By Jenny Hontz
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.
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.
The fear and uncertainty of impermanence inflict a level of psychological violence that can test the strongest of relationships. Sham marriages are an option, but they carry the risk of stiff fines and deportation. Those who stay illegally can never return home to visit family again.
That’s just the decision that Freddie, 30, a Parisian, made in October, when his tourist visa expired. He chose to stay illegally with his partner, Nick, 40, an ad salesman for the Los Angeles Times, in their Silver Lake home.
Holding hands like newlyweds in a West Hollywood restaurant, this model-handsome couple, who asked that their last names not be used, recounted tales of their initial meeting in Paris in the summer of 2002, their romance and trips home to meet the parents. “My dad called me the next day and he says, ‘Nick, that Freddie, he’s the one.’ They just loved him.”
The two of them hired a high-profile immigration attorney and tried to find a way for Freddie to stay, but they learned they had no viable legal options. Instead, they’re taking their chances, living with the terror of sudden separation.
“I wake up in the middle of the night freaking out the love of my life sleeping next to me will be pulled out,” Nick said. “I’m a good person,” Freddie added. “I’m not doing anything bad. Now, every single day, I think where will I sleep tonight — in prison or on a plane back?”
Freddie considered marrying an American woman, but “that goes in the face of everything we’re fighting for,” Nick said. “We’re being true to our love. We’re trying to answer to the higher laws.” Still, civil disobedience presents dilemmas. Freddie’s father is sick from an accident a few months ago, but “I can’t leave,” Freddie said. “If I need to fly to him, I will do it, but I will not be able to fly back.”
Neither Nick nor Freddie was particularly political before their predicament, but when they realized most of their friends — gay and straight — were ignorant of the laws, they joined Immigration Equality, a Los Angeles support, education and advocacy group for same-sex bi-national couples.
With 300 couples on the group’s e-mail network, 20 or so meet every month and share “gut-wrenching stories about being separated and being in fear,” said board member Sophie Fanelli, 29, a civil rights activist from France, who has been in a relationship with Los Angeles teacher Molly Sides, 29, for five years.
Sophie and Molly own a house together in Mount Washington and would like to have kids, but their situation is “just not stable enough,” Sophie said. Because she is only here on a temporary work visa, she has had to endure three separations from Molly for as long as five and a half months while she returned to France waiting for paperwork to arrive.
“I look at it as a tragedy,” Sophie said. “At this point, I’m not here permanently. I don’t have a green card. I can’t get legally married.”
She hopes to eventually secure permanent status through her job, but the process is extremely difficult, the standards are stringent, and the number of employer-sponsored green cards granted is very small. Given the uncertainty, the two are hedging their bets and applying for residency in Canada, where they would have to “start from scratch,” Sophie said.
Because the guiding principle of immigration law is family reunification, the vast majority — 65 percent to 75 percent — of green cards go to those with family already in the United States. But as long as the U.S. government doesn’t consider same-sex partners family, “For us, it’s family separation,” Sophie said.
Sophie can no longer bear to attend weddings because “It makes me so incredibly depressed,” she said. “We’ve been together five years. We have a house. For all intents and purposes, we are a couple. It makes no sense to me.”
Molly and Sophie got involved with Immigra-tion Equality because “Lots of our friends in the gay community really didn’t get it,” Sophie said. “It felt really lonely.”
Occasionally, the group is bolstered by a victory in its ranks. Doug Haxall, 39, a Web engineer from South Pasadena and Immigration Equality board member, spent more than $10,000 on legal and education fees for his partner of five years, Marco, 29, from Brazil, who was not allowed to work or drive in the United States. They waited more than two years for Marco’s student-visa approval.
“They basically leave you hanging for an ungodly period of time,” Haxall said. “You’re in limbo. You have no rights, and they make you sweat it out.” Marco finally got fed up and decided to apply for asylum. The government was receptive to his claims of persecution in Brazil and granted his request.
“That was an emotional day,” Haxall said. “When your partner is granted the right to stay, your whole life changes in a second. Now we really are permanent partners.”
Haxall got the good news at the office, and his boss took the whole team out for martinis. But the celebration was tempered by the fact that so many of his friends from Immigration Equality haven’t had a positive outcome.
“We’re two guys who got lucky in a group of 300 people who are not lucky,” he said. “When [the Permanent Partners Immigration Act] passes, that’ll be the party. We’re going to keep fighting for this thing. The right to live together is all we’re asking for.”