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Exiled by Love 

Immigration law snubs gay partners

Thursday, Jan 8 2004
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Christine Avramov, a 28-year-old from Riverside, and Jessica, a 21-year-old from Luxembourg, fell madly in love by e-mail during the summer of 2001. After Jessica surprised Christine with a visit to Los Angeles for her birthday that fall, they knew their long-distance romance wasn’t enough. “I was driving her back to LAX, and she said, ‘I don’t want to go. I want to stay on,’” Christine recalled.

Jessica applied for a student visa and enrolled in law school the following January. A month later, they registered as domestic partners to make their union official. But the happy life they hoped for has turned into a quagmire worthy of Kafka. Jessica’s visa has been denied twice. She’s appealing the decision, but any day now the government could tell her to leave. “We had a home, and now it’s threatened,” Christine said. “People think if you live in L.A., you shouldn’t worry. Hello, the INS can come pull you out of your house if they feel like it. That’s scary. They can just come in and ruin your life.”

While California law grants many of the rights of marriage to gay and lesbian domestic partners, federal immigration law denies bi-national, same-sex couples the most basic and fundamental right to live together in the United States.

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If Jessica and Christine were straight, they could fly to Las Vegas to marry, and the next day Jessica would be eligible to work and reside here permanently. Instead, as a lesbian couple with no right to marry, they’ve exhausted their legal options, and they’re giving up on the United States to move to Canada.

“We’re going to be refugees,” said Jessica, who withheld her last name, fearing the government will deport her before the Canadian paperwork is approved. “When I first came to the U.S., I had all these ideas about what this country represents — equality and human rights. It’s not at all like that. It’s in the Constitution, yet it doesn’t mean anything if you’re gay.”

Refugees from the United States, Jessica and Christine are hardly alone. Thousands of bi-national gay couples are forced into exile in order to stay together. Though 15 countries recognize same-sex partners for immigration purposes, the United States lags behind most of the civilized world, including South Africa and Israel. One Angeleno recently fled with his lover to China.

In response to its landmark Supreme Court decision two months ago, Massachusetts is expected to become the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. But even if that happens, federal law defines marriage strictly as the union between one man and one woman, preventing even legally married gay Americans from sponsoring their foreign-born spouses as family members.

“There are no immigration benefits available to [gays] based on their relationship,” said Chris Bentley, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizen and Immigration Services. “With that said, there’s certainly

nothing that says a U.S. citizen cannot move to another country.”

So much for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The message from the government to gays is clear: Pursue your happiness elsewhere. It’s your country or your love. “What an embarrassment,” Christine said. “Nobody should have to leave their country. It’s outright discrimination.”

 

Congress has introduced the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, which would end this immigration inequity. Ten senators, including Senator Barbara Boxer, and 120 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors, but the chances of passage while Republicans control all three branches of government are slim.

“I think the immigration issue, unfortunately, is a difficult one to be working on since 9/11,” said Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the Human Rights Campaign. “It will take a long time to pass a piece of legislation like this. It will take years.”

Los Angeles performance artist Tim Miller, one of the “NEA Four,” fell in love with his Australian-born partner about a decade ago and has made this issue his cause célèbre. Sharing his personal struggle in his performances, he hopes to wake up the gay community and shame fair-minded straight people into taking a stand.

“If you’re in a bi-national gay relationship, you really realize you’re not worth shit in this country,” he said. “For a straight American to get married is every bit as immoral as eating at a restaurant that doesn’t serve black people.”

But with gay marriage a top “cultural wedge issue” in the next presidential election, Miller finds it hard to be optimistic about the prospects for political change. Gays and immigrants are the two groups the Republican Party “loves to bash,” he said. “You mix those together, it’s a right-winger’s wet dream.”

For now, many gay immigrants are applying for temporary tourist or work visas as a stopgap. But when those run out, usually in three months to six years, couples face wrenching and dehumanizing choices: Move out, break up, or break the law.

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