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New Documentary Highlights Plight of LGBT Binational Families

On January 28, 2009, there was a knock on Shirley Tan's door.

The mother of two, originally from The Philippines, was starting her morning as usual.  She was getting her 12-year-old twin sons ready for school, and preparing to see her partner of 23 years, Jay Mercado, off to work.  The scene in their home in Pacifica, California, could have been any day in virtually any family's home in America.

That is, until the 7am knock on the door.

When Shirley answered, she was told that agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency were “looking for a young Mexican girl.” 

In fact, they were looking for her.

The ICE agents produced an order of deportation, which Shirley had never seen before, then handcuffed her and threw her into a waiting van. 

Shirley, who had been violently assaulted by a relative in her native Philippines, was detained and told she would be sent back there because her application for asylum, filed years earlier, had been denied.  Her attorney, who had moved since the original asylum request was filed, did not receive notice of the denial.  Instantly, Shirley's entire family – and the life she had built over two decades with them – was in jeopardy.

Despite the fact that Jay is an American citizen, and that both of her sons are also citizens, Shirley was faced with leaving all of them behind.  Because Jay is also a woman, she could not sponsor Shirley for residency, as straight Americans with spouses can do.  The twins would be unable to sponsor their mother for residency for another 9 years.

“[W]e can't even protect Shirley,” Mercado says in a new film, directed by filmmaker Stewart Thorndike, released on Sunday by Immigration Equality, an organization working to end discrimination against lesbian and gay binational families. “They wanted us to be torn apart, and that's something you don't do to a family.”

Yet, for more than 36,000 lesbian and gay families like Shirley and Jay's, separation is a very real possibility.  Nearly half of those families, like the Tan-Mercados, are also raising young children.

“The lack of recognition for lesbian and gay couples under immigration law is, literally, ripping loving families apart,” said Rachel B. Tiven, Immigration Equality's executive director.  “For every day that passes without action from Congress, another family faces separation and another child is put in jeopardy of losing a parent.”

“People of conscience cannot sit idly by and let this happen,” she says.  “A generation of children are at risk of losing the only families they know.”

On Valentine's Day, house parties across the country screened the new documentary(see below).  Its debut coincided with the launch of the Immigration Equality Action Fund, which will lobby Congress to pass an immigration reform bill that includes lesbian and gay families. 

“This is our moment,” Tiven said, referring to pledges by the White House and Congress to tackle immigration reform this year.

Tan remains in the country because of a rare “private bill” introduced on her behalf by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who sponsored the measure after hearing from many people in their community, including her parish priest, who weighed in on behalf of Tan, a Eucharistic minister in the local Catholic church.

Now, Tan and Mercado have joined Immigration Equality in working for passage of the Uniting American Families Act – a bill to end discrimination against lesbian and gay immigrant families – either on its own or as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. 

“What will make me feel safe,” Tan says in the film, “is [when] the Uniting American Families Act will pass . . . so I can stay here . . . without any fear that I can be picked up at any time; that I can be deported at any time.”

It is a campaign that has taken on personal importance for her sons, Joriene and Jashley, too.

“Why is this happening to our family?,” one asks in the film.

“My mom's a good person,” his brother adds.

You can make an impact in the lives of Shirley, Jay and their sons – and tens of thousands of other families like theirs – by watching the video, passing it along and visiting to learn more. 

“We premiered this film on Valentine's Day,” Tiven said, “in solidarity with every family who just wants to be with the people they love.”

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