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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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Air Force base axes ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) welcomed the decision

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(Screenshot from U.S. Air Force's YouTube page)

A drag queen story hour scheduled to be held at the library in honor of Pride month at Ramstein Air Base in Germany was abruptly cancelled by the command staff of the 86th Airlift Wing on Thursday.

According to Stars and Stripes, the 86th Air Wing’s public affairs sent a statement to a radical-right anti-LGBTQ news outlet in Canada, The Post Millennial, which had requested comment to its article about the event and also accused the Air Force of pushing a more “woke” agenda among servicemen. 

“An advertisement was posted to the base library social media page before the event had completed Ramstein’s established processes for special observance coordination and approval.  The advertisement has been removed and the event will not take place. Ramstein leaders strive to foster a culture based on inclusion where all people are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their political views, color of their skin or sexual orientation. The base’s established processes will ensure all future special observance events are properly reviewed and approved prior to advertisement.”

The Post Millennial’s story framed its reporting using hard-line right terms and descriptions of the LGBTQ community; “Drag Queen Story Hour has become a phenomenon in recent years, with men dressing up in clownish, garish costumes of women to read to children. Many drag queens have sexualized names, like Penny Tration.”

The conservative outlet also reported that one mom of a toddler, whose husband is stationed at the base, told The Post Millennial that while she often takes her child to the library for story time, she was “shocked to see the Ramstein Air Force Base Library plans to hold an official drag queen story hour for children.”

“I find it wholly inappropriate that the MILITARY of all places will be using public funds to sexualize children,” she said.

According to Stars and Stripes, the cancellation of the drag queen book reading drew mixed opinions from the Kaiserslautern Military Community, which encompasses Ramstein. With tens of thousands of Defense Department personnel and their families, it is the largest U.S. military community overseas.

An opponent of the wing’s decision launched a petition at Change.org to try to get the event reinstated.

“Now more (than) ever we need to show our support to our enlisted members and spouses in the face of blatant discrimination,” wrote the petition organizer, named Natalie Oyer, who described herself as spouse to a transgender wife.

“I don’t know if anything can bring back the events though,” Oyer wrote. “Most of the queens are enlisted.”

Stars and Stripes also reported that the 86th Airlift Wing, axed a separate drag karaoke event scheduled to be held at the base enlisted club, according to community members posting on social media sites.

In a press release Friday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took partial credit for the cancellation.

Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall regarding the Air Force Library at Ramstein Air Force Base hosting a “Drag Queen Story Time” event for young children of servicemembers. Rubio urged him to cancel the event, discipline the staff involved in planning and hosting the event, and respond to questions on whether other installations both at home and around the world have done similar events. Following receipt of Rubio’s letter, the Air Force canceled the event. 

“The last thing parents serving their nation overseas should be worried about, particularly in a theater with heightened geopolitical tensions, is whether their children are being exposed to sexually charged content simply because they visited their local library,” Rubio wrote.

The 86th Airlift Wing’s publics affairs office at Ramstein and the U.S. Air Force Public Affairs office at the Pentagon have not responded to a request for comment.

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Pulse survivor ‘at a loss’ over Texas elementary school massacre

Brandon Wolf is Equality Florida’s press secretary

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Brandon Wolf was a Grand Marshal at the 2019 Capital Pride Parade on June 8, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Adam Hall)

A survivor of the Pulse nightclub massacre on Wednesday said he is “at a loss” over the massacre at a Texas elementary school that left 21 people dead.

“Twenty-one people were murdered,” said Equality Florida Press Secretary Brandon Wolf in a statement he sent to the Washington Blade a day after a gunman killed 21 people inside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. “Nineteen of them were children — babies. That means 19 families sent their elementary age kids off to school only to get the worst news: That their babies would be leaving class in body bags.”

Wolf was inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016, when a gunman opened fire and killed 49 people. His two close friends — Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and his fiancé, Juan Guerrero — were among those killed.

Wolf in his statement noted “right wing politicians have spent the past year insisting that the greatest threats our children face are the potential they’ll learn that this nation was built on the backs of enslaved Black people or that their teacher uses they/them pronouns.”

“They’ve banned books, censored curriculum and bastardized history lessons,” said Wolf. “All the while, they haven’t lifted a finger to protect kids from what is killing them.”

Equality Florida echoed Wolf’s sentiments.

“I am heartbroken for the shattered families,” added Wolf. “Grief-stricken for these stolen lives. And enraged at the power-hungry leaders who have chosen time and again to serve up this country’s most vulnerable as sacrifices in exchange for a boost up the ladder of their own ambitions.”

Axel Rodríguez’s friend, Xavier Serrano Rosado, died inside the Pulse nightclub.

Rodríguez told the Blade that Tuesday was “such a dad day for us here” in Orlando.

“It is like going through the same emotions we had when the attack at Pulse happened, but it’s even worse because we are talking about children,” he said. “When will our government stop thinking about money and stop this madness? Everyone now can obtain a gun anywhere. I just cannot comprehend that at all.”

The Pulse nightclub massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history until a gunman on Oct. 1, 2017, killed 60 people at a concert in Las Vegas.

A gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Twenty children and six adults died in the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

The Robb Elementary School massacre took place less than three years after a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

“There are no words,” tweeted Pride Center San Antonio, which is roughly 90 minutes east of Robb Elementary School, on Wednesday.

“Our hearts are with the Uvalde community,” said Equality Texas on Tuesday. “Every child deserves to free safe at school.”

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Texas

Republican lawmaker claims Texas school gunman was transgender

Massacre victims were inside single classroom

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Families gather at a Uvalde, Texas, civic center to wait for news about their loved ones. (Photo courtesy of Niki Griswold/Twitter)

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed that all of the 19 children and two adults were killed in single classroom at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday.

According to officials, 18-year-old Salvador Rolando Ramos, wearing body armor had barricaded himself inside a fourth-grade classroom, where all the fatalities and injuries occurred. Ramos, who attended the nearby high school, was killed on scene by a member of a federal U.S. Border Patrol tactical unit who had responded alongside local law enforcement.

Several other children were injured in the attack, including a 10-year-old who remained in critical condition in a Texas hospital. Law enforcement officials told reporters Ramos shot his grandmother before heading to the school with two military-style rifles he bought on his 18th birthday which was within the last two weeks.

Law enforcement has only released some of the victim’s identities and according to the Austin Statesman newspaper’s political reporter Niki Griswold, parents were gathered late into the night to give DNA samples to find out whether or not their children were among the dead. Griswold also tweeted, “The agonized screams of family members are audible from the parking lot,” as she also noted “A family has erupted into sobs outside the civic center.”

As Texas and the nation reeled in shock over yet another deadly mass shooting, Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, who espouses radical right view points and former President Trump’s MAGA philosophy, took to Twitter and spread a false and transphobic claim that the suspected shooter was a “transsexual leftist illegal alien.”

Screenshot of now-deleted tweet by Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar

As of Tuesday evening, Gosar had not commented on his tweet, which was deleted about two hours after being published.

Gosar is an anti-immigration, anti-vaxxer, radical right hardliner who routinely cozies up to white nationalists. He was apparently promoting a false claim circulating on right-wing networks. Users shared images of a transgender person unrelated to the attack claiming they were the shooter.

President Biden addresses nation the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday evening.
(Screenshot/White House YouTube)

In Washington last night, President Biden, speaking to the nation said;

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” he asked. “Why do we keep letting this happen?  Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the [gun] lobbies? 

Speaking from personal experience, as a father who has lost two children, Biden added: “To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away. There’s a hollowness in your chest, and you feel like you’re being sucked into it and never going to be able to get out. It’s suffocating. And it’s never quite the same.”

Global reaction included sympathy from Ukraine’s leadership.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed condolences to the community of Uvalde where the 21 people — including the 19 students — were murdered in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

“Deeply saddened by the news of the murder of innocent children in Texas,” Zelenskyy wrote. “Sincere condolences to the families of the victims, the people of the U.S. and @POTUS over this tragedy. The people of Ukraine share the pain of the relatives and friends of the victims and all Americans.”

NPR reported Wednesday that Zelenskyy also referenced the shooting while speaking by video link at a conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in which he drew a direct parallel between the shooting and the war in Ukraine.

“I feel it is my personal tragedy when children are killed in Texas, and now in my country Russian military is killing our children,” he said.

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