No Blue Skies for Bi-National Couples

No Blue Skies for Bi-National Couples

By: SEBASTIAN CORDOBA | As 2008 unfolds, those gay and lesbian Americans who are in relationships with men and women from beyond our borders are probably wondering what these 12 months will bring for them, especially during an election year. As was the case during the year that just ended, the news will continue to be grim.

2007 saw the reintroduction of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), a bill that could bring relief. However, as in 2005, it failed to get substantial traction in Congress and received even less coverage from the press. The only time when the issue peeked out nationally in the media was during the “forum” of Democratic presidential hopefuls on the gay TV network Logo. Even then, the question was posed only to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the matter of gay and lesbian immigration and same-sex bi-national couples otherwise conspicuously absent from the event.

Such omissions hint at the lack of awareness regarding this issue in both the LGBT community and mainstream America . On the blogosphere, discussion of the UAFA in 2007 centered on various candidates refusing to endorse it, claiming immigration rights for same-sex couples would invite fraud and overburden the immigration bureaucracy. No word on why at least 19 other countries seem to be able to handle the responsibility for family unification policies that do not discriminate against gay and lesbian families.

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous lack of information among gays and lesbians about this issue despite the fact that its impact is as devastating as any unequal law in this country. Today, if an American falls in love with a same-sex foreign national, the options open to the couple are to stay together in exile (and only if the other country to which they are moving is receptive to homosexual relationships), expensive commuting between two countries, or the last, and probably most dangerous – breaking US law by overstaying a visa.

As an activist and filmmaker working on the subject for several years, I have discovered that much of the confusion about couples' rights is due to gay marriage becoming law in Massachusetts and Canada. Many people believe that after a marriage performed in those locales, the right to sponsor one's same sex spouse to live in the U.S. would logically ensue. The gripping tales of approximately 18,000 American men and women in bi-national same-sex households – a 2001 Census figure, which experts believe grossly understates the true picture – prove them wrong, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a legacy of Bill Clinton's presidency.

DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing such marriages for the purpose of family unification in immigration cases. Therefore, these couples' amazing love stories are undermined and often destroyed by the sorrow and financial expense that they must incur to maintain a barely tolerable situation. Would any member of Congress allow such a status quo to prevail if it impacted all heterosexual bi-national couples? Of course not.

And yet, every day in this country gay and lesbian foreign nationals are deported, torn from the US citizens with whom they have built lasting and loving relationships for no reason other than their sexual orientation.

As more countries move forward to grant immigration rights to the gay and lesbian foreign national partners of their citizens, the unnecessary pain imposed on these couples in the US becomes more incomprehensible. This ought to be a rallying cry for American gays and lesbians since this is clearly a matter in which they face anti-gay discrimination. The rights of a heterosexual man or woman who has met a future spouse only once-and can thereby get the partner a “fiancé visa” and by marrying them an immediate “green card” – trump the freedom given committed same-sex couples no matter how long they have been together and how interdependent both financially and emotionally they have become.

I have witnessed couples with kids who have been together for 15 years facing enormous economic pressures and family demands in their effort to remain in the country – long-time partners confined to spending hours in front of a web-cam to catch a glimpse of their loved ones; law-abiding Americans having no other choice but to help their partners remain in the country unlawfully.

Curiously, the federal government recognizes committed same-sex relationships for certain types of non-immigrant visas. For example, a British national obtaining some professional visas (types E, H, or L) can secure a companion visitor visa (B-2), with extensions in six-month increments, for his or her same-sex partner, allowing them to “visit” for the duration of their partner's work stay in the US.

But an American living overseas who wants to return to his homeland with his or her foreign-born partner would have no way of doing so.

These inconsistencies and the “brain-drain” they are forcing upon our country when educated and tax-paying Americans are forced to leave well-paying jobs-not to mention the taxpaying potential of their partners – argue forcefully that a change in the system is overdue.

Contrary to what most people believe, a legal solution can be achieved without legalizing gay marriage. Out of all the countries providing a legal framework for gays and lesbians to sponsor their foreign-born partners, only the Netherlands, Belgium , Spain, South Africa, and Canada have instituted same-sex marriage. UAFA, the bill that could create a solution for same-sex bi-national couples in the US, is also not dependent on a resolution of the gay marriage debate here.

Still, the measure will not be going before Congress until at least 2009. The bill had 87 sponsors in the House and nine in the Senate when reintroduced in 2007. Such modest numbers clearly indicate that much work needs to get done to secure its passage, even with a Democratic president in the White House.

A few organizations around the country, such as Out4Immigration, Immigration Equality, and Human Rights Watch, among some others, are working tirelessly, along with several lawmakers, chiefly New York Representative Jerry Nadler and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, both Democrats, to make this a possibility.

Until these advocates are able to win the day, the situation will be dire for those Americans who choose their same-sex partners from the wrong side of the border. Their goal is not to advance any political agenda: These men and women are only trying to build a future with the person with whom they have chosen to share the rest of their lives. For now, their unions may well not be a mirthful “forever after,” but rather a short course in despair, hopelessness, and tears.

With a national election at hand this year, now is the time for the LGBT community and its allies to awaken from their complacency and unawareness and mount a vigorous grassroots and media campaign to gain wider support in favor of passage of the Uniting American Families Act in 2009.

Sebastian Cordoba is a film director who recently produced “THROUGH THICK AND THIN, an award-winning documentary about the immigration struggle of bi-national gay and lesbian couples.