By Joey DiGuglielmo
You’re waiting on your partner and he’s late.
Most gays in that situation might be mildly irked, especially if a dinner reservation or theater tickets are at stake. Even if a few hours pass, you realize the likelihood that something serious has happened is small.
But when Kelly Cross, a local gay attorney, found himself waiting more than two hours at the Foggy Bottom Metro station last summer with no sign of his partner, who was scheduled to join him following a stint in Europe, it was a much more serious situation — it could have meant the end of their relationship.
Because the United States doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage at the federal level — where immigration is handled — bi-national same-sex couples have few options for staying together long-term in the U.S. or anywhere else. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) further complicates the matter.
Cross and his partner, who declined to be identified because it could increase his chances of being deported, had tried to make a go of it in Europe, spending more than a year together in Dusseldorf, Germany, but a bounty of practical considerations — most pressingly Cross’s cancer-stricken mother in West Virginia — made staying there untenable. Cross returned in June 2009. But on the July day when his partner was scheduled to arrive at Dulles Airport, Cross’s panic increased as time went by.
“I was going around calling all kinds of people,” Cross says. “I thought he’d gotten pulled over and sent to the detention center where they’re double- and triple-checking everything probably. They want to make sure these folks are not going to stay in the U.S. They have no idea of his life here, his friends and family. It’s terrifying to know that you could be traveling and get the wrong immigration officer and not be able to get back into the country and I would not be able to go back and say anything and have no right to appeal anything. We’re very much at their whim.”
It had already been a nerve-wracking month for Cross, 31. Since he’d returned to the United States, he’d spent a frantic month trying to find someone willing to give his partner a job. Without that, there was no hope for the partner to stay. Though the partner’s background is in public policy, he had some experience doing financial analysis in Europe and that led to a D.C. opportunity but one that they say is more of a temporary fix than a long-term career plan.
For the couple, who got serious quickly after meeting at Apex in 2007, it was just one more in a string of seemingly endless obstacles. The relationship is strong enough, they say, that it’s worth the constant anxiety and uncertainty.
Cross’s partner, also 31, came to the states from his native Poland in 2003 to study public policy at the University of Northern Iowa. Disenchanted with Iowa, he came to D.C. for an internship in 2006. Though he liked the U.S., he was planning to return to Poland or possibly somewhere else in Europe — wherever he might find a good job. His plans changed radically when he met Cross.
“This is an everyday concern, how are we going to survive,” the partner says. “In our situation, we’re lucky that we have sufficient funds to live in this not-very-pleasant situation, but I just cannot imagine if somebody is gay and working for McDonald’s and he has a boyfriend who is working for Burger King. I don’t think they are going to make it. They won’t make it for sure because they’re not able. But if there’s a couple who’s straight, they have all the rights and all possibilities to make it because it will be possible. A law that gives them the opportunity, one piece of paper, a marriage license, that gives all kinds of rights and we don’t have it.”
The couple did enter a New Jersey civil union last summer, but they say it was purely symbolic and has little practical benefit. The partner says although he understands the arguments of those who will settle only for marriage, he’d be happy with a federally recognized civil union.
“That would be fine, I don’t give a shit,” he says. “Just anything so I don’t have this headache every morning. I would be perfectly happy with a civil union.”
Cross and his partner are, of course, not alone. Immigration Equality, a gay rights advocacy group working to end discrimination in U.S. immigration law against LGBT people, points to Williams Institute figures based on the 2000 Census that indicate there are about 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples struggling to stay together in the U.S. They’re hoping the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), versions of which date back to 2000, will solve the problem. Because its wording says “permanent partner,” activists say it wouldn’t conflict with DOMA, though they’re hopeful — as are virtually all gay activists — that DOMA will eventually be repealed.
But how are the odds looking for UAFA? Immigration Equality’s communications director Steve Ralls is optimistic.
“Now that health care is officially behind us, there are indications that Congress and the White House are turning to immigration reform in the coming weeks and months,” Ralls says. “The White House has called key lawmakers to plot a way forward for comprehensive immigration reform and as part of that process, we’re working very hard to ensure that the Uniting American Families Act is part of that comprehensive bill.”
If it fails there — and many are opposed to its inclusion — it could pass on its own but Ralls says Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, supporters of the legislation, have told him they want to tackle a comprehensive bill before individual ones. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who introduced UAFA in the Senate last year, is a key ally, Ralls says.
“He’s chair of the Judiciary Committee, which has enormous influence on what immigration bills move through Congress when,” Ralls said. “He remains willing and determined to pass UAFA as a standalone bill if necessary. That gives us a legislative leg up right out of the starting gate.”
But if it fails, what are the options for couples like Cross and his partner? They’re few, they say. Moving to Canada is not practical because the antitrust law Cross specializes in is not viable to practice there. Cross says he was lucky he spoke German and that his England-based international law firm was able to transfer him there, but he took a large pay cut to do it.
His partner becomes indignant at the mere suggestion of moving to Canada.
“This question is not really appropriate,” he says. “Who the heck is going to tell me where I should live? … I am entitled to decide where I should like to live because I’m your partner. We want to live here. Nobody’s going to tell me what I’m supposed to do with my life. I’m not a random person who’s just coming and pushing to want to settle in the D.C. area. We have our life here.”
And though the immigration problem is by far the couple’s biggest challenge, Cross says it’s compounded by other factors that flair up occasionally. They have cultural, interracial and homophobic issues that pop up, mostly externally. Cross encountered it often when he was trying to arrange a job for his partner.
“There’s a different sort of worth people ascribe to a heterosexual relationship that they don’t ascribe to homosexual ones,” Cross says. “There’s a presumption that if you’ve found a woman and are in love with a woman, then that must be love and there must be something there and you know, that’s your family. People attribute that and assume it’s real. But I think with gay couples there’s a mentality that yeah, you could find someone else or why go to the effort for this, there’s plenty of other people you could find. But it’s not true. When you love somebody, you love somebody.”
Cross says the challenges sometimes overwhelm his friends and colleagues.
“I think it’s just a combination of the whole thing,” he says. “Black, interracial, bi-national, gay — sometimes it’s just too much and people don’t know how to deal with it.”