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This Congress, This Year: Families Facing Separation Counting on Immigration Reform

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Earlier this month, when President Obama delivered an eloquent call-to-action on comprehensive immigration reform, there was an unexpected audience glued to their television sets at home: Lesbian and gay families who were hanging on the President's every word.

Immigration and LGBT rights are not generally thought of in the same sentence, but for a growing number of lesbian and gay Americans, fixing our country's broken immigration system has become an urgent -- and time-sensitive -- issue. Unlike their straight neighbors, gay Americans do not have the ability to sponsor their spouses or partners for residency in the United States. As a result, many of them are facing imminent separation, or are already living in exile.

There are an estimated 36,000 lesbian and gay Americans who have an immigrant partner. Nearly half of those families -- about 17,000 -- are raising young children who are American citizens. For those children, the United States is the only country they have ever called "home." Yet, because of discriminatory immigration laws, those same children face the prospect of losing one parent, or losing their home.

So when President Obama, in his remarks at American University, called for an immigration policy that will "respect families," instead of "tearing them apart," lesbian and gay families held onto hope that his words included their families, too.

Among those listening were Edwin Blesch and his husband, Tim.

Edwin, who is 70 and calls Long Island home, recently suffered a stroke. His health is not what it used to be, which makes traveling more and more difficult. He depends on Tim, 64, to help care for him.

Tim is South African, and he and Edwin have been together for twelve years. Tim has visited the United States, as his tourist visa allows, for six months each year. Then, until recently, he and Edwin would travel abroad for the remainder of the year, so the two could spend their retirement years together.

With Edwin's health deteriorating, however, travel has become more difficult. When Tim returns to South Africa later this year to visit his family, Edwin will likely not be able to travel with him. And Tim's tourist visa will soon no longer allow him to re-enter the United States.

Simply put: If Congress does not take action on immigration reform this year -- and include lesbian and gay families as part of its proposal -- Tim faces separation from Edwin ... and Edwin faces losing his caretaker and spouse.

On Thursday morning, a group of lawmakers will come together on Capitol Hill to call on their colleagues to take immediate action and help keep families like Edwin and Tim together.

The lawmakers -- including key leaders on immigration, such as Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) -- will join Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Mike Honda (D-CA) to put their support behind the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). The UAFA, which is sponsored by Nadler in the House and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in the Senate, would amend current immigration law to allow gay Americans the simple but profoundly important right to remain together with their loved ones.

Congressman Honda, who included UAFA in his family unification bill, the Reuniting Families Act, called it a critical piece of legislation that fits with President Obama's vision for reform.

The stories of Edwin and Tim, and other families like them, Honda wrote in an op-ed following the President's speech, "is all the more reason why a comprehensive plan must include a way for all families, including lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual families, to be reunited."

On Thursday, Nadler and Honda will receive a boost for their efforts as colleagues join them to call for passage of an immigration reform bill, which includes their proposals, in this Congress . . . this year.

The Immigration Equality Action Fund, which works on behalf of lesbian and gay immigrant families, will join lawmakers and pledge to bring the power of the LGBT community's grassroots -- in districts across the country -- to the campaign to pass inclusive immigration reform. The group -- and other LGBT, faith, immigration and civil rights leaders -- will, literally and figuratively, stand behind Members of Congress calling for an end to the discrimination faced by lesbian and gay binational families.

For Edwin and Tim, the outcome is much more than a hypothetical campaign for legislative gain. It may well be, for them and others, the difference between a life with the person they love and golden years tarnished by discriminatory laws that are tearing families apart.

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