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Steve Ralls

Steve Ralls

Posted: November 25, 2010 10:00 AM

As most Americans begin the holiday season on Thursday, in a national observance of "thanks," many will come together with family, friends and loved ones. But for one group of Americans, the holidays can be an especially painful experience. Thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens in relationships with partners from abroad will be forced to spend Thanksgiving alone... or packing their bags so they can keep their families together.

Under current U.S. immigration laws, lesbian and gay Americans do not have the right to sponsor their foreign national partners for residency, as their straight neighbors do. Instead, immigration laws force these couples -- about 17,000 of whom are raising young children who are American citizens -- to separate or leave the country, forced into exile because their families are not recognized under federal law. This painful reality is forcing many American citizens, and their families, to flee their own country, exacting a heavy cost on our economy, communities and on the countless people who constitute their extended families, too.

In San Jose, California, Judy Rickard will spend Thanksgiving without her partner Karin, who is a British citizen. Judy took early retirement from her job with a university so she could be with her partner. Though Karin has been able to remain in the U.S. for six months each year, thanks to a tourist visa, the couple were forced to live abroad the remainder of the year. When Karin was forced to return to Britain earlier this year, however, Judy had to remain behind. Now, they will spend the holidays apart, while confronting a painful choice together: Will Judy sell her home and relocate abroad? And if she does, how will she maintain ties with her family -- including her elderly parents -- here in the United States?

Each day, more and more binational couples are moving abroad, as 19 countries -- and counting -- allow them to keep their families together. While many nations have amended their immigration laws to recognize lesbian and gay families (with Ireland being just the latest to do so), the United States continues to bar federal recognition of those families at nearly every turn.

The stark reality is that United States law is forcing Americans to rip their families apart, or leave their own country in order to be with the person they love.

For an increasing number of these families, Canada is now becoming a second home. In New Mexico, one American citizen has recently been accepted for residency in Canada, where he can bring his Indonesian partner and be recognized under the law. Last year, his partner was forced to return home after losing his job due to the economic downturn and, as a result, his work visa, too. Despite receiving a PhD funded by a government scholarship -- and despite having critically needed engineering skills -- he had to return home, and to the closet, to live with his deeply religious, Muslim family.

Now, Canada will be the beneficiary of both partner's skills and training, as the United States loses out on the investment it made in the Indonesian partner's education.

In South Florida, Juan Carlos Galan and his partner, Greg Nardi, are also preparing for what will likely be their last holiday in the U.S., too. Nardi, who is a U.S. citizen, cannot sponsor Galan, who is from Panama, to remain in the country with him. As a result, the two are also considering relocation to Canada. As Galan recently told The Miami Herald, "It's ironic. Here, I am not allowed to file for Juan Carlos, but over there, he can file for me." That's because, as The Herald noted, "Galan, who has a U.S. business visa, qualifies for Canadian residency under Ottawa's point-based immigration system. His technology expertise, education and proficiency in languages helped him score the necessary points to win a Canadian green card."

More than 36,000 couples like Juan Carlos and Greg are being forced into such heart-wrenching decisions, according to research from The Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles. As they leave the country, they take not only their talent and skills, but also their contributions to local economies, communities and families.

In October, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) included the Uniting American Families Act -- a bill to recognize lesbian and gay families within federal immigration laws -- in his Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010. UAFA, which is sponsored in the House by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and in the Senate by Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has also been included in the Reuniting Families Act, a family unification bill sponsored by Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of California.

Last week, Senator Menendez indicated he would like to see his comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive, bill considered in the lame duck Congress. The Immigration Equality Action Fund -- which represents LGBT binational families and lobbies on their behalf on Capitol Hill -- launched a national action campaign to support Menendez's lame duck push.

There's no doubt that a lame duck immigration reform measure has only a very short window of opportunity in the current Congress. But there's also no question that, for families like Judy and Karin and Juan Carlos and Greg, time is of the essence. For each day that Congress fails to act, more and more families like theirs are forced to confront a painful reality that no American should be forced to consider.

Passage of UAFA -- whether as a standalone bill or part or a larger, much-needed immigration reform measure -- would mean the end of such separations for LGBT families... and an important beginning in recognizing those families at the federal level.

As Rachel Tiven, executive director of the Action Fund, said last week, "Whether your family is binational or not, legislation to extend immigration rights is an important first step in securing broader recognition, and rights, for every LGBT family." That, she said, is why "it is imperative that everyone who believes in federal equality for our families stand with Senator Menendez -- who courageously included LGBT families in his bill -- by mobilizing grassroots support for its consideration in this Congress."

To take action and help ensure that this Thanksgiving is the last one in which LGBT families are forced into separation and exile, visit the Immigration Equality Action Fund online.

Together, we can give Judy, Karin, Juan Carlos and Greg -- and countless other families -- something to truly be thankful for.