Leahy proposes immigration change for same sex couples

03/09/09 5:50PM Whitney Jones
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AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

(Host) Same-sex couples in Vermont enjoy the legal benefits not shared by most couples across the country. But couples with one foreign partner still face obstacles.

Senator Patrick Leahy wants to change that with new legislation.

Whitney Jones has more from Washington.

(Jones) Same-sex couples in the United States have made great strides in gaining legal recognition, but if one partner is a foreign national it's a whole different story. Julia Kruse represents Immigration Equality.

(Kruse) ``Currently there is absolutely no way Americans to keep their families' together if their partners are foreign born. So they are either forced into exile or their family's torn apart.''

(Jones) Take for example Sissi Loftin of Brattleboro and her partner Janet, who's from England. They have been together for nearly twenty five years. They met at an international peace conference in Texas. Loftin is a retired social worker and is having trouble with arthritis. Janet is able to care for her when she's visiting, but she can only stay in the U.S. for three months at a time.She says her family is with Loftin in Vermont.

(Janet) ``It feels like our life is constantly uprooted, there's no stability, it's always temporary wherever we are. It makes me feel very depressed and angry at how unfair it is.''

(Jones) Loftin says they joined in a Vermont civil union in 2000.

(Loftin) ``If she had been a man, we would have lived happily ever after.''

(Jones) Senator Patrick Leahy has introduced legislation amending immigration law to include provisions for a permanent partnership. It's called the Uniting American Families Act.

(Leahy) ``If you're married in a heterosexual relationship, you can get special visas to bring your spouse here to the U.S., if one is a U.S. citizen, I'm trying to do it for a same sex couple in a committed relationship.''

(Jones) Some Republicans like Senator John Cornyn of Texas don't like the proposal. They cite the Defense of Marriage Act which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

(Cornyn) ``Well I think we should preserve and protect the institution of marriage because it creates an environment where children can be raised by two loving parents and I think they're better off in the long run under those circumstances.''

(Jones) Senator Leahy says he doesn't see the bill as a step towards gay marriage. He calls it a step towards basic fairness.

(Leahy) ``I don't see it as endangering marriage. My wife and I have been married for 46 years and I don't think my putting in the legislation suddenly is putting my marriage at risk.''

(Jones) Leahy says marriage should be left up to the individual states and the bill would not affect any state law.

Kruse, the advocate, says they're not looking for marriage rights.

(Kruse) ``What we're asking is for to end government discrimination in the immigration arena against gay and lesbian couples and we're asking for gay and lesbian couples to have the same immigration rights as straight couples do.''

(Jones) Tom McClusky is a spokesperson for Family Research Council,. He says the act would be hard to enforce and argues the government continues to run into marriage fraud between heterosexual couples in which one of the partners is trying to gain U.S. citizenship.

(McClusky) ``It would open the door for further abuse by redefining what defines a spouse and redefining what type of partner could come over here with no actually proof of any prior relationship.''

(Jones) The bill requires visa applicants to provide proof of their relationship such as shared financial records and affidavits from friends and family. Under Leahy's bill, the penalty is the same for partnership fraud as well as marriage fraud - Five years in prison and nearly a quarter million dollars in fines.

Senator Leahy says the U.S. lags behind several countries when it comes to immigration equality.

(Leahy) ``Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Brazil, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and Sweden, now several of those counties are very conservative countries.''

(Jones) Senator Leahy says this isn't the first time the legislation has been introduced. But this time around, he says he has the support to get it passed.

From Capitol News Connection, I'm Whitney Jones for VPR News.

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