Worlds Apart

Federal law gives gay citizens with foreign partners tough choices: Leave the U.S. Lose your love. Break the law.

Now that Arizona's "papers, please" law has pushed immigration reform to Washington's front burner, Democrats propose allowing "permanent partners" to be treated the same as spouses under immigration law. While 19 countries have similar policies, it won't be an easy sell: The gay lobby fears they'll be sacrificed as a bargaining chip to get Republicans on board, while pro-immigrant groups worry that adding in gays will ruin any chance for reform for everyone else.

While critics say letting permanent partners through the gate invites fraud — how do you validate the relationship without a marriage license? — others say the current system is what encourages people to cheat. So what do you do when the law won't permit you to be with the most meaningful person in your life?

Simple. You break it.

Jeff and Sergio talk regularly on Skype since Sergio’s visa renewal was denied.
Julie Michelle
Jeff and Sergio talk regularly on Skype since Sergio’s visa renewal was denied.
Shirley Tan (left) is able to stay in the country with her partner, Jay Mercado, due to a pending personal bill.
Robyn Tworney
Shirley Tan (left) is able to stay in the country with her partner, Jay Mercado, due to a pending personal bill.

Jeff is a hipster on the verge of 40 whose philosophy boils down to this: If the law is a big f.u. to gay couples, then there's nothing wrong with giving an f.u. to the law. He was born in Europe but raised in New Jersey, a permanent resident who is just now applying for U.S. citizenship. (Permanent residents — straight ones, at least — can sponsor spouses for residency.) A salesman at a delivery company with a prolific gift of the gab, Jeff has mostly shed his East Coast accent, but retains a salty sense of humor and tendency to honk and yell, "What the fuck?" at slowpokes in the crosswalk. On a recent Saturday morning, he opened his laptop on the kitchen table in his Emeryville condo and dialed up Sergio, his partner of six years, whom Jeff defines as "more in touch with his inner Zen." (Their names have been changed for this story.)

"How are you, baby?" Jeff asks.

"Good, good," Sergio answers. A window of an attractive Asian man with a samurai mustache and goatee pops up, an image straight from his parents' house in South America. In March, the U.S. consulate refused to renew Sergio's tourist visa because of his frequent return trips. So now the 32-year-old is back at the house he hasn't lived in since he left for college.

The couple say they wish they were married by now, but they don't want to close off what they view as their only option to keep Sergio in the country for good: a sham marriage to a woman. Jeff and Sergio posted an ad on Craigslist last year, looking for a "mutually beneficial agreement for a marriage of convenience." This was Sergio's second attempt at a sham marriage. That Sergio is a bit of a State Department nightmare doesn't seem to bother him: "It's peanuts. A lot of people have done worse."

"It reminds me of that Smiths song," Jeff says. "The life I've had can make a good man bad."

Sergio, who was born in Taiwan but grew up in South America, came to San Francisco in 1999 to study restaurant management at Golden Gate University. While interning at Restaurant Gary Danko, he says the manager offered to sponsor him for a work visa. But Sergio turned it down in favor of a female roommate's offer to marry him. (He admits in retrospect that he was "so young and so dumb.") He assumed it would be faster.

The two married in a civil ceremony, and Sergio received a temporary work permit for the duration of the marriage visa application process. But the roommate flaked, moved to Canada, and called Sergio a week before their interview to say she wouldn't be showing up. They eventually annulled the marriage. While Sergio was annoyed by her flip-flopping (Jeff still mockingly refers to her as "the bitch"), Sergio might have gotten lucky. If he'd been found out, he could have faced a $250,000 fine and five years in prison before deportation.

Meanwhile, Jeff, who by 2004 had tired of flings and was looking for something more enduring, decided to post an ad in a Yahoo meet-up group for Asian and white men, seeking an "ABC," American-born Chinese. Sergio responded to the ad, and they met two weeks later at Sergio's apartment. A few months into the relationship, Sergio broke the news that his immigration status was tenuous — he had just a couple of months left on his temporary visa. Sergio eventually moved to Taiwan for three years, but the two decided that seeing each other on vacations was no longer enough.

Sergio returned on a tourist visa in 2007, whiling away his days working out and walking Jeff's Boston terrier, Lula, "getting dumber by the minute."

Last year, a woman responded to their Craigslist ad for a sham marriage. The three met in Dolores Park. The men promised her free rent in their computer den and $5,000, but the woman said she wanted dual citizenship in a European country. She also seemed like she did a lot of drugs. No thanks on both sides.

Jeff admits they'd gotten "complacent" with Sergio leaving every couple of months and re-entering on a tourist visa. When Sergio was denied a visa renewal in March, Jeff says he fell into a zombie-like depression. "I was like, 'I'm a white male — I get what I want,'" Jeff says. "That's a nice statement. Really, your sense of entitlement as a white male in the United States is not something you put into question. ... I've never been discriminated against, and now I see what it's like to be [treated differently as] a minority, and it's disgusting."

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