Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said on Wednesday that protections for bi-national same-sex couples would result in no greater risk of fraud under U.S. immigration code.
During a hearing on comprehensive immigration reform before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Napolitano made the case for comprehensive immigration reform and answered questions about legislation that would enable gay Americans to sponsor a same-sex foreign partner for residency in the United States.
These couples face separation — and possibly deportation of the foreign national in the relationship — under current law. President Obama has called for a provision addressing this issue as part of his plan for comprehensive immigration reform.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked whether the Uniting American Families Act — legislation addressing the issue that he introduced on the same day in the Senate — would present a risk of people abusing the system to gain entry to the country.
In response, Napolitano denied any problems with respect to fraud would present themselves upon passage of Leahy’s legislation.
“Our adjudicators are experienced at fraud, fraud detection,” Napolitano said. “We’ve actually increased the number of examiners who focus on this. This is done primarily at [U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services]. But, no, we don’t see that as a barrier to achieving equality.”
In his opening statement before the hearing, Leahy — saying he wants the committee to complete work on immigration reform legislation “over the next few months” — announced he had introduced the legislation with bipartisan support along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who became the first Republican to co-sponsor the legislation in September.
“This legislation will end the needless discrimination so many Americans face in our immigration system,” Leahy said. “Too many citizens, including Vermonters who I have come to know personally and who want nothing more than to be with their loved ones, are denied this basic human right. This policy serves no legitimate purpose and it is wrong.”
UAFA imposes the same restrictions and penalties applied to straight Americans seeking to sponsor a spouse for residency via a marriage-based green card application under the Immigration & Naturalization Act. The penalties for fraud include a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to a query over whether Obama has decided to endorse UAFA that the legislation is in line with Obama’s plan for immigration reform, which includes a provision for bi-national same-sex couples.
“The president has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love,” Inouye said. “There is already legislation that has been introduced in Congress that would address that, and the president’s proposal tracks that legislation.”
The 12-page testimony that Napolitano submitted to the committee reiterates Obama’s support for bi-national same-sex couples as part of reform, saying his plan “treats the families of same-sex partners the same as other families by giving foreign born same-sex partners of Americans access to the family based immigration system.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) — lamenting that the issue is often seen as a “divisive issue or side issue that doesn’t deserve focus” — followed up later with questions about whether the Obama administration could commit to ceasing the deportation of foreign-nationals in same-sex relationships under current law if nothing is done. Napolitano denied she was able to take such action under the Defense of Marriage Act.
“I cannot give a categorical answer there because of DOMA, and we are charged with enforcing DOMA as well,” Napolitano replied.
LGBT advocates — including Immigration Equality — have been pushing the Obama administration to place on hold the marriage-based green card applications of bi-national same-sex couples until DOMA is stricken from the books. Upon each request, the administration has said it must uphold DOMA.
Under Napolitano, the administration has already taken steps to assist bi-national couples. In October, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance stipulating immigration officers should consider “long-term, same-sex partners” as families when considering whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the potential deportation of an undocumented immigrant.
Also presenting testimony during a second panel at the hearing was Jose Antonio Vargas, a gay Filipino undocumented immigrant and award-winning journalist.
While his testimony reflected more on the importance of incorporating language as part of reform along the lines of the DREAM Act to allow young, undocumented immigrants like himself a path to citizenship, Vargas talked about being both gay and an undocumented immigrant as reasons why he’s faced challenges in the country.
Under questioning from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Vargas said he’s spoken with bi-national same-sex couples and realized the destructiveness of current immigration law.
“It’s been really interesting when you see same-sex couples say I can’t marry and petition of 5, 10, 12 years because we have DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act,” Vargas said. “The federal government doesn’t acknowledge same-sex marriage even if it happens in New York, for example, or Massachusetts. You really see how broken it is from the perspective of individual lives and their connections to their own communities, and that’s why it was important for me not just to bring my Filipino-American family, but to bring the family that I found at my high school.”