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Another shot for UAFA in House, Senate

Lawmakers write to administration seeking executive action

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Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) reintroduced UAFA on Thursday (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Lawmakers initiated on Thursday a two-pronged approach to stop the separation of bi-national same-sex couples in the United States by introducing legislation and sending a letter to the Obama administration urging executive action.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) reintroduced in the House the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States, while Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) reintroduced companion legislation in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, sent a letter to the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security — along with 47 other U.S. House members — urging administration officials to stop the deportations of foreigners in legally recognized same-sex marriages in the United States.

During a news conference Thursday, Nadler touted his newly reintroduced legislation, which has been languishing in Congress in various versions for more than a decade, as a means to “remove a wantonly discriminatory policy” in U.S. immigration code.

“Today, thousands of committed same-sex couples are needlessly suffering because of unequal treatment under our immigration laws, and this is an outrage,” Nadler said. “The Constitution guarantees that no class of single people will be singled out for differential and invidious treatment — and LGBT Americans should not, and must not, be excluded from that guarantee.”

In a statement, Leahy said UAFA is necessary because a key tenet of U.S. immigration policy is maintaining “family unity” — even for LGBT people — whom he said are often forced to choose between the country they love and the person they love.

“I hear from Vermont couples who face this difficult decision every year,” Leahy said. “No American should face such a choice. I hope that my colleagues who supported this important civil rights reform will join me in calling for fairness and equality in our immigration laws.”

Under current immigration code, straight Americans can sponsor their spouses for residency in the United States through the green card application process if their spouses are foreign nationals. The same rights aren’t available to gay Americans because they cannot marry in many places in the United States. Even where gay nuptials are recognized, Americans can’t sponsor their same-sex spouses for citizenship because the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits federal recognition of marriage equality.

Consequently, foreign nationals who are in committed relationships with gay Americans may have to leave the country upon expiration of their temporary visas or face deportation.

“It’s not only the partners in committed relationships that suffer, it’s their children, their extended families,” Nadler said. “Their communities and employers are all hurt when families are broken up.”

Shirley Tan (right) and Jay Mercado (left) with their two children and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (center) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Shirley Tan, a Philippines native and lesbian Pacifica, Calif., resident, put a face to the need for passing UAFA during the news conference when she recounted how she was arrested in January 2009 by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and threatened with deportation away from her partner for nearly 25 years, Jay Mercado, and their two children: Jashley and Joriene.

“When I think of UAFA, I am reminded of what that ICE officer told me when I was picked up — that if Jay is a man, this wouldn’t have happened,” Tan said. “Same-sex couples should be given the right to petition for their partners. It is just plain discrimination that until now, this great country cannot have equality among their citizens.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has since introduced private legislation to keep Tan and Mercado together in the United States with their children temporarily, and is expected to do so again during the 112th Congress. The bill must be reintroduced every two years. If not, or if Feinstein leaves the Senate, Tan would again face deportation.

UAFA has provisions that would impose penalties on those who would seek the exploit the opportunities provided under the legislation should it become law. Any person found to have entered into a fraudulent, permanent partnership for the purposes of obtaining a visa for another individual could be subject to five-year imprisonment or a $250,000 fine, or both. UAFA also requires bi-national couples to provide proof that they are partners as defined in the legislation.

Representatives from LGBT advocacy groups who were present at the news conference — including Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese and National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey — commended Nadler for introducing the legislation and said the bill is badly needed to eliminate the inequities that bi-national same-sex couples face.

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, expressed optimism about the chances of action from either Congress or the administration to provide relief to bi-national same-sex couples.

“Everything is coming together for LGBT Americans with foreign national partners,” Tiven said. “This is the time that have been waiting for. We are so close, we are so close at last to having truly equal rights for all American families — and LGBT immigrant families at the center of that change.”

The White House’s support for UAFA isn’t as strong as it is for other pro-LGBT legislation, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama “supports the goals of this legislation,” but didn’t explicitly endorse UAFA.

“He believes that Americans with partners from other countries should not be faced with a painful choice between staying with their partner or staying in their country and thus we will work closely with Congress to craft comprehensive immigration reform legislation,” Inouye added.

The 100 co-sponsors that the House legislation had as of Thursday include the four openly gay members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).

A proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, Polis during news conference said the inability of gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners under current law is “just another example of how our broken immigration system is tearing apart.”

“Instead of continuing to discriminate against same-sex marriage, we should welcome immigrants who help grow our economy and make our country stronger,” Polis said. “Regardless of which side of the aisle one stands on, we all agree that our immigration system should reflect the values that our country hold dear. It should reward those who work hard and support families; instead, we have a system that breaks up families by deporting the loved ones of Americans.”

Movement on the UAFA in the House is expected to be difficult — to say the least — with Republicans in control of the chamber. Neither the office of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) nor the office of House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who’s known for anti-gay views, responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the legislation.

During the news conference, Nadler said he’s spoken with Smith about having a hearing or a markup on UAFA, but added the Texas lawmaker was “non-committal.”

A House Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed pessimism about passage of UAFA both in the House Judiciary Committee and on the House floor because of the anti-gay Republican positions.

“The chairman has pretty strong stand against LGBT equality and against comprehensive immigration reform, so this might be the best Judiciary Committee to get optimistic about,” the aide said. “I don’t see Boehner bringing it up and I don’t see where you get enough Republicans [for passage] — even if you held the entire Democratic caucus together.”

No Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors for UAFA. Nadler said he’s spoken to some GOP lawmakers who have told him they’re “thinking about” signing on in support, although he declined to identify which lawmakers made these comments.

“We’d love to work with the Republicans on it, and we’re reaching out to see who we can get,” Nadler said.

In the Senate, where Democrats remain in control following the 2010 election, UAFA is seen as having as having brighter prospects, although challenges remain.

A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Republican support would be needed to make progress on UAFA in the Senate despite Democratic control of the chamber.

“It is difficult to advance immigration-related legislation, and particularly difficult to do so without bipartisan support, and so we are focused right now on shoring up more support for the bill,” the aide said.

In the Senate, UAFA had 18 co-sponsors as of Thursday, including Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as well as Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). As in the House, the Senate version of the legislation has no Republican co-sponsors.

UAFA supporters have long advocated that comprehensive immigration reform is the best vehicle from moving the legislation forward in both chambers of Congress. Earlier this year, media reports emerged that key players for immigration reform in the Senate, including Schumer, had begun talks about comprehensive immigration reform legislation — intriguing LGBT advocates about the possibility of UAFA inclusion.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a UAFA co-sponsor and leading proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, said during the news conference he’s heard about the immigration inequities facing LGBT people — as part of his “Campaign for American Children and Families” tour, which is aimed to address broader immigration and deportation concerns — and believes language to protect bi-national same-sex couples should part of any larger immigration package that passes Congress.

“If deportations or an inflexible visa system or any of the problems our immigration system are holding back and splitting up American families, it’s holding back gay and lesbian families as much or even more,” Gutierrez said. “That is why we need UAFA, and why it needs to be part of immigration reform.”

But whether immigration reform can pass both chambers of Congress — especially with Republicans in control of the House — remains to be seen, even though Obama mentioned it as legislative priority during the 2011 State of the Union address. Polis has told the Washington Blade passage is “unlikely” this Congress will pass immigration reform because many members of the Republican ran against it in their 2010 campaigns.

During the news conference, Nadler said he doesn’t know what the prospects are for passing comprehensive immigration reform in the 112th Congress, but said UAFA supporters will “press ahead” whether or not the larger bill goes forward.

As the new effort was launched to pass legislation, lawmakers also made their case with the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to stop the separation of foreign nationals in legally recognized same-sex marriages administratively.

Lofgren announced at the news conference on Thursday that she and 47 other Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the departments asking the Obama administration to take action — as she denounced the current situation under U.S. immigration law.

“Changing the law takes time, and that is something that so many of these families, including U.S. citizens, spouses and children, do not have,” Lofgren said. “Our administration, like all prior administrations, has the ability under current law to avoid the senseless destruction of families while the validity of the Defense of Marriage Act is tackled in the courts and in Congress.”

The letter maintains that the Obama administration has the authority to stop the deportations of foreign nationals in legally recognized same-sex marriage now that the president has found that DOMA is unconstitutional. On Feb. 23, U.S. Attorney General Eric General announced that Obama determined DOMA was unconstitutional and that the Justice Department would no longer defend the anti-gay law against litigation in court.

To the Department of Homeland Security, the lawmakers ask U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to hold the denial of green card applications for married same-sex couples until Congress repeals DOMA or the courts make a determination on the law’s constitutionality.

“We further ask that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) exercise its existing prosecutorial discretion in removal proceedings with respect to lawfully-married foreign nationals who would be eligible for immigration relief but for DOMA,” the lawmakers write. “ICE already exercises prosecutorial discretion and promotes efficient use of government resources by dismissing without prejudice certain cases in which a foreign national appears to be eligible for relief from removal on the basis of a pending petition or application.”

Adam Fetcher, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, said his department plans to respond to the lawmakers, but continues to enforce DOMA as directed by the Justice Department.

“The administration will respond to the members of Congress directly,” Fetcher said. “Pursuant to the attorney general’s guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the executive branch, including DHS, will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it or there a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional.”

To the Justice Department, the lawmakers ask that the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Executive Office of Immigration Review issue a moratorium on removing married foreign nationals in same-sex marriages “who would be eligible to adjust their status to lawful permanent residence but for DOMA.”

Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, said her department is reviewing the letter and will respond.

The letter from U.S. House members comes on the heels of a similar letter that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 11 other U.S. senators sent last week to Obama administration seeking restitution for married bi-national same-sex couples. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who is among the co-signers of the Lofgren letter, also last week sent a similar missive to the Obama administration.

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Alarming numbers of Texas Trans kids in crisis over litany of anti-Trans bills

“Under the guise of protecting children- Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender & nonbinary youth”

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LGBTQ youth protest anti-Trans bills at the Texas Capitol building (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

NEW YORK – The Trevor Project received nearly 4,000 crisis contacts from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas in 2021, with many directly stating that they are feeling stressed and considering suicide due to anti-trans laws being debated in their state.

This new data comes during a year when Texas lawmakers have proposed nearly 70 anti-LGBTQ bills, including more than 40 bills that specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth — far more than any other state.

The Texas State Senate passed its anti-trans sports ban SB3 this week, and the companion bill HB10 is now moving forward in the Texas House. 

Republican Texas Governor Abbott has prioritized SB 3 and called for a third consecutive special session of the legislature to consider this bill, which would ban transgender student-athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

“The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors have been hearing from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas who are scared and worried about anti-trans laws being debated in their state — and some have even expressed suicidal thoughts. This is a crisis. We urge Texas lawmakers to consider the weight of their words and actions — and to reject HB10/SB3,” said Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project.

  • Between January 1 and August 30, 2021, The Trevor Project received more than 10,800 crisis contacts (calls, texts, and chats) from LGBTQ young people in Texas looking for support. More than 3,900 of those crisis contacts (36%) came from transgender or nonbinary youth.
  • Crisis contacts from LGBTQ young people in Texas seeking support have grown over 150% when compared to the same time period in 2020.
  • While this volume of crisis contacts can not be attributed to any one factor (or bill), a qualitative analysis of the crisis contacts found that:
  • Transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas have directly stated that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state.
  • Some transgender and nonbinary youth have expressed fear over losing access to sports that provide important acceptance in their lives.

“As a transgender young person in Texas, this new data from the Trevor Project is not surprising, but it’s nonetheless harrowing and alarming to see this representation of the detrimental impact Texas Lege is having on our community — especially our kids. Lawmakers and proponents of bills like SB3 and HB10 should be alarmed by these statistics, too,” Landon Richie a Trans youth activist and GenderCool Youth Leader from Houston told the Los Angeles Blade.

“Under the guise of protecting children and promoting fairness, Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender and nonbinary youth, denying them the dignity, respect, and childhoods that they deserve. It’s never an exaggeration to say that the passage — and merely debate — of these bills will cost lives,”  Richie added.

National mental health organizations like The Trevor Project and state LGBTQ equality groups including Equality Texas and Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) are raising concerns about the impact of such legislation on the mental health and wellbeing of transgender and nonbinary youth.

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. Further, Trevor released a new research brief earlier this month on LGBTQ youth participation in sports, which found that a majority of LGBTQ young people (nearly 66%) do not actively participate in sports — with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a key factor for not participating.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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2nd largest school district in Utah bans Pride & BLM flags as ‘too political’

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can”

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Davis School District Offices in Farmington Utah (Photo Credit: Davis School District)

FARMINGTON, Ut. – Administrators this week in the Davis School District, which is Utah’s 2nd largest school district with 72,987 students, banned LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags, saying they are ‘politically charged.’

According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Davis Schools spokesperson Chris Williams told the paper; “No flags fly in our schools except for the flag of the United States of America.” Williams later walked that statement back adding a clarification that some of the Districts schools have flags from sports team or international countries which are considered “unrelated to politics.”

“What we’re doing is we’re following state law,” said Williams. “State law says that we have to have a classroom that’s politically neutral.”

Amanda Darrow, Director of Youth, Family, and Education at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, told multiple media outlets the school district is “politicizing the rainbow flag” which doesn’t belong on a political list.

“That flag for us is so much more,” said Darrow. “It is just telling us we’re included in the schools, we are being seen in the schools, and we belong in these schools.”

KUTV CBS2 News in Salt Lake City checked with the Utah State Board of Education. In an email, spokesman Mark Peterson said, “There is nothing in code that specifically defines a rainbow flag as a political statement so it would be up to district or charter school policies to make that determination.”

The local Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in saying in a statement;

Whether or not a school district has the legal ability to ban inclusive and supportive symbols from classrooms, it is bad policy for them to do so,” the advocacy organization said in a statement. “Utah schools have an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identify, feel welcome inside a classroom. We urge school administrators and teachers to adopt policies that make all students feel safe and included.”

Williams insisted the policy is not meant to exclude anyone and that all students are loved and welcomed – they just want to keep politics out of school he told the Tribune and KUTV.

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can,” said Williams.

A Utah based veteran freelance journalist, writer, editor, and food photographer weighed in on Twitter highlighting the negative impact of the Davis Schools decision on its LGBTQ youth.

Davis County School District bans LGTBQ and BLM flags as ‘too political’

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Non-binary person reports assault by Proud Boys near Portland

‘They nearly killed me’

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Juniper Simonis (Photo by Mariah Harris)

It was a typical day for Juniper Simonis. The freelance ecologist decided to break from work for lunch at about 3 p.m. to take their service dog, Wallace, to the local dog park and grab a bite to eat.  

But a planned peaceful afternoon quickly turned ugly. Simonis says they survived a gang assault of about 30 perpetrators in Gresham, Ore., a suburb outside of Portland. The Oregon resident encountered the group for only minutes but suffered a concussion, sprained jaw, extensive car damage and verbal assaults, they said. 

“They nearly killed me,” they said.

Simonis said they turned into a parking lot to pick up lunch in Gresham, Ore., and stumbled upon a rally that included several members of the Proud Boys — a far-right, ultra-nationalist organization known for its anti-LGBTQ, anti-feminism and neo-fascist ideologies. 

There was a “Flag Ride” right-wing rally in a parking lot earlier that day. Simonis was under the impression the event had ended after checking reports on Twitter. After pulling into the lot, originally to look for lunch options, Simonis saw a large gathering still in the lot. 

Simonis decided to take pictures of what was happening to post online to warn others and was intentional in keeping their distance, they said. As Simonis was preparing to leave the area, they yelled from inside the car, “Fuck you, fascists, go home.” 

“I did not expect this to escalate into violence,” they said. 

The attack itself only lasted about three minutes, Simonis said. Simonis was quickly surrounded by several people and physically blocked from leaving the lot. People stepped in front of the parking lot exit, then a car was moved to barricade Simonis. People began to shout homophobic slurs at Simonis, they said. 

“I’m in serious trouble now and I know it,” they said. 

Simonis was then punched while inside their vehicle and was briefly knocked out. They regained consciousness a few seconds later, and a cinder block was thrown at the car and shattered the back window of their car inches away from their service dog, Wallace. 

Simonis got out of the car to assess the damage and make sure their service dog was safe. They quickly got back in their car and was able to leave the lot by maneuvering around the blocked exit, Simonis said. 

Wallace, Juniper Simonis’ service dog. (Photo by Mariah Harris)

Looking back at the photos and videos Simonis took before the assault, Simonis said they saw people looking into the camera and acknowledging them taking photos. 

“I honestly don’t know if I hadn’t said anything, that … things would have gone any different,” they said. 

Last year, Simonis was targeted and arrested by federal police in Portland during the tumultuous Black Lives Matter protests in the city. They were denied medical attention, misgendered, jumped and aggressively handcuffed while taken into custody. 

Simonis is still working through legal proceedings in a multi-plaintiff lawsuit. 

A witness to the event called the Gresham Police Department, which was only a few blocks away from the incident. But the call went to voicemail and the witness did not leave a message, Simonis said. 

Another witness called 911, Simonis said, which led to an officer calling Simonis about 45 minutes after the accident to take a report.   

In the police report obtained by the Blade, Simonis is consistently misgendered. Simonis’ sex is also listed as “unknown” in the report. The incident was labeled as vehicle vandalism. 

Simonis said the conversation with the officer was filled with victim-blaming and the officer wrote in the report that Simonis should avoid “approaching groups of this nature.”  

“At no point in this conversation does he treat me as an actual victim of a crime,” Simonis said.

The Gresham Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

Weeks after the assault, Simonis is struggling mentally and physically, they said. 

The concussion makes working on a computer virtually impossible because of light sensitivity and trouble focusing, Simonis said. The pain caused by the sprained jaw makes it difficult to focus, as well. 

Simonis is not able to begin physical therapy for their jaw until November because of long medical wait times, they said. The cost to repair the car damages will be about $8,000, as well, they said.  

The times where Simonis is able to focus are usually taken up by piecing together what happened that day, they said. 

“The part of my brain that I use for work has been hijacked functionally by the part of the brain that needed to know what happened to me,” they said. “There is such a painful need to understand what happened to me.”

Because of past traumatic events, like the experience of being in federal custody last year, Simonis said processing and living with the trauma is a bit easier to handle. But their ability to work will be forever changed yet again, they said. 

“I’m not able to work at the pace that I used to work at before I was assaulted by DHS. I’ll never be,” they said. “And this is just a further knockdown.” 

The trauma of the event has increased Simonis’ hyper-vigilance, as well. 

“Every time I hear a car go by, I’m double-checking,” they said. 

Even though Simonis has the tools to process and live with the immense trauma, they will never be the same person, they said. 

“They fucking changed my life forever. Point blank,” they said. “Not just mentally, but physically and physiologically. I can’t go back to where I was before. I’m lucky that I survived.”

Simonis has reported the attack to the FBI and is pursuing legal action with two specific goals in mind: to heal and to prevent similar crimes from happening.

“I am somebody who believes in abolishing the carceral system and the justice system as it exists and policing,” Simonis said. “But also a 37-year-old trans and disabled person who somehow managed to survive this long. And so naturally has become pragmatic about the world.”

Because of the reaction of the Gresham Police Department, Simonis did not want to work with local officers and instead went to the federal level. But because of the alleged assault by agents in Portland last year, this decision wasn’t easy for them.

Perpetrators in the assault threatened to call the police on Simonis,  even though Simonis did not commit a crime. Reporting the crime to the federal level is also a layer of protection, they said. 

“All of this is forcing my hand,” they said. There is no easy decision in the situation, they added. 

“We all know that crimes are underreported. We hear about it all the time,” they said. And there are reasons why people don’t report crimes and they’re totally understandable. A lot of victims are very concerned about what will happen if they break anonymity. In my situation, I’ve already broken anonymity.”

With recent arrests and crackdowns on the Proud Boys and other hate groups in the United States, Simonis is bracing for a long process. 

“This isn’t just going to go on a shelf,” they said. 

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