We Are Tearing Families Apart, When We Should Be Uniting Them

May 16, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado are, by all accounts, a picture-perfect family. The two have been together - happily - for more than two decades. They have adorable 12-year-old twins. They married in 2004. And they are hard-working, productive members of their community in Pacifica, California, where they have built a loving home that also includes Jay's mother, Renee.

So why is the United States government spending so much time - and so much taxpayer money - tearing this family apart?

Simply put, because Shirley and Jay are a lesbian couple.

As a result, on April 22nd, Shirley is scheduled to be deported - and torn away from her partner, children and mother-in-law - unless Congress takes action to keep their family together. And if you think that's outrageous, consider this: Shirley and Jay's story isn't exactly unique. According to Immigration Equality, an organization that does heroic work on behalf of same-sex, bi-national couples, an estimated 36,000 such couples face similar situations simply because, to date, the United States has refused to level the playing field for lesbian and gay Americans who have long-term partners from abroad.

In fact, keeping Shirley at home with her partner and two sons could be as simple as making a slight change in the language of U.S. immigration policy, and treating all couples equally, regardless of who they love. But Congress, in delaying action on the issue, has made life very, very complicated for these families and their loved ones.

These couples, like Shirley and Jay, are hard-working, law-abiding people who only want to be able to be with the person they love. And many, like Shirley, have spent years caring for their families, working in their communities and, yes, making our country a better place for all of us to live in. "They are exactly the kind of people you want living in this country," Immigration Equality's executive director, Rachel Tiven, told People Magazine in their recent profile of Tan and Mercado and their family.

Yet, on January 28th, at 6 a.m. in the morning, ICE agents rang Shirley's doorbell, placed her under arrest and took her to jail, where she spent a day away from her family, unaware of why she was even there.

After returning home, with an electronic tracking device attached to her ankle, Tan learned that her request for asylum - originally filed when she first emigrated to the U.S., following an attack in which a family member shot her in the head and killed her sister and mother - had been denied. Tan's attorney had failed to inform her of the denial, and the couple had no indication that anything was wrong. They even visited the White House, and successfully passed a guest screening, a few years ago.

Nevertheless, nearly 7 years after her asylum request was rejected, ICE found Shirley Tan.

If Shirley and Jay were a married heterosexual couple, none of the events of the past few months would have ever taken place. Under U.S. law, an American citizen (like Jay) can legally sponsor their married spouse for citizenship. But even though their 2004 marriage in California is (for the moment) still legally recognized there, it has no validity at the federal level, where both the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and official U.S. policy refuse to recognize lesbian and gay partners as equal in the eyes of the law.

Lesbian and gay couples - regardless of how long they have been together or how many children they may have - are forced to make an unacceptable choice between family and country.

Yet, even as families like Shirley and Jay's continue to be torn apart, Congress has yet to pass the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), now pending in both the House and the Senate. UAFA would, at last, treat all couples equally under the law, and eliminate the heart-wrenching scenario now playing out in Pacifica, California. But, despite calls from The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle and a long (and growing) list of civil liberties and immigration organizations, the bill has yet to move forward. And all the while, mothers and fathers are being torn away from their children, and families are brutally discriminated against by our own government.

While People reports that Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are considering a life-saving private bill to keep Tan with her children, Tiven told the magazine it was a "long shot." And Shirley's children, the magazine reported, are so upset that they "can barely talk about the case."

It is simply unacceptable that Tan and Mercado's children are being put through such agony at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, and simply unimaginable that our country would rather tear apart a 20-year relationship rather than fix a simple sentence in our immigration laws.

As our elected leaders continue to talk about "comprehensive" immigration reform, it is of paramount importance that they understand it can never be "comprehensive" until it includes Shirley Tan and her family, too. Any effort to do right by those who have given so much to our country will fall short until UAFA is passed - whether as part of a stand-alone bill or a package of immigration reform - and Shirley's two boys have their mother, safe and sound, in their home.