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Yearning to Breathe Free

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“I just want to come home.”
By Leigh Bell

immigration
Joseph was honest about his intentions to return to live with his partner. This didn't help matters at the U.S.-Canadian border.

Roland listened helplessly as his partner Joseph called—frantic and crying—from the airport. Joseph, a Canadian citizen, was flying home to Houston after visiting family when immigration officials denied him entry to the United States because he lacked the correct papers.

Joseph’s life awaited him just beyond the U.S. border, where he had lived for more than two years. In Houston was his circle of friends, a potential job, a new home, and Roland—the love of his life.

They went into the relationship like everyone does: knowing hearts get broken. People grow apart. But not like this. As Joseph, 47, spoke into the phone, Roland realized he was defenseless. The government would decide.

And it did.

Joseph could not enter the United States. He was working, but not in the capacity of his visa because his employer had not yet developed the specified position, Roland says.

“Joseph should not have left the country just in case an interview would take place with immigration, which it did,” he says.

And Joseph was honest about his intentions to return to live with his partner. This didn’t help matters at the U.S.\Canadian border.

“It’s like you’re in a bad movie. You’re stuck,” says Roland, 53.

After he was denied reentry, Joseph applied for a waiver, but it was denied. He appealed that decision, but the U.S. immigration courts denied it, as well.

Joseph didn’t have the key that opens American doors to many foreigners: a U.S. citizen spouse.

U.S. immigration law allows citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor their non-American husband or wife for permanent residency, but the law does not provide the same right to gay couples—married or not.

What many call a stark legal “inequality” divides an unknown number of same-sex, binational couples (meaning one isn’t a U.S. citizen) between international borders.

“You’re talking about the forced breakups of couples or couples who are forced to choose between the person they love and the country they want to stay in,” says John Nechman, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in immigration and is a nationally recognized expert on the subject of same-sex immigration issues.

“It just angers me that the laws aren’t there.”

People are listening

The issue of same-sex immigration rights has never received so much attention, both in the media and in the U.S. Congress.

One reason is Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). For about nine years, Nadler has doggedly pushed in Congress the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), a

bill that would change U.S. immigration law to give same-sex “permanent partners” equal rights as heterosexual spouses. If passed, the bill would allow gays and lesbians to sponsor their foreign-born partners to live here legally and permanently.

The exclusion of same-sex partners in current immigration law is a “crime against humanity,” Nadler says.

The mayor of San Angelo drew national attention to the issue in May when he abruptly resigned—the day he was to take oath for his fourth term—to be with his partner, a Mexican citizen who couldn’t legally live in the United States. The 32-year-old mayor, J.W. Lown, who has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship, moved to an undisclosed location of Mexico with his partner, who he won’t name, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times newspaper. They’re waiting on a visa for his partner.

“I certainly hope that the process won’t take that long,” Lown told the newspaper in early June. “In order to make a life together we must prepare for that. It was a hard decision, but it was the right decision for the circumstances we found ourselves in.”

San Angelo public information officer, Ty Meighan, was one of the few people Lown would talk to after he resigned and moved to Mexico. Meighan tells OutSmart he knew Lown was gay and so did most of the city—even the former mayor said the fact was the worst-kept secret in San Angelo. His sexuality seemed a non-issue, with Lown winning 89 percent of the city’s vote.
Still, Meighan was surprised by the resignation, and says most of the 88,000-plus residents of San Angelo were, too.
“Initially, the reaction was one of concern,” Meighan says. “First off, people worried that he [Lown] was okay. And then people pretty much accepted what he was doing—most people were accepting that this is what the mayor thought was best for him and the community.”

Some 36,000 binational, same-sex couples are in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Based on that number and historical data, roughly 8,500 couples would take advantage of UAFA if it passed, says a report from The Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law.

However, most agree the number is even higher because respondents don’t always reveal homosexuality or immigration status for fear of repercussion. Others don’t answer appropriately because they feel Census categories don’t appropriately describe them.

Therefore, the number of same-sex couples affected by immigration law is unknown.

“Whether it [UAFA] affects two people or 40,000, we should do this to be a decent society,” Nadler says in a recent phone conversation with OutSmart.

Since he introduced the UAFA to the House in 2000—and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) did so in the Senate a few years later—the bill has struggled, never reaching the Congressional floor for a vote. But recently, UAFA has gained supporters and glimmers of hope. The list of cosponsors now includes almost 20 senators and about 100 representatives, including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston.

Jackson Lee did not return multiple requests OutSmart made over several weeks to discuss the bill.

More optimism for UAFA arrived last month when U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) wrapped the bill into his own legislation, the Reuniting Families Act, which proposes measures that give family ties—now straight and gay —more weight in immigration law.

The inclusion of UAFA in Honda’s larger immigration bill brightens the ultimate goal of its supporters: that equal rights for same-sex couples are part of a comprehensive immigration-reform package the White House says is coming. The Obama administration could release a plan as early as this year.

Where is home?

OceansApart
Oceans apart: Roland (l), and his partner, Joseph, during happier times.

Roland and Joseph met online eight years ago and soon fell in love.

Unable to bear the distance, they decided Joseph would come to Houston. He applied for and received a TN visa under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which allows professionals from Mexico and Canada to work here. Joseph moved here legally and worked as manager of a downtown hotel in Houston for two years.

“The thing that’s notable about gay and lesbian binational couples is that the vast majority are here on legal status,” says Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality. “They are playing by the rules. They are hard workers and taxpayers who would gladly pay more in taxes to become a U.S. resident or citizen.”

For more than two years, Roland and Joseph created a life together: friends, a routine, a household. But Joseph’s visa expired. He received a second TN visa through a different employer, and although he was working for that employer when he tried to reenter the United States, it wasn’t in the position specified by the visa. That position was still being developed.

“I just want to come home,” Joseph said.

But what defines home? Couples in love say that’s with their partner. The U.S. government determines home by your passport. Heterosexual couples can make these definitions one in the same through immigration. Same-sex couples cannot and are often left to choose between the two: home or love.

“Our lives have been completely turned upside down,” Roland says.

He could move to Canada to be with Joseph, but it would mean leaving Houston. This is home, where he’s lived for more than 50 years. Roland holds bachelor and master degrees from the University of Houston. His family, his job, and his history are here.

Three years after being held at the airport, Joseph remains barred from the United States. He and Roland stayed together, leaning on long telephone chats and cashed-in airline miles to sustain their relationship. Countless love letters and e-mails were sent between them. But distance and time erodes all things. Even, sometimes, love.

“I just want to come home.”

Flashes of hope

If stars have ever been aligned for UAFA to pass, it’s now.

Gay rights are at the forefront of our nation’s consciousness, same-sex marriage has passed in the most unlikely of places—the Midwest state of Iowa—and the Senate Judiciary Committee just last month held its first-ever Congressional hearing on UAFA. Even The Washington Post recently published an editorial in support of the bill.

Most importantly, President Obama appears to be for it.

“The President thinks Americans with partners from other countries should not be faced with a painful choice between staying with their partner or staying in their country,” according to White House spokesman Shin Inouye.

The bill still has a long road.

The Uniting American Families Act must overcome two hurdles of widespread prejudice in the United States: immigration and homosexuality.

“These couples are coming out of two closets,” says Nechman, the Korean-born attorney who is openly gay. And, he adds, same-sex, binational couples have “no protection” in U.S. immigration law.

Nechman speaks from his own riling ride through the immigration process with his partner of 13 years, a Columbian-born teacher. The couple spent years and about $50,000—on legal fees and school tuition —so Nechman’s partner could earn a new degree and apply for a green card based on his professional career. He received the green card, or lawful permanent residency, last December.

“If the laws were fair,” Nechman says, “we could have filed for his permanent residence 13 years ago” (based on the fact that Nechman is a U.S. citizen).

But it’s not fair, he says. “Congress has been given the power to do whatever they want with immigration laws. If they want to keep same-sex couples from having those benefits, they can. And they can do so based on their interpretation of DOMA.”

DOMA, the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, states that the federal government only recognizes marriage between a man and woman. States are different, and as we know, a handful acknowledges same-sex marriage.

But immigration is a federal, not a state’s, issue. Even if all 50 states passed and recognized same-sex marriage, it would not likely change the U.S. government’s definition of marriage—only between a man and woman.

And the United States hasn’t budged on the issue, although 19 other major, developed countries acknowledge gay couples for immigration purposes, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Opened door to fraud?

The acceptance of homosexuality in America is on the rise, as revealed in a recent poll on gay marriage: almost half of Americans support it, only 46 percent don’t. But many who oppose gay rights do it fervently.

Some people fear that giving homosexuals immigration rights equal to those of heterosexuals is a step toward federally recognized same-sex marriage.

Although Rep. Nadler supports same-sex marriage, he repeatedly separates that issue from UAFA, which, he says, isn’t a part of the gay-marriage debate but is necessary to solve the “fundamental unfairness of gay and lesbian families.”

Critics also claim UAFA opens floodgates for immigration fraud, and that green-card-seeking immigrants will more likely feign love without the commitment of marriage. After all, marriage holds additional legal and financial obligations that permanent partnership does not.

Nadler says such claims are “bogus.”

UAFA imposes the same scrutiny, demands, and penalties on same-sex couples as heterosexual marriages in the immigration process. The bill would require same-sex couples to prove they are “permanent partners” by showing they are committed to one another, financially interdependent, and in no other partnership with someone else, among other requirements.

“If someone is going to enter a fraudulent marriage, they can already do this,” says Martha McDevitt-Pugh, of the Love Exiles Foundation, which champions immigration rights for same-sex couples. McDevitt-Pugh, an American, left the United States nine years to be with her wife in the Netherlands.

“UAFA will not open any doors that are not already open. In fact, it will remove the need for gay and lesbians to enter fraudulent [heterosexual] marriages.”

Someone finally speaks

Shirley Tan has become the face of immigration rights for same-sex couples. The story of this 43-year-old Filipino woman has been told throughout the media—including People magazine and major newspapers—and personally by Tan at the first-ever UAFA Senate hearings.

Tan is fighting deportation orders to stay in the States with her female partner of 23 years, U.S. citizen Jay Mercado, and their twin 12-year-old sons, who are also U.S. citizens.

Tan met Mercado decades ago while in the United States legally on a visa. When that expired, Tan says, she returned to the Philippines only to learn that the man who murdered her mother and sister-—and attempted to kill Tan, as well—was out of prison. She feared for her life.

“I understood that in order to live, I had to leave the Philippines,” Tan says in the Senate hearing. “Without anywhere else to go, I decided to go to Jay [in the United States] where I would be safe.”

In America, Tan applied for asylum and it was denied. She filed an appeal and says that, although that request was also denied, she never knew it. Tan was in the United States illegally.

In January, Tan received an outdated deportation letter and was ordered by the federal government to leave the country. After relentless fighting and gaining the attention of politicians, Tan won a stay to see if UAFA is passed at the end of this Congress in December 2010.

“Passage of the Uniting American Families Act, UAFA, will not only benefit me, but the thousands of people who are also in the same situation as I am,” Tan said to large room of national lawmakers. Her 12-year-old son cried in the seat behind her.

“I just want to come home.” In Tan’s case, home is the United States. She can’t bear to leave it, but she may have to. Leaving could mean losing her partner, and perhaps, her sons.

Roland can’t bear to leave, either. But doing so is the only way to be with Joseph. The choice is made. On a recent visit to see Joseph in Canada, they decided that the long distance and legal barriers were too much, despite eight years together.

“It’s very sad because we still love each other so much,” Roland says.

During that visit, Joseph said his sole wish is to live in the United States with Roland as they once did.

“My wish is identical,” Roland says. “But there are so many obstacles that are preventing that from happening. We ca n only?hope and pray that legislation [will] soon pass for equal rights for all.”

They just want to come home.

Leigh Bell is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.
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Do the math
(Source: 2000 U.S. Census)

• 594,391 same-sex couples live together in the United States.

• 6 percent of these same-sex couples, or roughly 35,820 couples, are in binational relationships—in other words, meaning one or both of the partners is not a U.S. citizen.

• 16,000, or 46 percent, of binational same-sex couples are raising children, biological and non-biological, in the home.

• Among these children, 83-87 percent are U.S. citizens.

________________________________

For more information

• Human Rights Campaign
www.hrc.org

• Immigration Equality
www.immigrationequality.org

• Love Exiles Foundation
www.loveexiles.org

• Love Sees No Borders
www.loveseesnoborders.org

• Out 4 Immigration
www.out4immigration.org

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