Immigration reform: binational gay couples fear they'll be left out

October 11, 2010

When the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage earlier this year, Erwin de Leon and the Rev. John Beddingfield tied the knot "knowing full well it's very limited," de Leon said during a recent telephone interview.

The federal government doesn't recognize gay marriage. So when his visa expires next year de Leon, 44, a doctoral student from the Philippines, cannot start the process of becoming a citizen, an option available to spouses of heterosexual U.S. citizens.

"Immigration reform is not just one issue, it's complicated," de Leon said. "My mother, a straight woman, emigrated long after I did. She married my step-dad and got a green card in less than a year. If same-sex marriages were recognized federally this would be a nonissue. Just like anybody else, John would be able to sponsor me."

He and Beddingfield, 46, rector of All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., have been together a dozen years yet still struggle with the awareness that "enormous advantages … tax and otherwise" are enjoyed by heterosexual couples but withheld from them, Beddingfield told ENS during an interview from his parish.

They are among an estimated 25,000 gay couples in the United States where one partner is foreign born, according to an analysis of census data by UCLA's Williams Institute.

Of those, "between 10-15,000 have children, which underscores the need to resolve the issue as quickly as possible," said Steve Ralls, communications director for Immigration Equality, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit legal aid and advocacy organization working with LGBT immigration issues.

But a quick fix seems unlikely.

On Sept. 29, Democratic Senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced The Comprehensive Reform Act of 2010, a broad-based measure that includes a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented persons. The measure also encompasses the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would allow permanent partners of U.S. citizens, including same-gender couples, to obtain residency.

"We're hoping that things will shift, but we're not very hopeful for comprehensive immigration reform," the Rev. Kevin Goodman, associate dean of St. James Cathedral in Chicago, said during a recent telephone interview from his cathedral office.

If Congress even takes up the measure, "I believe we [gays and lesbians] will be sacrificed in the negotiations," he added. "How can the majority legislate the rights for a minority? It's not fair. It's not just. I love this country … but it's discouraging."

Goodman said his partner of 10 years, Anton Pulung, 40, facing expiration of a student visa, has filed for political asylum from his native Indonesia.

"Two years ago Anton and I realized we were out of money. We could no longer afford for him to be in school," Goodman recalled. "His legal status was about to expire.

"We both agreed that he had to have legal status, that we would never let his status expire. We are law-abiding citizens even though the laws don't support who we are as a couple in this country."

A local immigration attorney volunteered to shepherd their case through the government's complicated system. Pulung is seeking asylum "because in my country it is dangerous to be gay" and because he is a member of a Christian minority in the 95 percent Muslim nation, he said during a recent telephone interview from his Chicago home.

But the process is lengthy and complicated. After a hearing earlier this year, his next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 20, 2012.

The couple plan to get married, probably in Massachusetts, one of five states recognizing gay marriage, Goodman said. Other states are Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and Rhode Island, in addition to the District of Columbia.

"It's hard to describe the amount of trauma I live under, thinking that any day could be Anton and my last day together and there's nothing we can do about it," Goodman said.

Out of that stress, however, came an impetus for General Convention 2009 Resolution D076, he said. It called upon church leaders to urge political leadership to "assure fairness in immigration and specifically provide immigration equality for same-sex couples by permitting a citizen or permanent resident alien to sponsor an immigrant partner for permanent residence in the United States."

The cathedral community also includes at least four binational gay couples "who are glad there's a leader here who gets some of their pastoral concern," he added.

But Goodman said he was disappointed after meeting with Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois who last December introduced the first immigration reform bill of the current congressional session.

"He was supportive but felt immigration reform would never pass if gays and lesbians were included," Goodman said. Gutierrez announced in May that he intends to add provisions to the measure to include same-gender couples and their families.

Others, like the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, chair of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, believe that including gays and lesbians will doom chances for immigration reform.

"That's the sad political reality. Politically in Washington it has been very difficult to engage Republicans and conservative Democrats on the issue of immigration reform," Rodriguez said in a recent telephone interview.

"Finally we were able to acquire support and galvanize the white evangelical community in support of immigration reform and that coalition stands to be jeopardized if those agenda items are morphed together."

Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a strong advocate for immigration reform, withheld support for Menendez's bill because of the "controversial provision which would confer marriage-like immigration benefits to same-sex couples," according to Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the conference committee on migration, in a Sept. 30 statement to the media.

But Ralls, of Immigration Equality, said "support for the UAFA far outweighs the opposition we've encountered." He suggested published media reports overlook the Episcopal Church and other denominations "that have been steadfast partners" in seeking full inclusion.

In Washington, D.C., de Leon summed up the response of the All Souls community as "amazing. The other day the senior warden stopped me and said I want you to know that this is your home, your family, we're going to fight for you."

Still, he wishes the Episcopal Church were more publicly vocal about the issue, as well as the proposed legislation, which he believes has little likelihood of passing.

"In politics it's horse-trading … and the first group that is always thrown under the bus are gay people."

Other couples have sought refuge elsewhere.

Juan Carlos Galán of Miami Beach decided not to wait until his work visa expires. He has decided to move to Canada, one of several countries recognizing gay couples.

After a student visa brought Galán, 26, to Miami Beach from Panama about nine years ago, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. Eventually the data systems manager obtained a work visa through his employer, a nonprofit agency that offers social services to gay youth. He also fell in love with Greg Nardi, 36, a yoga teacher.

The couple met online two years ago and "as our relationship deepened we were constantly aware we were planning for our future when we may not have one," recalled Nardi, a co-founder of the Miami Life Center. "You always feel like your relationship has an expiration date," he added, during a recent telephone conversation from the couple's home.

"We decided that we were going to choose our relationship, to choose love, so we looked into emigrating to other countries."

Leaving family and friends behind is difficult; so is remaining and hoping for immigration reform, Galán said.

"It's been difficult to have any peace of mind," he said. "It was always in the back of my mind that anything could happen. Even when I knew that I had my documents, there was always some level of fear, that it can all be taken away at any time for whatever reason."

For Galán, who qualifies for Canadian residency under Ottawa's point-based immigration system because of his technological expertise, education and proficiency for languages, real reform won't happen until there's a shift in the understanding of family.

"People still sometimes don't perceive same-sex couples as families," he said. "But we are moving together to a whole new country just so we can be certain we can stay together. If that doesn't really resonate with people as a family, I don't know what would. We have a government in-between us and we are taking steps to overcome that and stay together."

He expects to relocate by next spring. As an immigrant in Canada, he can claim Nardi as a foreign partner and apply for permanent residency and then citizenship.

"It's completely ironic," Nardi agreed. "Here I am not allowed to file for citizenship for Juan Carlos but there he can file for me."

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