In countries around the world, the month of June is celebrated as LGBT Pride month, and is a time for people to come together in affirmation of the LGBT community and the movement for gay rights. June was chosen as Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969 which led to birth of the gay rights movement. Pride month provides us with an opportunity to recognize the successes of the movement for equal rights and to celebrate the diversity of the community, but is also a time to look at the numerous battles that are still to be won before we can all live freely and equally, irrespective of our gender and sexual orientation.
This LGBT Pride month we want to celebrate families- families like the one that Shirley and Jay, moms of twin boys, are fighting to keep together. A picture perfect family, Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado live in Pacifica, California with their thirteen year old twin boys, Jashley and Joriene, and Jay’s mother, Renee. Shirley and Jay fell in love 23 years ago when Shirley was visiting from the Philippines, and have been together ever since. Always wanting to have children, Shirley gave birth to the twins in 1997, and the couple entered into a domestic partnership under California law. Within their suburban community they are considered a “model family” in which Shirley is a typical stay-at-home soccer mom who volunteers at the boys’ school and looks after her mother-in-law while Jay works at an insurance firm. On Sundays, Jay and Shirley sing as a part of their church choir.
As per family unification provisions in immigration law, American citizens are able to petition for residency for their spouses. Unlike countries like France, Germany and Canada, this does not apply to same-sex partners in the United States, so although Jay Mercado is an American citizen, she is unable to sponsor Shirley. Having come to the United States to escape a traumatic and violent familial situation in the Philippines, Shirley had applied for political asylum in 1995. Her lawyer had advised the couple that they should be patient while the application was being processed. News of the denial of Shirley’s application came in the form of a rude shock that disrupted the whole family.
At 6:30 am on a winter morning last year, Jay was getting dressed to go to work and Shirley was getting ready to take the boys to school, when the doorbell rang. On opening it they were faced with two agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who showed them a 2002 letter ordering Shirley’s deportation (which she had never seen before). Minutes later she was handcuffed and taken away as Jay and her mother watched, frightened and helpless. Shirley was held in detention at the Sansome facility in San Francisco before being tagged with an electronic bracelet and returned to her family, awaiting deportation to the Philippines. Shirley describes her time in detention as one of the most traumatic ordeals of her life-
My agonizing, humiliating and tragic experience started when I got in their SUV. My partner ran to the car and saw me being handcuffed and she broke down to tears… I thought it was the lowest point of my life…I was taken like a criminal… My heart was beating so hard, my whole body was shaking and I felt so nauseated with what was happening to me.
Reporting to ICE three times a week and struggling to deal with the possibility of being separated from her wife and children, Shirley sought the support of LGBT advocates and the media to raise awareness about the case and seek justice that would prevent her family from being torn apart. As a result of this, in April 2009, California Sen. Diane Feinstien introduced a rare bill that granted Shirley a temporary reprieve from deportation, allowing her to stay in the U.S. till January 2011.
While the Tan-Mercado family are extremely grateful for the respite that Sen. Feinstein’s bill has provided them, they are worried about what will happen to them post-Janunary 2011. In a testimony that Shirley delivered to the United States Senate Committee, Shirley expressed her concerns for the future of her family-
All the while my family was first and foremost the center of everything on my mind. How would Jay work and take care of the kids if I was not there? Who would continue to take care of Jay’s ailing mother, the mother I had come to love, if I was not there? Who would be there for my family if I was not there? In an instant, my family, my American family, was being ripped away from me. And when I did return home, I had an ankle monitoring bracelet. I went to great lengths to hide it from my children. I have a partner who is a U.S. citizen, and two beautiful children who are also U.S. citizens, but not one of them can petition for me to remain in the United States with them. Because my partner is not a man, she cannot do anything to help me. Nor can my children, who keep asking why this happened to us and what will ultimately happen to our family.
The only way for Shirley to stay in the United States with her family is if gay and lesbian couples to be able to sponsor their partners. It is important that we recognize families like the Tan-Mercado’s so that families can stay together, in Pride month and beyond.
The good news is that the provision that allows for same-sex partner sponsorship has now been folded into the proposal for comprehensive immigration reform which was first introduced by Rep Gutierrez in December 2009.
Take action now to fix our immigration system and keep families together.