Worlds Apart

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

The U.S. Customs officer eyed Sang's well-traveled South Korean passport. "What is your purpose in the United States?" she asked. Sang said he was "on holiday" and would be going back to Korea in two weeks, yet agents still pulled him aside from the rest of the arrivals at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last November. Bogged down with suitcases and jet lag, they filed into two lines, one for citizens and residents, one for foreigners — the chasm between "Welcome home" and "How long are you planning to stay?"

Sang's passport had five United States stamps in it from the past three years, and the airport interaction had become routine. Sang would say he was on holiday, the officer would give him three to six months, and that would be that. This time, however, he was led into a room with other travelers singled out for further interrogation, and, as two hours ticked by, Sang contemplated what he'd say.

Would he tell the truth? That his life forever changed when he chatted up Mark D., a vacationing San Francisco bank executive, outside a restaurant in his native Seoul three years back? The encounter kicked off a series of trips between South Korea and San Francisco, chronicled in the photo albums Mark custom-designed online, each printed in a hardback book with its own message on the back cover: "It took 39 years to find you and now that I have, I will do everything and anything I can to make you smile everyday." The photos show Mark (a graying ringer for Supervisor Bevan Dufty when wearing sunglasses) next to a buff Korean who could pass for 15 years Mark's junior instead of three. You see them smile in Union Square. At a spa in Marin. At Caesars Palace in Vegas.

Erik and Angel, who is here illegally, have decided to stay in the country to be together.
Julie Michelle
Erik and Angel, who is here illegally, have decided to stay in the country to be together.
Angel and Erik are out about being gay, but Angel must live under the radar of immigration authorities.
Julie Michelle
Angel and Erik are out about being gay, but Angel must live under the radar of immigration authorities.
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.
Melanie Nathan lobbies for reform on the blog Lez Get Real.
Jen Farmer
Melanie Nathan lobbies for reform on the blog Lez Get Real.

In June 2008, they donned their best suits and married at San Francisco's City Hall, something unfathomable in Korea, where Sang's family still thought he was living in the United States with a woman.

So would Sang tell the immigration officer that Mark was back in their Richmond District apartment at that very moment, ready to pick him up at the airport for their latest spin around the leaving and re-entering carousel of the last two years?

No, telling the truth would be self-sabotage. So when the stern officer walked into the room and loosed a barrage of questions, Sang did the worst thing he could possibly do.

He lied.

"Are you married or are you single?"

"Single."

"According to our records and your crossings, you have spent 19 1/2 months in the United States out of the last 22 months, and less than three months outside of the United States. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

"Why do you spend so much time in the United States?"

"Traveling."

"Where do you stay in the United States?"

"At my friend's place."

"What's your friend's name?"

"Mark D." (Mark's and Sang's names have been changed for this story.)

"Is Mark D. married?"

"No, he's not married."

Sang provided the officer with Mark's cell number, and the woman left the room.

She called Mark and continued the interrogation: Where does Sang stay? What does he do? Are you married? Mark said he was. He didn't think twice about answering truthfully. He thought they'd followed the law to the letter; Sang always left the country before the deadline Customs allotted him.

The officer hung up and returned to Sang. After more questions, she left the room a second time to call Mark.

"Sang says you're not married, so who's lying?" Mark recalls her asking.

Mark realized there was a big problem. Still, he saw it as a situation in which neither of the men was lying. "My marriage is not recognized by the federal government," he replied.

"Excuse me?"

"My marriage is not recognized by the government."

"Are you married to Sang?"

"Yes."

"That's all I needed to know," the officer said, hanging up and returning to the room where Sang was sitting with his nerves fraying.

Sang was trapped.

"Just a few minutes ago, I spoke with Mark and he admitted you were his husband. Is this correct?" the officer asked.

"Yes."

After Sang said he lied because he was scared, the agent revoked his tourist visa for misrepresenting himself to a federal immigration officer and for being an immigrant (which technically means someone intending to stay in the country) not in possession of an immigrant visa. To reapply for a visa in the future, he would have to apply for a waiver for fraud. What she didn't say is the only way to get a waiver is to prove his absence would cause "extreme hardship" for his spouse in this country — and, of course, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Sang does not have a spouse.

"Is there anyone you'd like to call?" she asked.

"Just Mark."

When Mark answered, Sang wept. He spent the night in a holding area and boarded a flight back to South Korea the next day.

U.S. immigration law prioritizes family unity. Marrying a citizen is still the most common way to get residency, and everyone knows there are more than a few scam marriages squeaking through. Yet for gays, it's a very different story. Since federal law only recognizes marriages between men and women, gay partners are left with no way to sponsor each other to stay in the country.

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 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."

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.

The current system protects against shams, however. Couples who've been married less than two years get a "conditional resident" visa, and must present evidence after two years that they are still married to get the condition removed. Applicants face a barrage of questions meant to root out fraud — which can include how a husband takes his coffee or the color of a wife's toothbrush.

"I don't think it really matters if it's same-sex or opposite-sex; the questions about the intimacy are the same," says San Francisco immigration attorney Courtney McDermed. Still, the issue whether to include permanent partners in immigration reform is divisive. Some pro-immigration organizations — especially religious-based ones — say inviting gays on board will tank the entire bill.

"It threatens the conservative and evangelical support that has taken five years in acquiring," says the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, director of the Sacramento-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents 25,000 churches. "Right now, we're having difficulty getting one Republican senator to support the Schumer proposal. With the same-sex partner, it will be an even greater hill to climb."

Still, advocates point out that the UAFA has the largest number of cosponsors of any individual immigration bill in Congress.

"This is the little gay issue that could," says Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, which represents gay immigrants. The New York–based nonprofit recently opened a Washington office to ramp up its lobbying.

"We're hearing that if the Democratic leadership comes up with a bill that satisfies [GOP senators] on other issues, they won't try to stop the bill because it helps LGBT families. Among the controversies, I don't believe we rank terribly high on that list."

There's no doubting that Latinos, because of their sheer numbers, are the face of the incendiary immigration debate. Yet until there's reform, thousands of gays will also continue to live here illegally. They just aren't as visible. In cities like San Francisco, they blend seamlessly into cosmopolitan gay life.

On the opening weekend of Sex and the City 2, Angel strutted into the Sundance Kabuki movie theater doing his best Samantha Jones: six-inch heels, satin cocktail dress, and a long wig. He laced his arm into that of his six-year partner, Erik (who came as, well, Erik). The pair would probably qualify as a conservative senator's nightmare, yet in San Francisco, they hardly scored more than a few bemused stares.

This city allows Angel to be oh-so-out, yet he's still under the radar on another front. While the couple sipped cocktails at Basil Thai Restaurant and Bar in SOMA, Angel (back in his everyday male garb) quieted his voice and shot a glance at the table behind him when talking about not having papers. (His name has been changed for this story.)

Angel first came to the Bay Area from the Philippines in 2000 to make some quick money working as a caretaker so he could go home to start a party planning business. But he ended up being offered a religious visa to work as choir director for the nondenominational Redeemers Church of Silicon Valley, a mostly Filipino church now called Good Shepherd Community Church in Milpitas. (Angel had directed church and company choirs for 15 years in the Philippines.) He seized the opportunity to become legal, yet the setup had its difficulties.

Angel says the church paid him a maximum of $700 a month. The visa didn't allow him to work outside of the church, but with such a small salary, he had no choice. He kept a side job as a caregiver, and, at one point, when his hours at the church increased to more than 30 a week, he'd wake up at 4 a.m. to work for a few hours before heading to the church at 10 a.m.

Angel also claims that the church was never wild about the fact that he was gay. After a pastor in the Philippines wrote in a recommendation letter that Angel should lift weights to bring out his masculinity, the elders board asked him whether he was gay, to which he remembers answering, "What you see is what you get. I am what I am." He says they asked if he was practicing, and he said no, since he didn't have a boyfriend at the time. Angel says some board members frowned on him wearing pink shirts, or blond highlights in his black hair. Finally, he claims they asked him to move to Milpitas from his place in San Bruno in order to stay away from San Francisco's "bad influences."

It was in a San Francisco bar in 2004, in fact, that Angel met Erik and moved in with him two years later. They are an endearingly opposite pair. Angel, 40, is a fashion plate with groomed eyebrows, feminine gestures, and a nonstop smile. His relationship advice, conveyed in a heavily accented sing-song voice, is: "Find someone who loves you more!" Erik, 33, is a tall and perpetually good-natured nonprofit fundraiser from Pennsylvania who is happy to let Angel have center stage. Both come from conservative Christian families — Erik's has disowned him for three years — with whom they have tacitly agreed not to discuss their sexual orientation. But their chemistry is undeniable. "He loves me for what I am," Angel says, and often pats Erik on the arm while talking.

Good Shepherd's pastor, Virgil Fernando, says Angel's sexual orientation wasn't an issue: The church, in fact, sponsored him for an initial visa, then petitioned to transfer it to a church they merged with in 2003, and were again planning to sponsor him for a renewed R-visa in 2007. "Three times, he's come to us and we've said yes, so where is it that you see that we're questioning his orientation?" Fernando says.

To sponsor Angel for the last visa, the elders board drew up a new contract: They would pay him $200 more a month, and loan him $7,500 for legal costs to apply for permanent residency. Fernando says the church couldn't afford to pay the legal costs. Angel refused to sign the contract, so the church requested a withdrawal of the petition for his visa 10 days later.

It was time to go stealth. Angel changed his phone numbers, and he and Erik moved to San Francisco so immigration authorities couldn't track them from the information on Angel's application. Angel has his caretaking paychecks sent to a friend's house. "You're invisible; you can't plan for the future," he says, saying he is what Filipinos call tago ng tago, or "TNT" — "constantly hiding."

Angel sings first tenor in a choir, yet bowed out of an upcoming concert in New York City because he didn't want to face airport security without papers and without Erik. In his nightmares, ICE agents show up to arrest him; Erik won't let him answer the door at night, in case, someday, it turns out to be true.

Erik and Angel briefly contemplated a sham marriage, but ultimately didn't want the hassle. Right now, they're just waiting for change. "This is where my religious side comes in," Angel says. "Living here, trusting in God for what's going to happen with your life." But if there's no change in the law, they, too, might abandon the city where they've been out and proud.

Mark D. sits on his couch in jeans and an Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie, listening to a reporter finish reading the transcript of Sang's interrogation at O'Hare Airport. He's silent for a second. "Sorry, that's very hard for me to listen to." It brings back the sense of injustice, he says: "I find it very amazing that my marriage is not recognized for the purposes of sponsoring him, but it is recognized for purposes of denying him entry, saying he's an overstay risk."

The lights are off in the tidy, blue-walled apartment with a view of the fog hovering over the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. While Sang was living with him, "every day was a honeymoon," he says. Sang had been a chef at the Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul, and would deliver lunch to Mark's office or cook Korean for his poker nights. At night, they'd play Rock Band or PlayStation, or walk the aisles of the Marina Safeway to peruse the food — love makes even the most routine errands fun.

After Sang called him, crying, to say he'd lost his visa, Mark packed up some of his clothes from their apartment and flew to Seoul to deliver them. Since returning, Mark has become a homebody — he says every place they've been together just reminds him that Sang isn't here. The plastic Rock Band guitar sits idle in the corner.

It will all be boxed up soon enough. Even before Sang got his visa revoked, the couple had called an immigration attorney in Canada and taken the online assessment to see whether they fell into a category the country would accept. Luckily, Mark's "financial manager" job was one of the qualifying occupations. They took a trip to scope out Vancouver.

Once Sang lost his visa, it was time to go through with it. Mark mailed their application packet in February.

This is a big step. Having lived his whole life in the progressive bubble of Northern California, Mark is the rare gay man who can't recall any other instance in his life when he felt discriminated against. "I was always one of those people that said to be gay in America is fine. Nobody's out there killing you." Yet he doesn't have high hopes for reform, so now he'll be leaving his elderly parents, who still live here.

"As we preserve marriage because it's supposedly a family value, I think it's funny that the side effect is it actually tears families apart," he says.

On a Sunday morning last month, Mark's mother drove to his apartment to ride with him to San Francisco International Airport and kiss him goodbye. There were no tears this time as he boarded the 13-hour Singapore Airlines nonstop flight to Seoul. It was just a two-week visit, a dress rehearsal for the date he leaves for good.

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