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19 August 2009, 3:00 pm 9 Comments

Global Gaze: Caught Between Love and Country, Part II

This post was submitted by John "Jolly" Bavoso

binational_couplesThis post is the second installment in a two-part series. To read the first half and get some background information on LGBT binational couples, check out last week’s Global Gaze post.

It began as a romance with an international twist that seemed straight out of a movie or novel.  Judy Rickard, a retired San Jose, California resident, met Karin Bogliolo, a former book publisher who currently lives in Guildford, England, online while Karin was visiting friends in the U.S. in 2005. The two fell in love and have been together ever since.

Though the relationship began as what many may consider to be a modern-day inter-continental romantic fairy tale, it soon turned into a bureaucratic nightmare that has disrupted both women’s lives in a myriad of complex ways. In entering such an international relationship, Judy and Karin also joined the ranks of binational LGBT couples who have lived out the difficulties associated with an immigration system that treats gay and lesbian couples differently than their heterosexual counterparts. While the impact of such discriminatory policies have been expertly explained by passionate activists like Steve Ralls of Immigration Equality, the real injustice of such restrictions cannot be truly understood without speaking with the actual individuals being forced to choose between their lives in America and the partners they love.

For Judy, the first obstacle she had to deal with was simply being in the same place as the woman she loves.

“Karin explained from the first that she could visit the U.S. for six months at a time. As we began to know each other and become a couple, we knew we would have to deal with the limitations of geography and time,” she recalls. “For three years, Karin left the U.S. every six months for some time and I stayed in California. In April, 2008, Karin was told by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at San Francisco International Airport that she was visiting too often and would have to leave the country by the end of August – for a long time. We were not sure what that meant at the time. Karin was gone for 10 months – we were separated.”

Aside from the obvious pain that such long periods of separation engendered, the inability to sponsor someone of the same sex for residency in the United States made other aspects of life difficult for the couple as well.

“It has been expensive to travel back and forth,” Karin explains. “Judy has taken early retirement so that we can be together. That has reduced her income for life.”

While the UK would allow Karin to sponsor Judy for residency, this is not a viable option for the couple, because, as Karin explains, “We would prefer to live in Judy’s home in California because Judy has family there and she has elderly parents she doesn’t want to leave.”

Other Americans have already chosen to make the difficult decision to leave their homes in order to be with the one they love. One such man is Tom, a 32-year old American who lives with his partner, Aidan, a 33-year-old Irishman, in New York state, both of whom asked to be identified by only their first names. Shortly after meeting five years ago, the couple started looking into immigration options so they could start a life together in the same country.

“Neither of us had any idea how difficult it would be to legally immigrate to the U.S.,” Tom recalls. “After discovering it is next to impossible to come to the U.S. legally, I moved to Ireland as there was no way for us to be together otherwise.”

While this strategy worked at first, Tom and Aidan’s story represents an exception to the rule. Tom was lucky enough to hold dual citizenship in America and Ireland through his grandparents and had obtained an Irish passport before the two had ever met. It also represented just the beginning of the pair’s immigration troubles, which reemerged when Tom was offered a job in the U.S. after living abroad for almost a year. Luckily, after consulting an immigration attorney, Aidan was offered a job at the same company and a work visa, which allowed him to stay in the country. However, this now put his entire ability to stay in the country in the hands of his employers and, indirectly, the economy as a whole.

“With the downturn in the economy, my partner’s new employer that was sponsoring his visa lost a lot of clients and had to make some cuts. They let him know that as a result of this, they would be eliminating his position. Once my partner informed them that his visa and his legal status were directly tied to his job with them, they agreed to reduce his position to part-time until he found another employer willing to sponsor the visa transfer,” Tom says. “They were very kind and generous to do this for him. They assumed that he could get a job anywhere with this visa, and that it was good for three years to work at any place he chose. This is not the case. Once the sponsoring employer ends employment, the visa holder becomes ‘undocumented’ and technically, needs to leave the country immediately.”

Like Judy and Karin, the process of dealing with such blatantly discriminatory policies has taken a serious toll on other aspects of Tom and Aidan’s life.

“It felt like the whole world just came crashing down around us when my partner was told his job was being eliminated,” Tom explains. “We feel absolutely powerless – it’s like being in a nightmare and you’re screaming, but nobody can hear you, or just isn’t listening. We own an apartment together here and love where we live, and we feel as if we are about to lose our home, our friends and family here, and literally be forced into exile from the U.S. simply because we happen to be gay. If we were an opposite-sex couple, all we would have to do to solve this is to get married.”

He’s quick to note, however, that true immigration reform is needed to help LGBT binational couples, not just an expansion of same-sex marriage, which highlights just how complex and far-reaching this issue is.

“If we were to get married…this could actually do us more harm than help at this point,” he explains. “If a non-citizen marries an American and discloses this fact when asked about marital status by an Immigration official, it may be difficult or impossible to gain entrance into the U.S. because the Immigration official may conclude that if the non-citizen is married to an American, it is likely that he or she intends to remain in the U.S. permanently. There is therefore a danger for foreign nationals in entering into a same sex marriage at this point.”

While Judy, Karin, Tom and Aidan have understandably been consumed with their own living situations and the difficult decisions they must make, they are also taking the time to get involved and educate Americans, gay and straight, about the plight of LGBT binational couples.

Earlier this year at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, speaking with U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, both supporters of same sex binational couples legislation, named Judy Rickard and Karin Bogliolo as his educators on this issue. They urge members of the American LGBT community to contact their legislators and, most importantly, spread the word.

“Educate yourselves on the issue of same-sex binational couples. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about the issue and how it affects gay and lesbian couples until it was my issue,” Judy admits. “Urge your family and friends to do the same. Keep the information and public awareness growing,” she continues. “If you can make monetary donations to groups working on the cause, like Immigration Equality, Out4Immigration, Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and others, do it!”

At the end of the day, what may be needed the most is some empathy and willingness to truly look at how our official policies can affect the lives of our own citizens and fellow members of our community. It’s also important to recognize that the queer community’s struggle is ofter part of larger movements, and sometimes we must acknowledge that the best way to achieve our unique goals is to work across issues.

“Look at the person you love. Imagine only being able to see them over a computer, speak with them over the phone, and see them in person a handful of times a year, if at all,” Tom says. “Or imagine leaving your family, friends, job, home and everything you know – and moving overseas to live in exile, not knowing when, if ever, you’ll be able to return with your partner to America. This is the reality for tens of thousands of Americans, simply because they’re gay or lesbian. Our immigration system is sorely outdated and dysfunctional – we all know it,” he continues. “If the LGBT community can help win this battle, it will benefit our community immensely.”

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  • Melanie Nathan said:

    All organizations should send their support to California Assembly Member Kevin de Leon who is the author of AJR 15 in support of Uniting American Families Act. This will go to the floor in California Assembly . It passed Judicial Committte vote 6/3 party line vote. It will send an important message to Senator DZianne Feinstein.

  • dimitri said:

    This has been an eternal nightmare. Now finally there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but my heart will not let me believe it until laws are actually changed. This January will mark our 10th anniversary together. I can hardly wait to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night without having to wonder what obstacles awaits us. I just want an ordinary life.

  • Nick said:

    Thank you to Immigration Equality for your good work on this issue.

  • lin mcdevitt-pugh said:

    Great article, thanks, bringing out the issues. We need the work Immigration Equality, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Campaign and others are doing to make sure our rights are part of the immigration reform that is pending. it is not fair, not right and completely unnecessary for the US government to keep our families apart or send their citizens into exile, for the love of another person.

  • Robbie said:

    As a US citizen, I have lived in Europe for the past 15 years in order to be with my British partner. At one point in 1997, neither the UK nor the US would have us and we fled for a decade to Amsterdam. Today, the UK has welcomed us back and, hopefully, one day, the US will too. Democrats Abroad has been a longstanding supporter and lobbyist for immigration rights for same-sex couples. If you are living outside the US, please join us and get involved.

  • Don said:

    Wow! I can’t believe that this happens in America. If you are American and you can’t live with the person you love and choose to live with, what kind of freedom is that. Thanks for making me aware of this traesty.

  • Chuck said:

    This is an amazing post!

    It really puts a compelling human face on LGBT immigration issues.

  • Marcel said:

    I’m in the same situation with my German partner. We moved away from the US in 2005 and are waiting for the laws to change to go back. Remember the number of 36,000 is likely much lower than the real number – people don’t necessarily report their situation.

  • Mike Troian said:

    This separation of families is horrible. My partner , who is Brazilian and myself a U.S. citizen have had to make the difficult choice to live in Mexico to be together. We have tried every legal manner to get him to the U.S. and have been denied.