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Binational Gay Couples in Immigration Bind

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Binational Gay Couples in Immigration Bind

Advocates say same-sex partners facing being separated should have same rights as spouses.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As Americans debate the merits of immigration overhaul, some gay activists are using the moment to highlight the plight of gay binational couples who are sometimes forced apart by an immigration policy that disregards their relationships.

The couples' dilemmas reveal a gulf between the growing social acceptance of gay couples and an aversion to granting them the same kinds of legal rights as married heterosexuals, advocates say.

In many cases, the couples move in together, buy property and even raise children in the United States. The foreign partner often stays in the country under the terms of a temporary visa. When that visa expires or is revoked, the couples face tough choices: They can disregard immigration laws, move out of the country or break up.

"It's quite upsetting," said Mark Himes, a Harrisburg, Pa., resident who is raising two children with a Frenchman who may soon be forced to leave the country. "I'm following the rules, and I'm doing exactly what my heterosexual friends are doing — and yet I am not allowed to succeed or achieve the American dream."

According to an analysis of 2000 U.S. census data commissioned by Immigration Equality, a New York gay rights group, the U.S. was home to about 36,000 same-sex couples that had one American and one foreigner. The group thinks many more are living in secrecy.

Last month, Immigration Equality and the nonprofit Human Rights Watch released a 191-page report detailing the dislocation that such couples face. The report called for passage of the Uniting American Families Act, a bill that would allow gay and lesbian citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor their foreign partners for immigration.

Gay rights activists acknowledge that they are making their case in a difficult political climate. Concern over America's porous borders is running high, and broader questions about the rights of gay couples remain highly contentious.

This week, President Bush urged Congress to support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. (Though the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act says states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states, Bush said a constitutional amendment would protect the institution from "over-reaching judges.") The Senate failed to pass the amendment Wednesday.

"We're talking about an issue that's the intersection of two real hot-button issues in American politics, with regard to same-sex couples' rights and immigration rights," said Scott Titshaw, an Atlanta immigration lawyer and Immigration Equality board member. "And unfortunately, I think that our side is losing in both cases right now."

Similar versions of the Uniting American Families Act, both sponsored by Democrats, are stalled in the judiciary committees of the House and Senate. Members of both parties say the bills have little chance of coming to a vote under a Republican-controlled Congress. The House legislation has been unsuccessfully introduced in successive congressional sessions since 2000.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the House bill, says it makes no sense to punish gay Americans who happen to fall in love with a foreigner.

"What I'm opposed to is wanton cruelty," he said.

But Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, finds the legislation problematic for a number of reasons. FAIR is wary of any proposal that would open the doors to more immigrants. And Stein worries that an immigration rights law for gay partners would flood the system with fraudulent applications.

"You're dealing with a rampant marriage fraud problem now for heterosexual couples," he said.

Denise Constant, 43, a real estate agent in Merritt Island, Fla., said goodbye to her Austrian girlfriend of nine years a few months ago, when the U.S. Embassy in Vienna refused to renew her student visa. The couple had been living together in a house they built in 2001. Constant is hoping her partner can earn a new visa to the U.S. by investing in a company here. But the couple first has to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the meantime, Constant will try to visit Vienna as often as she can as a tourist.

"Convicted felons, maybe even Charles Manson, could sponsor my partner to come to this country on a fiance or spouse visa," Constant said in an e-mail. "Yet I, a law-abiding, tax-paying, civic-minded veteran, am not allowed to sponsor the woman I love so we can live our lives together."

Himes, 38, an employee with the Pennsylvania state college system, has been able to live with his French partner for a number of years in the U.S. because his boyfriend keeps taking graduate school courses, and thus extending a student visa. But they are running out of money to pay tuition.

The couple has adopted two children, ages 3 and 6. At the time of their adoption, Himes said, he thought it would be easy for the family to eventually immigrate to France because he and his partner had established a civil union with the French government.

They have since learned that it is not a sure thing. Although Himes' registration as a partner would be taken into consideration in his bid for permanent French residency, it would not guarantee him the right to immigrate, said Agnes Vondermuhll, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington.

Himes said he was also told by French officials that he would have to move to France before the government would consider his case. The family has vowed to stay together but is are unsure how it will be able to do so.

Constant and Himes asked that their partners not be named for fear of complicating their current or future visa status. Immigration officials can reject travel, study and some work visas if they suspect that an applicant has other motives for entering the country, such as reuniting with a romantic partner, Titshaw said.

Steve Boulliane and his partner, Olivier De Wulf, a Belgian, have been together 15 years and are raising two children in San Francisco. But they have faced two scares in which De Wulf lost his visa — one during the dot-com bust, when De Wulf's employer went bankrupt, and the other after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the federal government suspended an entire class of visa holders. De Wulf invested in a company to regain his legal status, but Boulliane fears that could all change in an instant.

"Let's just say that if some planes flew into another building somewhere, [immigration officials] could just say, 'That's it,' " Boulliane said. "There's a black cloud that hangs over our heads at all times that none of our friends who are married have to think about."

A number of couples have given up on the United States and settled in other countries. According to Human Rights Watch, 19 nations — including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and the Netherlands — provide some immigration benefits to the partners of gay citizens and legal residents.

Martha McDevitt-Pugh, a former Silicon Valley technical writer, lives in the Netherlands, where she married her girlfriend after carrying on a long-distance relationship for years.

McDevitt-Pugh, 47, said she is happy to be living in a country that gives her relationship a meaningful legal standing. But she would prefer to live in the United States, where she left an elderly, ailing mother behind.

"It makes me really angry," she said, "that I can't live in my country."

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

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