Thousands of U.S. citizens and their foreign same-sex partners face enormous hardships, separation and even exile because discriminatory U.S. immigration policies deprive these couples of the basic right to be together, Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality said in a report released last week.

The first-ever comprehensive report on the issue, “Family, Unvalued: Discrimination, Denial and the Fate of Binational Same-Sex Couples under U.S. Law,” documents how U.S immigration law and federal policy discriminate against binational same-sex couples.

The 2000 U.S. Census estimated that there were almost 40,000 lesbian and gay couples in which one partner is a U.S. citizen (or permanent resident), and the other a foreign national in the United States. This figure does not include the many thousands of binational couples who have to hide the fact they are partners, are forced to live apart, or who have been forced to leave the United States. Under discriminatory U.S. statutes, these couples have no recognition under the law.

“Discriminatory U.S. immigration laws turn the American dream into a heartless nightmare for countless U.S. citizens and their foreign partners,” said Scott Long, co-author of the report and director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program of Human Rights Watch. “As Congress debates immigration reforms, it should end discrimination against lesbian and gay immigrants as well as their U.S. partners.”

Immigration law places a priority on allowing citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their spouses and close relatives for entry into the U.S. Although the system remains imperfect, U.S. citizens and their foreign heterosexual partners can easily claim spousal status and the immigration rights that it brings.

U.S. citizens with foreign lesbian or gay partners, however, find that their relationship is considered non-existent under federal law. The “Defense of Marriage Act,” passed in 1996, declared that for all purposes of the federal government, marriage would mean “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” Since lesbian and gay couples are excluded from the definition of “spouse,” U.S. citizens receive no legal recognition of their same-sex partners for purposes of immigration.

Based on interviews and surveys with dozens of binational same-sex couples across the United States and around the world, the report documents the pressures and ordeals that lack of legal recognition imposes on lesbian and gay families. Couples described abuse and harassment by immigration officials. Some partners told stories of being deported from the United States and separated from their partners. Many couples, forced to live in different countries or continents, endure financial as well as emotional strain in keeping their relationships together.

Activists have called on Congress to pass the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), a bill that would offer binational same-sex couples’ relationships the same recognition and treatment afforded to binational married couples. The proposed law would add the term “permanent partner” to sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act where “spouse” now appears.

At least 19 nations worldwide provide some form of immigration benefits to the same-sex partners of citizens and permanent residents. These include Canada as well as 13 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom). On other continents, this list includes Brazil, Israel, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

To read the full report visit http://hrw.org/reports/2006/us0506/

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