facebook and Twitter, these members spread the word about the campaign and each week’s targets.
“We saw results of the weekly letter writing campaign almost immediately,” said Mickey Lim, Vice President of Out4Immigration. “Rep. Ed Pastor [D-AZ-4] and Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand [D-NY] were quick to read our stories and sign on. But the real indication that we were making an impact – that our voices were being heard – was when Congressional staffers called us and said ‘You’re jamming our fax lines and crashing our email systems!’ You have to send a lot of messages to do that.”
The combination of the letter writing campaign, strategic efforts by other LGBT groups and advocates, and the 11th-hour private bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D-CA] that stopped the deportation of a Filipino woman named Shirley Tan, who was nearly forcibly separated from her same-sex American partner and their two children led to a Senate Judiciary hearing on UAFA last June. While the bill has since picked up more Senate co-sponsors, Feinstein, ironically, has not signed on.
Tom Tierney, another Out4Immigration volunteer joined the letter writing campaign and added a weekly “Call Congress” action after the June hearing. A revised letter now asks five members of Congress each week to co-sponsor UAFA as well as support same-sex binational couples in comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). A bill introduced by Rep. Mike Honda [D-CA- 15] last September called the Reuniting Families Act (RFA), is inclusive. A Senate version of that bill, however, is not.
When a bill by Rep. Luis Gutierrez [D-IL-4] called “CIR ASAP” omitted same-sex binational couples late last year, “our members and their families jammed his phone lines,” Lim says. And, when rumors circulated that Sen. Charles Schumer [D-NY] might be considering leaving same-sex binationals out of his Senate counterpart bill, “our members were quick to act and call his office, too.”
“The people we target each week are selected based upon their past voting records on LGBT and immigration issues, as well as the committees on which they sit in their respective chambers of Congress,” explains Tierney, who continues to try to net some Republican support to go with the so-far all-Democrat numbers.
Last week, UAFA picked up a key co-sponsor, Rep. Maxine Waters [D-CA-35], bringing the total number of House supporters to 120 – more co-sponsors than any other immigration bill. “In total, we’ve seen 5 Senators and over 20 members of the House sign on as UAFA co-sponsors after we’ve written to them. They’re getting the message,” says Tierney.
Meanwhile, Gina Caprio and her partner have temporarily overcome their separation through a student visa. “But the emphasis here is on the word ‘temporary,’” says Caprio. Until same-sex binational couples are recognized at the federal level, either through passage of UAFA or its inclusion in larger CIR, the Out4Immigration letter writing campaign will continue.
“No one should have to choose between their country and their family,” says Lim. “Our letters and phone calls address the very real issue that LGBT Americans with foreign partners have very few legal options to live together in this country.”
For more information:
Change.org Out4Immigration Letter Writing Campaign: http://www.change.org/actions/search?search=lgbt+immigration+rights
The Uniting American Families Act (H.R. 1024): http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:HR01024:@@@P
The Uniting American Families Act (S.424): http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:SN0424:
Human Rights Watch Report: Family Unvalued: Discrimination, Denial, and the Fate of Binational Same-Sex Couples under US Law: http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2006/05/01/family-unvalued
Shirley Tan / Feinstein Private Bill: http://www.out4immigration.org/assets/pdf/immeqla/ShirleyTan_People.pdf
Reuniting Families Act (H.R. 2709): http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:HR02709:|/bss/d111query.html
Out4Immigration is an all-volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness about the discrimination same-sex binational couples face under current US immigration law and the difficulties they encounter in keeping their families together legally in the United States. For more information, visit www.out4immigration.org.