By Rachel B. Tiven, The Forward
WASHINGTON - The U.S. government forced Rabbi Gail Diamond to make aliyah [the immigration of Jews to Israel]. She and her family have a good life in Israel – she teaches at a yeshiva in Jerusalem and her children are happy in school. But she didn't move to Israel entirely by choice. She had to leave the United States, and her Massachusetts congregation, when her wife's visa ran out. If American immigration law treated gay and lesbian couples the same as heterosexual couples, Rabbi Diamond could have sponsored her partner of nearly 20 years for a green card. But lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have long been excluded from provisions of our immigration laws, and though the family had committed no crime, they could no longer live together legally in the United States.
They could, however, live in Israel – one of the more than 20 countries that recognize gay and lesbian couples for immigration purposes. Few of those countries allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, but they all recognize that being physically separated from the person you love is a cruel and purposeless price to pay for being gay.
A bill currently pending in Congress called the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) would remedy this discrimination. The bill would give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples the same opportunity as straight couples to prove that their relationship is genuine and committed and they should not be separated. To meet the standard, couples would have to show proof – like shared bank accounts, insurance policies, wills, powers of attorney, a joint mortgage or lease and other evidence of their lives together – just as all couples must to qualify for permanent residency status. This simple fix is endorsed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), among other groups. It is included in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) Act of 2010, introduced three weeks ago by Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat. Every American – gay and straight, Jew and non-Jew – needs comprehensive immigration reform, or CIR. Such reform would create a path to American citizenship for people who are working hard and raising their families here, yet are prevented from opening a bank account, going to college or visiting relatives abroad.
A person without legal status cannot contribute fully to his or her community. Could you, if you were too intimidated to report a crime to the police, challenge unsafe working conditions or seek preventive medical care? The 11 million people who desperately need a path to citizenship are our friends, neighbors, colleagues and employees. They are not taking American jobs – far from it. Employers who take advantage of their vulnerability by flouting wage and safety laws are depressing the wage scale and distorting the labor market. By bringing people out of the shadows and into the mainstream economy, CIR will help improve job prospects for everyone and lift consumer spending.
As Jews, we are permanent immigrants. We have prospered and succeeded in America beyond our wildest dreams, but the experience of the outsider seeking refuge is core to our identity. In every morning's prayers, we invoke the exodus from Egypt; at every Passover Seder we recall that we were once strangers, and as such we have a special duty to the stranger. It is a privilege, a byproduct of our successful integration into this country, that we have the opportunity to welcome others. We are secure enough here that we can perform the mitzvah of hospitality. Few could need our hospitality more than those whose lives most closely resemble the conditions of slavery: undocumented workers who often toil for less than minimum wage, with no hope of the dignity and protection of citizenship.
Immigration Equality, the organization I run, represents people who are literally fleeing Egypt – or Jamaica, Peru or Serbia – because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Despite our immigration law's refusal to recognize gay family units, individuals who face persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity still can find refuge in the United States. Immigration Equality represents more than 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive asylum-seekers each year. Thanks to our expert lawyers and to nearly 40 national law firms that take our cases pro bono, most of our clients will be able to stay in America in freedom and safety. However, some will spend months or even years in immigration detention, where many of their peers will not have access to a lawyer, before they win.
Supporting comprehensive immigration reform is an opportunity to perform the mitzvah of hospitality. The Menendez bill, S.3932, would repeal the filing deadline that impedes many deserving asylum-seekers; improve treatment for vulnerable groups detained in immigration jail, like transgender people and pregnant women; pass the DREAM Act so that young adults brought here as children could finally become citizens; and bring our undocumented neighbors and friends out of the shadows and into full participation in American life – and end discrimination against gay and lesbian families like Rabbi Diamond's.
Rachel B. Tiven is executive director of Immigration Equality and the Immigration Equality Action Fund, www.immigrationequalityactionfund.org.