In what has been described as a major step to end immigration discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and their families in the U.S., a new bill – named the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) – has been introduced in congress in a bid to give same-sex binational couples the same rights as heterosexuals.

This legislation would allow Americans in same-sex binational relationships to sponsor their “permanent partners” for legal residency in the United States, a right currently afforded only to opposite-sex couples under immigration law.

“It is about time the US joined nearly 20 other countries in providing protection for the most basic human rights for its citizens – the ability to live in your own country, with the person you love,” said Michael Lim, Vice President of Out4Immigration, a grassroots organisation that advocates for an end to discrimination in US immigration policy.

Lim, an American citizen and veteran, has first-hand experience with immigration discrimination. For 12 years, he has been in a same-sex binational relationship with his partner who is from an Asian country. The couple was forced to live separately for part of their relationship, each in their respective country, because the U.S. does not recognise them as “spouses”. This made them ineligible to apply for a green card under family unification provisions.

The UAFA calls for adding the words “or permanent partner” to current U.S. immigration law wherever the word “spouse” appears. This small but significant change could help an estimated 36,000 same-sex binational couples end an often tenuous existence in the U.S. “I know many couples who have been forced to leave the U.S. or live apart like my partner and I once did,” said Lim. “The UAFA would not only help American citizens and their partners who are already living in the U.S., it would also help bring many of them home.”

The bill was introduced this week by Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Senator Leahy said, “Our immigration laws treat gays and lesbians in committed relationships as second-class citizens.” Congressman Nadler added that the UAFA “is a matter of basic fairness and compassion. We simply ask that gay and lesbian Americans in loving, committed relationships receive the same treatment as everyone else.”

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