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Binational couples: Alliance of fear. (Essay).

ACCORDING to Love Sees No Borders, there are an estimated half million members of same-sex binational couples in the U.S. These couples cross social, economic, and ethnic lines, and are composed of Americans of all races and political affiliations, and foreigners of all nationalities and backgrounds. Thanks to efforts of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF), these couples are able to meet each other and develop support groups. The advent of the Internet has provided this community with a tremendous tool to share stories and information. Currently, the LGIRTF has fifteen chapters nationwide, and most of them have a mailing list. For example, in San Francisco, the SF-LGIRTF mailing list has over 200 members. In addition to providing a communication tool, the Internet provides the anonymity that most of these couples need when talking to each other. After all, the reason why these tremendously diverse people form a community is because they share the same fear of separation, and revealing o ne's relationship may spell disaster for these couples.

In fifteen other countries--Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK--these couples are recognized for immigration purposes, but not in the United States. Because these couples lack this recognition, they rely on a wide variety of visas and artifices to remain together.

Same-sex binational couples live in semi-constant fear of being forcibly separated, and this unites them as a coherent community within the larger GLBT world. Unlike other groups within this world--racial minorities, for example--the members of this community are not outspoken, making them virtually invisible. And they have good reason to keep their mouths shut. In the case of a student or a tourist, if the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were to discover that the foreigner has an ongoing same-sex relationship, it may find the foreigner at risk of overstaying the visa, and therefore immediately deportable. This is true even in the case of foreigners who are not in the United States. People have had their visas denied at a consulate abroad because consular officials discovered the same-sex relationship, and tagged the individual as an overstay risk. In the case of a worker, an employer may fire someone for being gay. Most binational same-sex couples find that silence does indeed protect them. Pre cious silence can save them from INS scrutiny.

Most of the foreign partners in binational couples are here on a student visa, a work visa, or a tourist visa. To obtain a student visa, a foreigner must prove that he or she has sufficient funds to pay for tuition, as foreign students are not allowed to work while in the U.S. Since foreign tuition can be as much as ten times higher than resident tuition, this solution is prohibitive to most couples. Still, some make use of this avenue as a way to get the foreign partner here. Many professors and professionals have gone to school for new degrees they don't need, while others have decided to skirt the law by enrolling and then never showing up at school.

Couples relying on work visas are better situated. In these cases, the foreign half has skills desired by an employer, who in turn has a stake in keeping the worker here. The downside is that the foreigner becomes bound to the employer, and even if the company treats the foreigner well, the lack of freedom can be stifling. The current recession and the massive layoffs have ended the stability of many families whose only wish is to remain together. If laid off, the foreigner is left with the alternatives of finding a new job in a ridiculous time frame--the INS has no clear regulations for this, and immigration lawyers disagree on the time frame that ranges from ten days to two months-- or leaving the country. To these couples, standing in the unemployment line is not the worst thing that can happen after one is laid off.

Couples that don't qualify for either a student or work visa (or can't afford a student visa) have to rely on expensive international travel and visit each other sporadically on a tourist visa. Of the many potential land mines in this approach, one of the most serious is that homophobic attitudes reign in many foreign countries, turning these trips into risky adventures for the American partner. For example, in Brazil a gay foreigner was brutally beaten to death. News reports acknowledged his homosexuality, although no details were provided regarding relationships. As this example shows, when visiting these countries Americans are often just as unsafe as locals are. Thus it's often preferable for the foreign half to visit the American, keeping both parties out of harm's way, but a tourist visa only allows a foreigner to remain in the U.S. six months out of every year. This means that the American needs to travel the other six months, or the couple will remain separated during this time. Of course, there are all kinds of extra-legal reasons--one's job, one's financial situation--that could make it impossible for the American to pick up and leave the U.S. for months at a time.

If necessity is the mother of invention, these problems have given birth to a number of solutions--but they all cost money. A couple with sufficient resources can create an international corporation in which the foreign partner is an officer, who then can come to the U.S. on a work visa and even apply for a company-sponsored green card. Foreigners with a family business in their home country can open a subsidiary in the U.S. and come here that way. Finally, people with a net worth of over a million dollars have the opportunity to get an investor's green card. Needless to say, these solutions are applicable to only a minority of binational couples and do little to help those of ordinary means.

For couples in which the foreign partner is from a country that recognizes same-sex immigration, moving to this country is an obvious alternative. Performance artist Tim Miller and his partner Alistair McCartney are among the most visible couples in this fight. Miller and McCartney are planning to move to the U.K., since McCartney has British citizenship. Tim Miller's latest performance piece, Glory Box, which he has delivered in many cities across the country, deals with the treatment that he and his partner have received in their efforts to stay together as a loving, mutually committed couple.

Of course, picking up and moving to another country is always difficult, and sometimes circumstances make it impossible. Another couple in which the foreign partner is Australian has contemplated moving to his homeland, but it happens that the American partner is HIV-positive and has already established a network of doctors and insurance providers, making the move very risky. In yet another couple with an Australian partner--two women in this case--the American partner has children from a previous marriage, and she is unable to move herself and her children to a new land. These two examples still share the common denominator of fear. In general, families in this situation prefer to remain silent. They worry that the INS may tag the foreigner as an overstay risk and deny future visas into the U.S., closing the only avenue they have to spend at least a few months out of the year together.

Marta Donayre is the cofounder of Love Sees No Borders in Sunnyvale, California, and has recently joined the National Center of Lesbian Rights as its Public Education Director.

RELATED ARTICLE: Challenging the Law

The creation of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF) in 1990 coincided with the end of an official ban on gay immigrants and visitors entering the U.S. Few people realize that only twelve years ago gays and lesbians were denied entry into this country. A few years later, in a 1994 case involving a Cuban gay man, the ruling allowed for the recognition of GLBT people as a group that could seek asylum in the U.S.

The LGIRTF works as a support group providing legal advice and lawyer referrals. Through its monthly chapter meetings and free legal clinics, it has helped families realize that they are not alone. In individual cases, it has provided invaluable help. As a matter of fact, Love Sees No Borders, an organization dedicated to exposing the human drama these families live, estimates that over half a million American families may be affected by this problem. Currently LGIRTF has 15 chapters nationwide, and the monthly meetings are filled with sad stories of people looking for answers. A LGIRTF meeting looks more like a committee of the United Nations than a group of gay activists. English is a second language for many, and American laws and folkways may not be second nature. Sometimes a meeting will be interrupted so that a word can be explained, or time allowed for someone to translate a passage to his or her partner.

The work of the binational community is currently being shaped by a bill that was introduced in Congress by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Democrat, NY) on Feb. 14, 2000. The legislation would grant Americans in same-sex binational couples the right to sponsor their foreign partners for a green card. The bill languished in Congress and was reintroduced in 2001 under the name Permanent Partners Immigration Act (PPIA), H.R. 690. By year's end the bill had garnered only 87 co-sponsors.

The PPIA would add the words "or permanent partner" any time the word "spouse" appears in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Permanent partners would be defined as adults over 18 who are romantically and financially commingled, who are not related in a similar manner to anyone else, and who are unable to marry each other. This would provide same-sex binational couples the same immigration rights as opposite-sex couples. Importantly, the bill would also allow an American to sponsor an HIV-positive same-sex foreign partner into the country. Under current American law, HIV-positive foreigners are barred from entering the U.S. unless married to an American. Another provision of the bill would enable foreign partners to come to the U.S. with an immigrant visa. All other visas currently available to same-sex couples are non-immigrant visas. After Sept. 11, all non-immigrant visas have come under closer scrutiny. Most reported cases of arrests by the FBI and INS since then have involved holders of non-immigrant visas.

Activists may disagree on what would be a feasible time frame for the bill's passage, but they've come together in focusing on this eventuality. The environment is right for the building of momentum around this issue in 2002. Still, many binational couples are reluctant to become activists, because it would mean coming out of the immigration closet and risking deportation, yet things will not change unless more people raise their voices. This is a Catch-22 in which some half-million binationals continue to find themselves.
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Author:Donayre, Marta
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
Previous Article:Communities of equals. (Essay).
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