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<B>Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda hold their dogs Little Bear, left, and Yuki, at their home in Dummerston. ( Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)</B>
Friday February 15, 2013

MIKE FAHER

Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- In some ways, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy acknowledged that he was singing a familiar tune on Wednesday.

Vermont’s senior senator again proposed legislation that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their foreign, same-sex partners for green cards. It is the sixth Congress in which that bill has been introduced.

But a Leahy spokesman said the Democrat this year hopes to attach his measure to the upcoming immigration-reform effort. And Leahy cited shifting attitudes regarding same-sex benefits in the U.S. and worldwide, saying it is time for a change in how immigration officials treat gay and lesbian couples.

"Among developed countries with cultures of respect for human rights and fairness, the United States policy in this regard is not living up to our great traditions of equal treatment under the law," Leahy said.

"We can and should do better"

"We can and should do better," he added. "I hope all senators will agree that the United States should not have a policy that forces Americans to choose between their country and the ones they love."

The measure would have local impact: Takako Ueda and Frances Herbert, a Dummerston same-sex couple, have received attention from the media and from Vermont’s congressional delegation for their fight against immigration authorities.

The Japanese-born Ueda and Herbert, an American citizen, legally married under Vermont law in April 2011. But because the federal Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize same-sex marriage, Ueda has been unable to obtain a green card.

After lobbying by Leahy, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last year granted the couple a reprieve in the form of a "deferred action" that means Ueda won’t be deported.

But the ruling is temporary -- it expires in May 2014 -- and it does not grant Ueda a green card.

Leahy’s legislation would eliminate such hurdles and would, the senator said, "grant same-sex, bi-national couples the same immigration benefits heterosexual couples have long enjoyed."

Dubbed the "Uniting American Families Act," the bill is supported by Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Last year, Collins -- considered a moderate Republican -- was the first GOP co-sponsor of the bill.

Leahy on Wednesday called the Defense of Marriage Act a "destructive policy" that forces families apart.

"I have heard from a number of Vermonters who have had to make the difficult decision to leave their work and homes in Vermont in order to be able to live with their spouses in more welcoming countries," Leahy said.

The senator said he also has heard from citizens "whose spouses are legally in the U.S. temporarily but worry daily when they will be required to leave the U.S., and some who suffer the heartbreak of a long-distance marriage when their spouses are denied even a visitor visa."

Leahy said he first introduced the bill a decade ago. But he also detailed the ways in which the substance and tenor of the same-sex debate have changed:

* Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.

* Congress in December 2010 repealed the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy that had barred gays and lesbians from disclosing their sexual orientation during military service.

* Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week announced that the Pentagon is extending additional military benefits to same-sex couples.

* In a few months, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

* President Barack Obama last month offered support for changing the same-sex immigration policy, Leahy said.

* The senator also said change is happening worldwide.

"Today at least 25 nations, including some of our closest allies, offer immigration benefits to same-sex couples," he said. 

Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator has been a leader in the push to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. On immigration reform for same-sex couples, Leahy "recognized from the start that it would be a long process of methodically building consensus."

Citing the military changes accommodating gays and lesbians, Leahy said he’s hoping that consensus is growing.

"I hope that senators who supported this important advancement in our military policy will join me in calling for similar fairness and equality in our immigration laws," he said.

Leahy in December was sworn in as the Senate’s president pro tem. He also is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The senator "hopes he will be able to get his UAFA bill included in the comprehensive immigration-reform package that the Judiciary Committee will be producing for the Senate," Carle said. "He chaired the Senate’s first hearing on comprehensive immigration reform (Wednesday), starting that process. He also chose (Wednesday) at the hearing to announce introduction of the bill."

Leahy scoffed at the notion that extending green cards to same-sex couples would increase the potential for fraud.

"I am confident that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will have no more difficulty identifying fraud in same-sex relationships than they do in heterosexual marriages," Leahy said. "The penalties for fraud under this bill would be the same as the penalties for marriage fraud. These are very strict penalties: A sentence of up to five years in prison, $250,000 in fines for the U.S. citizen partner and deportation for the foreign partner."

He added that same-sex applicants also would have to "prove that they are at least 18 years of age and in a committed, lifelong relationship with another adult."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.