Worlds Apart

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

The upside was that it has forced the couple into action. Jeff has looked into moving to Canada, which accepts new immigrants without sponsorship if they fit desired job categories. A salesman doesn't qualify, yet a "cook" would. Sergio is not a cook in the strict sense — Canada's rules require him to have worked as a cook for one year in the past 10, and his Gary Danko gig assembling the day's amuse-bouches lasted only six months. But that, too, can be remedied. Sergio plans to ask one of the restaurant owners his dad knows in his home country to draw up fake work experience for him.

For now, their relationship is lived out on Skype. Sergio says they'd like to have children. "Oh, my God," Jeff responds. "I'm ready to impregnate anything that will have me right now! I haven't told you this yet, baby, just this week I feel this overwhelming need to procreate." They chat about reuniting on an upcoming trip to the U.K. They share updates on Grey's Anatomy and Modern Family. Then they sign off.

"I love you," Jeff says.

"I love you," Sergio answers.

Jeff clicks on the "X" at the corner of the Skype window, and Sergio's pixelated face disappears. Alone again.

It's no wonder that none of the couples in this story wanted their real names used. While the couples are out about being gay, there's no benefit to being out about having broken the law. When a contingent from Out4Immigration, a local grassroots group that lobbies for change for gay binational partners, turned out for the May Day march for immigration reform through the Mission, mostly only the legal halves of the couples showed up. They must speak for both.

Yet publicity has served some well. Melanie Nathan is a fiftysomething firebrand with a shock of dark brown curls and an accent from her native South Africa but citizenship in the United States. Her Israeli wife was able to get a religious visa and eventually permanent residency, but that hasn't stopped Nathan from advocating for other couples not as fortunate. From her office in Marin, she pens gadfly blog posts at Lez Get Real, chronicling the latest developments in gay binational couple politics and calling out lawmakers who flip-flop on the issue. (Representative Luis Gutierrez [D-Illinois], she's talking to you.) The blog gets 150,000 hits a month, some dropping in from the White House and senators' offices, and she gets e-mails from some 40 couples a month. "I know every couple that's in this situation," she says.

Her advocacy for one such pair may have helped to get the issue on Washington's radar. Last year, ICE agents showed up at the home of Shirley Tan, a Filipina stay-at-home mother of two who has lived with her American partner without a visa in Pacifica for 20 years. With Tan facing imminent deportation, Nathan lobbied Senator Dianne Feinstein to introduce a rare personal bill that would allow Tan and only Tan to become a permanent resident without enacting any change in existing immigration law. As long as the bill waits to be heard, Tan is free to stay in the country.

Of course, most of the 36,000 gay binational couples in the United States tallied in the 2000 Census don't get that kind of help. A UCLA study found that nearly 8,500 of those would pursue sponsoring their partners if the law changed, and that's just the couples living here. The international Love Exiles organization counts 500 American expats who've moved abroad to be with their foreign partners, and the founder estimates there are thousands more.

Change may be coming, but you could have said the same for a decade now. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have reintroduced legislation in their respective chambers of Congress that would treat "permanent partners" the same as spouses in immigration law. The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) is on hold while lawmakers sort out whether its language will be part of the comprehensive immigration reform package that President Barack Obama is urging down the pipeline.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) included a provision for permanent partners in the Democrats' framework for an immigration bill released in April. But what are the chances? Last year's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the UAFA showed the ready resistance against any measure that recognizes gay couples. As Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) put it, "Brothers and sisters live together a long time and are close; roommates, partners, or friends in business or other activities — they are not given preferences, either. At some point, the law has to draw a line." Referring to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, he said, "Our Congress has voted not long ago overwhelmingly that a marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman."

Other critics focused on the potential for fraud. The bill defines "permanent partners" as two people older than 18 who "intend a lifelong commitment," are "financially interdependent," and are unable to be married under federal law. That means — through no fault of their own — that there's no contract that documents their relationship.

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