Lesbian immigrant gets deportation reprieve
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A lesbian living in Pacifica who had faced imminent deportation to the Philippines despite the fact that she's been in the United States since the late 1980s and has been with her partner here for 23 years has been granted a reprieve.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced a private bill Wednesday, April 22 that would make Shirley Tan, 43, eligible for an immigrant visa or for adjustment of her status to an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence. The bill allows Tan to stay through the end of the 111th Congress in January 2011.
Tan had first been set for deportation by April 3. Her deportation had then been reset to occur by May 10.
"Even though this is not over yet, something's really being done," said Jay Mercado, 49, Tan's partner. "I just can't explain how we feel. ... We are so ecstatically happy."
But Tan's best chance of remaining in the United States with Mercado, who is a naturalized citizen also from the Philippines, and their twin 12-year-old sons, appears to be passage of the Uniting American Families Act, which Feinstein, so far, isn't co-sponsoring.
Despite repeated requests, Claire Bowyer, Feinstein's deputy press secretary, did not provide comment on why Feinstein isn't co-sponsoring the legislation.
The UAFA – House bill 1024 and Senate bill 424 – is proposed federal legislation that would protect thousands of same-sex binational couples like Tan and Mercado. The bills were re-introduced February 12.
The UAFA would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign same-sex partners for legal residency in the U.S. Under the current Immigration and Naturalization Act, an American citizen can only sponsor his or her opposite-sex spouse for a green card, representing legal residency.
Tan and Mercado married in 2004 and have registered as domestic partners. Mercado said that now she's hoping and praying for UAFA's passage.
"You just can't imagine the things we went through ... if that had already passed we would not have been in this situation," said Mercado.
Asked about Feinstein not yet co-sponsoring the act, Mercado said, "She should. I think she will."
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced the Senate version of the UAFA. David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, wrote in an e-mail that this is the fourth Congress in which Leahy has introduced the legislation, and it's "gaining ground each time."
Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) first introduced the House version as the Permanent Partners Immigration Act of 2000.
"I think this bill has a better chance of passing than ever before," said Ilan Kayatsky, Nadler's communications director. "[There's] a climate in Congress and in the White House which is different than it has ever been. We have a number of progressives in Congress who support this bill, who support gay rights, and who support comprehensive immigration reform, and if we could rally members on these various issues. We have a great chance of success."
Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) is a co-sponsor of Nadler's bill and has worked to help Tan stay in the country. Mike Larsen, Speier's communications director, said the congresswoman will do "everything" to push for passage of the UAFA.
"It is a top priority for her," said Larsen.
Tan's case was featured in a recent People magazine article and has also attracted attention at the state level. Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 15 on April 20, requesting that Congress passes and President Obama signs the UAFA.
Tan has said that she is afraid to return to the Philippines.
When Tan was 14, a cousin shot her in the head and killed her mother and sister.
The cousin spent at least 10 years in jail.
Tan hasn't been to the Philippines in more than 20 years, and she fears her life would be in danger if she returned.
She first came to the U.S. as a visitor in 1986, stayed for about six months, then went back to the Philippines. She came back to the U.S. in 1989 and has stayed in this country since then.
In 1995, Tan applied for asylum, but her case was denied. She fought that decision but in May 2002, the Board of Immigration Appeals gave her 30 days to leave the country voluntarily or be deported.
Mercado has said that Norma Molinar, Tan's attorney at the time the 2002 order was issued, "dropped the ball."
Tan claims that she didn't know about that decision until it was far too late, when immigration officials came to her door at 6:30 a.m. in January, took her away in handcuffs, and held her for several hours.
Molinar has said that the federal Board of Immigration Appeals had sent the 2002 decision regarding Tan to an address that Molinar had never given to them.
Since the situation's improved, for now, Mercado said she's feeling grateful.
Mercado, who's birthday is this week, said she told Tan, "That's the only birthday present I want, is for you to be with us."