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May 09, 2013

Senate Judiciary Takes Up Leahy's Immigration Reform Measures for Same-Sex Couples

Upton #1As the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee takes up some 300 amendments to the immigration overhaul bill today, one Vermonter will be following those proceedings more closely than most. In particular, South Hero resident Michael Upton will be watching two amendments, introduced by committee chair, Sen. Patrick Leahy, to extend equal immigration rights to same-sex couples.

In January 2008, the 49-year-old psychiatrist (in photo, right) was traveling in Brazil when he met a Brazilian national with whom he fell in love. The couple has maintained a committed relationship ever since. Had he been straight rather than gay, Upton would have had no problem bringing a female partner into the United States so they could get married.

However, because Upton's partner, Jandui Cavalcante, is a gay man, for the last two years the U.S. government has repeatedly denied him a visa to travel to Vermont to be with his life partner. This despite letters of support from Vermont's congressional delegation to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Why the repeated refusals? Is Cavalcante a convicted felon, terrorist, drug addict or some other less-than-scrupulous character the U.S. government needs to keep out of the country? 

Nothing of the sort. According to Upton, Cavalcante's visa applications have been denied simply because he doesn't own a home or business in Brazil, nor does he have any children there. As a result, in the U.S. government's eyes, Cavalcante doesn't have "sufficient ties to his home country of Brazil" and thus there are no guarantees he'll ever return home. In their visa refusal letters, immigration officials specifically cited Cavalcante's  "unclear relationship” with Upton.

At the time they met, Upton admits, "I didn’t understand that our relationship would be a problem."

Basically, what's keeping this couple apart is the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage under federal law as a union between a man and a woman. As a result, same-sex couples are denied scores of federal rights and benefits extended to opposite-sex couples, including the right to obtain a green card for one's fiancé.

As a result, Upton and Cavalcante have only been able to see each other outside the country — in Brazil, Mexico and western Europe.

But this week, Leahy introduced two amendments to the sweeping immigration reform package. One, called the "Uniting American Families Act" (UAFA), is actually a piece of legislation Leahy has sponsored for more than a decade. The amendments would change federal immigration law to recognize any lawfully married gay or lesbian couple for immigration purposes. Couples in marriage-equality states, such as Vermont, could show a marriage license to obtain a green card. In non-equality states, same-sex couples would be permitted to travel to a marriage-equality state to get married.

Should either amendment eventually be signed into law, Upton could travel to Rio de Janeiro and marry his partner there, where same-sex marriage is now legal.

However, Vermont's senior senator has come under considerable fire from some GOP lawmakers and conservative groups, who charge that these amendments threaten to sink the entire immigration reform package.

But Steve Ralls, director of communications with the nonprofit LGBT-rights group Immigration Equality, calls those threats "scare tactics to bully Democrats into abandoning gay families."

Ralls says that some lawmakers are just looking for any convenient excuse to walk away from immigration reform entirely.

"The culture wars were waged in America a decade ago, the other side lost and the country has moved forward by leaps and bounds since then," Ralls says. "GOP voters support gay families and Democratic voters do, too.  Senator Leahy is making a sensible attempt to include as many immigrants as possible in this once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a severely broken system. The only thing that will sink this bill is if anti-gay extremists vote against it."

Leahy's amendments need at least 10 votes on the committee in order to pass. According to Ralls, his group has secured pledges from nine Democrats, with New York's Chuck Schumer as the only Democratic holdout.

For Upton, a fourth-generation Vermonter who spent years counseling veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he's unsure what he'll do if he and his partner cannot be reunited in this country.

"Senator Leahy is the only reason this has a possibility," he says, "because despite a lot of pressure to not offer these amendments, he decided to do it anyway."

Photo contributed by Michael Upton

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