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RIGHTS-US: Love Without Borders – Or Papers

NEW YORK, Apr 7 2010 (IPS) - Tom is in love. It’s an old story: he noticed an attractive stranger at a friend’s party, and the attractive stranger noticed Tom. They began talking, then dating, and then they fell in love. For a while, they enjoyed a perfect romance.

Eventually, though, they had to face the fact that their future would be fraught with possibly insurmountable challenges. Their problem is not a previous relationship or children, not a chronic illness or a lie revealed. It’s that Tom’s partner is not a U.S. citizen, they are both men, and they are trying to make a life together in the United States, whose laws do not recognise their relationship.

Tom, who asked that his last name not be used because of the couple’s precarious legal situation, was first drawn to his partner’s striking blue eyes.

“And his accent,” Tom recalled. “He made an impression.” The blue-eyed young man came from Ireland. Visiting a friend in New Jersey five years ago, he met Tom, then 28. After he returned to Ireland, the two stayed in contact. As their relationship developed, they realised they wanted to be together.

“I didn’t understand that legally immigrating to America is next to impossible,” Tom said.

Right now, Tom’s partner works part time, and has a visa. Even with his visa, though, he’s had trouble getting through immigration, when officials become suspicious of his frequent flights between Dublin and New York.

For years, Tom’s partner – who asked not to be named — was afraid to visit his family in Ireland. He and Tom bought an apartment in Westchester in 2007, and the couple, who work in marketing, live there now. Still, they never feel secure.

“It’s so frustrating,” Tom said. “You feel so helpless. It feels like there’s nothing you can do.”

If the two were a married straight couple, Tom would be able to sponsor his partner for legal residence and they could relax. But there is no provision in U.S. immigration law to accommodate same-sex partners.

UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that some 36,000 couples nationally find themselves in this position. A long-term same-sex relationship can even present a further obstacle to immigrating, as customs officials might suspect that a visitor is more likely to overstay a visa.

Tom and his partner reached out to Immigration Equality, an organisation whose mission is to “advance immigration equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive community.” Unfortunately, Communications Director Steve Ralls said, Tom and his partner have few options.

Some couples are able to devise temporary visa solutions, to spend part of the year together. Some run out of luck and are torn apart when the foreign partner is deported, or is unable to secure a visa to enter the country again. Others choose their citizenship over relationship. Still others end up leaving the Unites States for a third country more hospitable to same-sex couples.

Canada is one of those places. Especially if one or both partners have advanced degrees or other attractive skills, Canadian immigration policy can be much more friendly than U.S. policy, and one legal resident of Canada may sponsor his or her partner for immigration, regardless of sex.

European Union countries are another option. If one member of a couple can get legal residence, the gender of his or her partner is not a bar to sponsorship for immigration.

Martha McDevitt-Pugh, a writer and editor, was living in San Francisco a decade ago when she met Lin, an Australian woman who is now her wife. To stay together, they moved to the Netherlands in 2000, and McDevitt-Pugh gained dual Dutch citizenship. She was happy that she and Lin could be together, but pained by the enforced distance from her family and the place she considered home.

In 2002, McDevitt-Pugh decided to act on the anger she felt at having to choose between her partner and her country. She had come to regard herself as an exile. Deciding to harness her anger to help others, she formed a foundation called Love Exiles to provide support and visibility to gay and lesbian people in similar circumstances.

“People join when they run out of options and start looking for a country where they can be together,” she said. “We have people at all stages of exile: in the process of moving to their partner’s country or a third country, already moved, or investigating options.”

Love Exiles now has chapters in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the U.K., Canada, and Australia, all countries that allow their citizens and permanent residents to sponsor a same-sex partner for immigration. Eleven other countries have similar provisions.

Of course, for many couples, relocating to a third country is not a realistic option. Money, or special skills the host country finds attractive, are needed. And there are sacrifices: careers, proximity to family.

There are several bills in the works attempting to overturn the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act, the main barrier in the U.S. That law not only defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but also specifies that the federal government need not recognise a marriage between people of the same sex, even if that marriage is legal in the state or country in which the couple married.

Many couples are betting on a bill called the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor their permanent partners for U.S. residency. Ralls believes that it is the best near-term chance for reform.

Maybe, he suggested, “the legislative stars could align in 2010.”

*Special to IPS from NYU Livewire

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