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12 August 2009, 3:00 pm 13 Comments

Global Gaze: Caught Between Love and Country, Part I

This post was submitted by John "Jolly" Bavoso

passportThere have been quite a few words in past Global Gaze columns dedicated to the plight of sexual minorities seeking asylum in the United States from repressive and discriminatory governments around the world. But there are other difficulties in terms of U.S. immigration policy that queer people face on a daily basis. For those individuals who are running towards something – in this case a lover or spouse from a different country – rather than away from their home, there are challenges to be overcome as well.

This is because American immigration laws treat LGBT and heterosexual couples differently when it comes to sponsoring a partner for residency.  This has resulted in the creation of gay and lesbian binational couples in which one half of the pair must choose to either leave the U.S. or end the relationship. As laws regarding same-sex marriage and civil unions continue to change around the world, these scenarios only become more complicated. These are real issues that will have to be faced by people like the American-Dutch couples married in Amsterdam at the city’s recently held annual Pride celebration.

There is hope, however, in the form of a new bill and impending Congressional attempts at immigration reform. However, it is important that activists and concerned citizens speak up now to ensure that true change is achieved.

In order to learn more about this complex legal and political issue, we sat down with Steve Ralls, Director of Communications for the organization Immigration Equality. In the past, Steve has also worked with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, where he placed hundreds of media stories on LGBT issues, including military law, marriage equality, transgender civil rights and more. He has long been very vocal about LGBT rights in the media, having coordinated coverage of federal, state, and local issues affecting the LGBT community, including an award-winning 60 Minutes report on gay troops serving in the war zone.  He is also a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, The Bilierico Project, and Ambiente Magazine. We asked him about his work and how we may help to bring about immigration equality here at home.

Photo Source: Bilerico Project

Photo Source: Bilerico Project

The New Gay: What is a LGBT binational couple and what kind of challenges do they face in terms of the immigration process in the US?

Steve Ralls: Binational couples are those that include one partner who is an American citizen, and one partner who is not.  According to an analysis of the 2000 census, there are at least 36,000 binational couples, and nearly half of those (47%) are raising children.  All of them are either separated, or facing separation, because of the American partner’s inability to sponsor their loved one for residency in the United States.  Already, many couples have moved abroad in order to be together, and every day, more face the very real possibility of leaving the U.S. or living apart from their loved one.  Couples who have been together for decades face a painful choice between the person they love and the country they call home.  Unlike their heterosexual neighbors – who can sponsor a spouse for residency – these American tax-payers are kept from their loved ones simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

TNG: How does the US’s policy compare to those of other countries around the world?

SR: The United States is increasingly in the minority when it comes to its discriminatory treatment of lesbian and gay binational couples.  At least 19 other nations – and counting – now allow citizens to sponsor their lesbian or gay partners for residency.

TNG: What is Immigration Equality and what is your organization doing to help bi-national couples?

SR: Immigration Equality is a national organization that works to end discrimination in U.S. immigration law, to reduce the negative impact of that law on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive people, and to help obtain asylum for those persecuted in their home country based on their sexual orientation, transgender identity or HIV-status.

Our legal staff, based in New York, provides free legal counsel to LGBT families who are separated, or facing separation, because of discriminatory US immigration laws.  Immigration Equality attorneys also work with LGBT people who are seeking asylum in the United States.  This year alone, we have won asylum for more than 40 people who feared returning to their home countries because of persecution and discrimination.  Earlier this summer, we were proud to win the first-ever asylum case involving a transgender person from Brazil.  At any given time, our small staff of three attorneys and one paralegal maintain an open case load of as many as 200 legal clients.

Immigration Equality’s new Washington office focuses on policy and communications work in support of those same families.  We are working hard, on Capitol Hill, to pass The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), a bill which would end discrimination against LGBT bi-national couples.  And, this fall, our efforts are focused on including UAFA in comprehensive immigration reform.  Already, numerous members of Congress, and President Obama, have indicated strong support for including UAFA in this larger, comprehensive bill.  If successful, that effort could mark an early legislative victory for the LGBT community under the Obama administration.

TNG: Can you explain the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) and how it might help these couples?

SR: UAFA ends immigration discrimination against lesbian and gay Americans by allowing them to sponsor their permanent partners for immigration.  The bill simply adds the phrase “permanent partners” to existing immigration policy.  With no ability to sponsor their partners, Americans are currently being forced abroad: taking their tax base, their talent, and enterprise to other countries that offer immigration benefits for same-sex partners.  UAFA would end the painful choice between family and country that so many couples are forced to make, and treat every family equally under U.S. law.

TNG: Is there anything members of the American queer community can do to help?

SR: It is vitally important that Congress hear from their constituents about this issue.  Readers can visit www.immigrationequality.org to send a message to their elected representatives, urging them to co-sponsor UAFA.  And, over the next few weeks, it is imperative that lawmakers also hear from constituents about the need to include UAFA and LGBT binational couples in comprehensive immigration reform.  Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has announced that he will have an immigration reform bill ready by Labor Day.  Therefore, it is critically important that Senators hear from their constituents over the next two weeks.  Readers should call their Senators and ask them to first co-sponsor UAFA and secondly to urge Senator Schumer to include binational couples as part of his comprehensive immigration reform package. There is more information, including a link to sign up for Immigration Equality action alerts, on our website.

Steve, however, would most likely be among the first to admit that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand this issue without hearing the stories of actual binational couples that have been impacted by this policy. With this in mind, this post will serve as the first installment in what is, appropriately enough, a two part series. Check back in with us the same time next week, when we sit down with some of these couples and put a human face on a form of discrimination that often goes unnoticed.

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  • Immigration Equality Blog » Global Gaze: Caught Between Love and Country said:

    [...] recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Jolly at The New Gay for a discussion about LGBT immigration issues, and Immigration Equality’s work to end discrimination against binational couples. Her story [...]

  • zoeo said:

    The 2000 census-based study from which was derived the woefully inadequate but oft repeated figure of 36,000 that we rely on when citing who we are is not only out-dated but it was an under-count from the start.

    It only included self-reported bi-national same sex couples living in the States. Totally left out were couples living out of the country, separated, or living in the States but ‘in the shadows’ under the threat of deportation or who for other reasons could not risk self-reporting. We’ve got to bring our number up to a more realistic count.

    The original study can be found at: http://www.law.ucla.edu/williamsinstitute/publications/Binational_Report.pdf

    A more robust, realistic figure of almost 100,000 was recently estimated based on the exact same assumptions, percentages, and original sources that were employed in the 2000 study.

    See http://www.unitingamericanfamilies.net/status-of-uafa/how-many-of-us-are-there/

    Although most LGBT Americans are unaware of our plight, as were so many of us who only learn of it when we land in it, it is reasonable to assert that ‘it could happen to you’ – potentially any LGBT American could conceivable join our ranks. So really, the number isn’t really what’s relevant. What should matter is that the discrimination affecting bi-national couples will become their reality should they find themselves in a serious, long term relationship with a foreign national. That’s why it’s so important to realize that this is an equality issue. LGBT Americans are only allowed to love and partner other Americans. They are not permitted to sponsor foreign partners. This reality should be felt as the insult it is — to all LGBT citizens. Do they realize their ability to partner is circumscribed in this manner?

    Until we will hear otherwise, advocacy groups and others citing the 36,000 figure should take care to use it with an advisory. It was an under-count a decade ago and it is an even less reliable number now. It does not accurately reflect our presence in the population nor does it honestly reveal the extent of the potential reach of the harm it presents to LGBT Americans.

  • Peggy J said:

    I was forced to leave America because I fell in love with a German woman who I’ve been with for over 8 years and been in a Civil Partnership for over 7 years through Germany. We have been waiting 7 long years to come back to my homeland. Wishing, hoping and longing that the laws will change. We had high hopes of the laws being changed with Obama being elected only to be informed that nothing will be done until 2010 or … longer.

    I have asked myself so many times, how long must we wait, how long must we be discriminated against, how long must we live in exile because America won’t accept two University educated women just wanting to work and live a peaceful happy life? How long? How long? How long?

    We lived in Germany together for 4 1/2 years and have been living in the UK for over 2 1/2 years. I only thank the Universe that there are countries that don’t discriminate and let us live openly and happily. But… why did I have to leave the country that I love? Why? Why? Why? Sometimes I really don’t understand politics, mankind, or the people running America.

    I miss my family and friends. I miss my old work buddies. I miss America. Today, I was singing in the kitchen while cooking dinner, it’s a grand old flag, it’s a high flying flag… Just out of the blue, like you do. My partner said you are so patriotic.

    Now as I write this and ponder the past few years, I wonder why I am still so attached to a country that really kicked me in the behind! Yet I still want to return with my partner to make a life together.

  • Melanie Nathan said:

    The Comprehensive Immigration reform (CIR)strategy has changed the focus as Steve Ralls mentions in thios interview. The inclusion of UAFA into CIR has derogated from the focus on UAFA as a stand alone for the past few months and we have lost precious time that could have been used to garnish much more support for UAFA, especially after the UAFA hearings. But what the non binationals do not get is that five minute victories are not serving our community. .

    A few I have spoken to in Congress have stated that CIR if will be incorporating UAFA putting our Bill together with more complex issues. Four congressional reps have informed me directly that they think with UAFA in CIR, we are losing the chance of UAFA as a stand alone and if CIR (with UAFA incorporated) does not make it- we stand no chance after that.

    I am worried that strategy and focus on CIR as mentioned by Ralls herein is usurping whats left of our chances.

  • Cannot Tell said:

    I am currently a veteran and a medical school student with a 4.0 Grade Point Average forced to choose to study outside the US so that I am not separated from my partner. I only have about 1 more year of studies before I have to return to the states to begin my clinical studies. Everyday I see myself thinking about the fact that one day I will have to abandon my loving partner for a long time because I am not recognized by my Country as worthy of recognition. Then I start thinking about having to leave my Country when I finish residency training in order to be able to be with my loved one.

    I don’t even know what to say other than my story. I am more than overwhelmed by emotions about this topic. I will do everything in my power to help my partner and continue living a happy live, be it where it may.

  • NYCityNewsBeat » Blog Archive » Binational Couples March for Immigration Equality said:

    [...] a recent article for The New Gay, Steve Ralls, director of communications for Immigration Equality, explained that the bill basically adds “permanent partners” to existing immigration [...]

  • NYCityNewsBeat » Blog Archive » Binational Couples March for Immigration Equality said:

    [...] a recent article for The New Gay, Steve Ralls, director of communications for Immigration Equality, explained that the bill basically adds “permanent partners” to existing immigration [...]

  • alfonso valenzuela said:

    i got a comintment ceremony on january of the 2006 it was so emotional ,sadly there are so many people mesing in the life of lgbt people like if being gay or bisexual hurt them or something like that , what we do against that people ,why so much hate ,till they got to kill somebody by his sexual behavior

  • alfonso valenzuela said:

    i just contact http://www.whitehouse.gov proposing an idea to fix the lbgt couples that are not together cause diferent nationalities , wating for some response

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