Comprehensive, Inclusive Immigration Reform: The Most Important Gift of All

08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Steve and Joe live in the shadow of the capital, both literally and figuratively.

The Washington, D.C. couple, who have been together for almost a decade, recently bought a new home in the city's Columbia Heights neighborhood. Two weeks ago, they were married in Connecticut. And in early August, they will celebrate their life together with friends and family who will gather to toast the couple and salute their commitment to each other.

But there will be no gifts at Steve and Joe's Washington celebration. Instead of registering at Macy's or collecting appliances and furnishings, they have asked guests to make a contribution that, they hope, will help them stay together. Despite their strong commitment to each other, and the life they have built together, Steve and Joe face separation before year's end because of the country's blatantly discriminatory immigration policies.

Joe is from Indonesia and was recently laid off from his job. Now, he faces the probability that he will have to leave the country ... due, in part, to the fact that he is gay.

If Steve and Joe were a married (heterosexual) couple, Steve (who is an American citizen) would likely be able to sponsor Joe for residency in the United States. But because they are both men, they now face living on different continents, or uprooting their lives in Washington and leaving America behind.

For them, Congress can't move quickly enough to right this unfathomable wrong. As lawmakers begin crafting comprehensive immigration reform legislation, they are urging Congress to ensure that "comprehensive" includes them, too.

In June, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would end the discrimination lesbian and gay bi-national couples now face. The bill, led by Leahy in the Senate and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) in the House, enjoys growing support among lawmakers; 116 now support it in the House, and 21 Senators are on board in that chamber. But President Obama's pledge to fix America's broken immigration system this year presents a unique opportunity to act now for couples like Steve and Joe.

Both Senator Leahy and Congressman Nadler are steadfast advocates of including their legislation in the larger, comprehensive bill Congress will soon consider. That advocacy received another boost earlier this year when Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) also included lesbian and gay couples in The Reuniting Families Act, which would fix many of the problems that so many families -- both gay and straight -- encounter when navigating the United States' immigration system.

Steve and Joe are hoping the complete comprehensive immigration reform package will, at long last, bring couples like them out from the legislative shadows.

An estimated 36,000 lesbian and gay couples would benefit from immigration reform that includes all families. As the Associated Press reported over the weekend, many are quickly running out of time. Some live part of each year abroad. Others are house hunting because they cannot stay in the country they love. Some, like Steve and Joe, are making "Plan B's" and hoping against hope that Congress acts soon.

"I feel like a third-class citizen," Steve recently said in an interview, noting that, unlike most Americans, he is unable to sponsor his loved one for residency because he is gay. "We don't have the same rights as heterosexual couples. We also don't have the same rights as gay couples who are born in this country."

"If we were heterosexual ... Steve could sponsor me as family," Joe added.

But in the eyes of the United States, Steve and Joe don't count as family, despite all they've been through together.

Steve met Joe while he was studying in at a university in Pennsylvania. The U.S. government paid for Joe's PhD program ... an investment it now stands to lose. When the economic downturn hit his engineering firm hard, Joe lost his job. Along with it, he also lost his sponsor, and his pending green card, which was due to arrive any day. But the pink slip beat the green card, and now, unless he finds new employment in the structural engineering field soon, Joe will be forced to leave the country.

"The clock is ticking," Steve said in his recent interview, noting that the couple have already hired an attorney to look into the option of moving to Canada in order to be together.

That move, however, could be prevented if Congress takes up (and passes) comprehensive immigration reform soon ... and includes couples like them as part of that process. So, on August 8, in lieu of home decor or new dishware, the couple have asked those who will gather with them to celebrate their relationship to make a donation to Immigration Equality, an organization working to end anti-LGBT discrimination in the immigration system and include UAFA as part of immigration reform.

A resulting victory could be the most important gift of all ... and finally bring couples like Steve and Joe out from the shadows of Capitol Hill.