In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress, once again, to tackle the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. In his first remarks on the topic since the Senate voted down the DREAM Act -- which would have provided young people a path to citizenship in return for service in our armed forces or obtaining a degree at a college or university in the United States -- the President laid out the case for fixing a woefully broken system that hasn't been reformed in decades.
It is no accident that the President included immigration as part of a speech that focused heavily on boosting our country's economy. The two are inextricably linked, and smart reform can be part of the plan to put the U.S. further ahead on the road to economic progress. No matter where you fall on the issue of immigration, there is no denying that our immigration policy impacts our workforce, tax base and businesses, too.
In his remarks on Tuesday, President Obama specifically noted the absurdity of continuing to force talented young people, who are educated and trained in the United States, to leave the country once their education is complete. "As soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us," the President said. "It makes no sense."
He's right, of course. But there's another piece of the immigration puzzle that makes no sense, either.
Current immigration laws are forcing some American citizens to quit their jobs, sell their homes and leave their own country. That's right: American citizens. More than 36,000 of them, who happen to be lesbian and gay and have a partner from another country, face the unimaginable choice of leaving their country -- and their jobs -- behind, or tearing their families apart.
Last year, Immigration Equality worked with Steve Orner, an American citizen whose Indonesian partner lost his work visa when the economy went south and his employer started laying off workers. Steve's partner, who is a structural engineer specializing in infrastructure projects, received his PhD in engineering right here in the United States. His degree was even funded by government scholarships. Our country recognized the extraordinary contribution he could make... but because of discriminatory immigration laws, he was turned away. Steve has now quit his job in the U.S., and the two are in the process of reuniting in Canada, where both of them will have their skills welcomed, and their relationship recognized.
In California, Judy Rickard took early retirement from her job so she could be with her partner, who is British, year-round. The two could only remain together in the U.S. six months each year, and that made it impossible to keep her job in place and her family intact.
A similar scenario plays out, all around the country, every day. In Vermont, Michael Upton, who has worked with injured veterans at a local VA facility, was forced to confront the same choice after falling in love with a partner from abroad. In Minnesota, a small business owner faces the possibility of shuttering her business -- which generates approximately $1 million in tax revenue -- because her partner cannot live here in the U.S. with her.
All of these stories -- and the thousands of others like them -- would be a thing of the past if Congress would simply amend immigration laws to grant lesbian and gay Americans the ability -- as their straight neighbors have long had -- to sponsor their life partners for residency here in the United Sates.
The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would end the double standard some couples face under our current system, would allow Steve to remain in the U.S., and his partner to be part of rebuilding our infrastructure. It would allow Judy and Michael the opportunity to keep their full-time jobs, too. And it would give every employer a key tool they need to recruit and retain a skilled, talented workforce that is, increasingly, forced to take their talents abroad.
It's no wonder that a growing list of Fortune 500 companies, including industry leaders like Pfizer, American Airlines, Cisco Systems, Nike and others, have signed onto a business coalition urging Congress to pass UAFA. Including this simple -- but enormously important -- provision in comprehensive immigration reform would help numerous businesses, both big and small. Currently, 59% of OECD countries -- our main international competitors -- offer the same for lesbian and gay couples. It is past time for the United States to do so as well.
The President was right to call on Congress to cross partisan lines and address immigration reform. Doing so makes good sense for businesses, families and the economy. But that reform must include UAFA, too, so that American businesses can retain American workers and have a key advantage in the race to remain competitive.
Just as it makes no sense to train workers in our own country and then force them to leave, it also makes no sense to force American citizens, and American workers, outside of the American workforce, either. It's time, as President Obama said on Tuesday night, to "stop expelling talented, responsible people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation."
That includes lesbian and gay workers, too.
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