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Customs rule change would expand definition of family to include partners in long-term relationships

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, SROTHAUS@MIAMIHERALD.COM

A proposed federal rule change would expand the definition of “family” and allow nonmarried couples and others who live in one household and are traveling abroad together to reenter the United States with a single U.S. Customs declaration.

“It’s really an acknowledgement of what’s obvious to most people: that gay families are families and should be treated as such when they enter the United States,” said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality in New York.

In addition to adults in committed, long-term relationships, the rule change would also include foster children, stepchildren, half-siblings, legal wards, other dependents, according to the proposal by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security and the Treasury departments.

Nowhere does the proposed rule change mention gay or lesbian partners. The wording specifies “two adult individuals in a committed relationship wherein the partners share financial assets and obligations,” not including “roommates or other cohabitants.”

Also, the change removes the phrase “regardless of age” to include adult partners, children and others. The proposal will be officially released Tuesday for comments and could take effect in two months.

Customs estimates an annual savings of 72,600 “burden hours” under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995. The government believes the change would effect more than a million travelers a year or four minutes per response.

Gay activists say the savings go beyond dollars.

At present, gay couples traveling together must each go through Customs separately.

“I’ve experienced it personally and it’s humiliating,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the state’s leading gay-rights group. “I know of people returning from their honeymoon and it’s a particularly cruel slap in the face.”

Also, many gay families today travel with their children. “We should never have to explain to our child why the person at the desk says we’re not family,” said Smith, who co-parents son Logan, nearly 11 months, with wife Andrea Smith.

Key West real estate brokers Rudy Molinet and Harry Hoehn, partners for 19 years, were married in 2003 in Canada. Last September, they had their “lunch counter moment” when confronted by a Customs official at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

“When Harry and I approached the customs officer to enter, we walked up together as did every other married couple in line. I was ordered to ‘get back in line, only families can come up here together,’” Molinet wrote on his personal blog.

“My partner was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’” Molinet said Monday.

Molinet said he and Hoehn, returning to the U.S. from Paris, faced off with the armed Customs agent.

“We were very professional. We did not get irate. If you do get irate, they arrest you,” Molinet said. “He let us through because we stood our ground. Begrudgingly. Rudely, I might add. We were being treated like criminals. Some people might think it was not big deal, but it was a big deal. ... It’s a metaphor for all the things gays and lesbians go through.”

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It is about time.

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