Rep. Charlie Dent Co-sponsors Gay Rights Immigration Bill

Allentown Morning Call

Federal legislation to give same-sex couples equal immigration rights is supported by just three Republicans on Capitol Hill.

One is Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent.

He has added his name to a bill with more than 100 Democratic co-sponsors, helping to make the cause bipartisan, albeit narrowly. The bill, which would allow partners of U.S. citizens to get permanent resident status like heterosexual couples, has been introduced in every session for the past 12 years but has never received enough support to move forward.

If such a law were in place, Allentown couple Phil Healing and Kindall Goble would still be living in their downtown home on Hamilton Street. The two moved from the Lehigh Valley nearly four years ago, leaving behind their community theater work and downtown revitalization efforts to live in England, where they could be together.

Healing, who is British, worked as an engineer and lived in America on a work permit. When his New Jersey company shut down, he couldn’t find work to fit the criteria to stay in the country, according to a friend of the couple, Liz Bradbury of Allentown, who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network.

“They were thrown out of the country for no other reason than [the government] didn’t recognize their relationship,” Bradbury said.

Dent was aware of their story through local gay rights activists. He was encouraged to support the bill because of them, as well as through the urging of local business leaders and his friend Jim Kolbe, an openly gay former Republican congressman from Arizona.

“Frankly, former Congressman Kolbe explained the challenges and it was very compelling. I heard quite a bit from business leaders as well, that it’s difficult to maintain good talent,” Dent said Tuesday.

He added his name to the bill Friday, joining two other GOP lawmakers — Rep. Richard Hanna of New York and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Dent said he expects other Republicans will sign on once they see it’s a “fair and reasonable proposal.”

“These are people who are trying to do this legally and play by the rules here,” Dent said.

He later added, “It will help prevent us from losing good American citizens to other countries. It’s making sure that good people aren’t forced to leave.”

Healing, who continues to write for the Lehigh Valley Gay Press from his home in Retford, England, wrote in a recent piece that his partner, Goble, “spoke to his 90-year-old mom who is getting excited about the (hopefully) impending changes. She said, ‘Soon, you will be able to come back home.’ ”

He wrote that it would be difficult to leave England now that they have opened a successful bed-and-breakfast, he’s working as an engineer and has government health insurance.

“However, it will be a delicious miracle to actually have the choice to return to our beloved home in dear old Allentown (yes, it has taken on a nostalgic patina with the passing years, almost 4, to be precise),” Healing wrote.

There are 28,500 binational same-sex couples like Healing and Goble in the United States, according to a November 2011 study by the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Even if same-sex couples are legally married in states that allow it, the Defense of Marriage Act does not allow them to apply for a green card. The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up DOMA next year.

“I think that having bipartisan support is essential, and Congressman Dent should be applauded for understanding that civil rights for [the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community] doesn’t have to be a partisan issue,” said Adrian Shanker of Bethlehem, president of Equality Pennsylvania. “Especially now that people can get legally married and are still denied immigration, it’s clearly wrong and clearly discrimination.”

Dent, who represents the 15th District, has a mixed record on gay rights issues. He supported the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law that barred openly gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from the military, and he supported extending hate crime laws to include the LGBT community. But he also voted to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

The Log Cabin Republicans, who support gay rights and have endorsed Dent, have worked to get their “allies” signed on to the bill, said Casey Pick, spokeswoman for the grass-roots organization.

“It is vital for many of our families who are forced to choose between love of country and the love of their lives,” she said. “It is exciting to see that the time has come that Republican lawmakers are signing on to the bill.”

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