It took Katherine Narkunas months of saving up from her job in electronics repair to make it to Italy for New Year’s to visit her girlfriend, Marisa.
Since her return on January 12, one image has haunted her: “The last vision I see is her crumbling to pieces at the airport gate, and then I let go of her hand, not knowing when I’m going to see her again.”
The women had met while Marisa was studying English in the U.S., and just as her student visa was running out, their intense friendship blossomed into romance. In the two years since then, their lives have become a wrenching sequence of reunions and separations, increasingly impossible phone bills, and mounting rage against an immigration system that thwarts their simple dream of building a life together. “To have her pulled away from me by the unfairness of the law—it’s just unbelievable,” says Narkunas, 25, her voice growing shaky. “But we’re too in love with each other to call it quits.”
If a new bill, introduced on Valentine’s Day by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) becomes law, Narkunas—along with untold thousands of other lesbians and gay men in binational relationships—will be able to sponsor her partner for immigration, just like straight folks can. The bill, the Permanent Partners Immigration Act of 2000, essentially inserts the words “permanent partner” into the sections of immigration law that address legally married couples. Such rights are currently available in 13 other countries, among them Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
The bill, introduced with 15 cosponsors, has been proposed at a moment when the question of status for gay and lesbian couples is heating up in state initiatives around the country. Next month, voters in California will decide on Proposition 22, which would outlaw any recognition of same-sex marriages. And in Vermont, the state supreme court ruled in December that the protections and benefits granted to married heterosexual couples must also be available to gay and lesbian couples. The court left it up to the state legislature to determine how to achieve such equity, and in early March, the judiciary committee is slated to present the draft of what they’re calling a “civil rights package” that would provide the country’s most extensive domestic partnership benefits yet. But no matter how sweeping the provisions, they won’t be able to touch federal matters like immigration.
“I can name dozens of changes I’d like to make in immigration law,” Nadler says, explaining his motivation for introducing the Permanent Partners legislation. “This is a very simple one that tries to deal with an immediate problem that works tremendous cruelty on people.”
Whether the bill has a prayer of passing depends, no doubt, on Democrats winning back the House in the fall elections, for it bumps up against not only abiding homophobia, but also the U.S.’s increasingly restrictive, Republican-driven immigration policy. It’s only since 1990, after all, that the ban against admitting “sexual deviants” as immigrants was revoked.
In some ways, the Permanent Partners Act cleverly avoids the marriage morass, decoupling the right to sponsor a foreign partner from the claims for same-sex marriage. Though he signed the preemptive Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which defines marriage as a relationship that can exist only between a man and a woman, Clinton is already on record supporting the proposed change in immigration law. But whether conservative Congress members will grasp the distinction between granting privileges to gay couples and proclaiming them married remains to be seen. Asked specifically about his opinion of the proposed legislation, Representative Lamar Smith, Republican chair of the House subcommittee on immigration, would say only, “I support traditional marriage between a man and a woman.”
Smith, of course, has also long supported narrowing restrictions on immigration access generally, even among straight spouses. Indeed, the Permanent Partners Act seeks to expand immigration rights at a time when immigrant advocates are doing all they can to restore rights taken away by the draconian reforms of 1996. In addition to limiting judicial review of immigration cases, mandating detention for many more people, and demanding deportation of those legal immigrants who committed minor crimes no matter how many years ago, these laws also bar reentry into the country for those who have been here illegally. But often green cards must be picked up outside the U.S., so those who fall into illegal status as their applications are stalled in the INS’s monstrous backlog (legal permanent residents currently wait five to seven years to sponsor their spouses) dare not leave the country. They get stuck in a legal limbo and are unable ever to regularize their status.
“I see any number of families each week who have been divided by these laws,” says immigration attorney Claudia Slovinsky, “and there are hundreds of thousands of such cases nationally. At the same time, though, I see gay clients with citizen or permanent resident partners and have to treat their cases as if their relationships didn’t exist at all. That’s blatantly unfair.”
It’s especially unfair, advocates say, since the bedrock principle of U.S. immigration policy is family unification, in contrast, for instance, to Canada, where job-skill needs drive immigration policy. In Australia, anyone—not only those in romantic or sexual relationships—can access the Interdependency Partner provision, through which gay citizens and permanent residents bring in their spouses, by demonstrating “a mutual commitment to a shared life.” Here, then, the question at the heart of the debate over the Permanent Partners Act will be whether same-sex partners constitute a family. And thus the discussion will likely leak back into the fractious argument over marriage.
In Vermont, gay-rights proponents are urging the state legislature to go beyond offering a package of domestic partnership benefits and to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. On a practical level, explains Beth Robinson, counsel to the plaintiffs in the supreme court case, “calling it marriage means the difference between these rights being portable or not, at least to other states that ultimately will recognize them, as well as eventual access to federal benefits like immigration if DOMA is found to be unconstitutional, as we believe it is.” On a symbolic level, “It’s a question of whether we live in a community that embraces same-sex couples and people.”
The case in Vermont has also opened up debate over the question of whether the government has any business rewarding straights or gays for entering into coupledom. “I’m proud to be in a state where I am hardly the only one saying, ‘Let’s abolish civil marriage laws altogether,’ ” notes activist David Edleson, a dean at Middlebury College who lives in Lincoln, Vermont, with his partner of 18 years. “It’s hardly the overwhelming opinion, but the question of equality over including same-sex couples in marriage has definitely got people thinking about extending equality to singles, nonsexual households, and other families that aren’t structured around a central romance. I think we’ll see further discussion of these sorts of situations.”
In the meantime, couples like Katherine and Marisa are clinging to any straw they can. “Will the Nadler bill get passed?” asks Katherine Narkunas with a sigh. “All I know is that it would mean the world to my girlfriend and me.”