Obama’s immigration plan gives glimmer of hope to LGBT bi-national couples

President Obama unveiled a landmark proposal  on immigration today that gives hope to thousands of lesbian and gay bi-national couples wishing to live together in the U.S. Under current law, U.S. citizens cannot sponsor their same-sex partner for a green card and citizenship even if the two are married.

Today the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained Obama believes “Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love.”  He indicated that a reform package drafted by the president would include action on same-sex couples.

For married couples like Heather Morgan, 36, and MarVerdugo, 43, a change in policy would mean the difference between raising a family and exile.

“We don’t have any other solution,” says Verdugo, a Spaniard who works in marketing at a Spanish-language newspaper. “We will be forced to leave.”

Morgan met Verdugo while studying abroad in Madrid. Their friendship matured into a relationship and Verdugo decided to move to New York on a student visa to study English. After Verdugo got a job and a work visa, they married in August of 2011. Her visa will expire this November.  But the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, rules out sponsorship for same-sex married couples.

“It’s an injustice to the relationship we’ve built,” says Morgan. “It’s enough to just take on the normal challenges of life without the added burden of being separated. We are as much a family as any family.”

According to the U.S. Census around 35,000 same-sex bi-national couples reside in the U.S. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security suspended deportations for these individuals, deeming the couples low-risk and advising agents to take “ties and contributions to the community, including family relationships,” into account before deporting.

DOMA proponents see the president’s decision to roll in a provision for bi-national same-sex couples as misguided.

“If the president is putting immigration as his highest priority, why would he muddy the waters with a proposal that violates current federal law?” says John Eastman, president of the National Organization for Marriage. “I guarantee there’ll be a fight if he’s trying to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. I think it demonstrates he’s not serious about immigration reform.”

Am immigration reform blueprint released by the “Gang of Eight,” as the group of Republican and Democratic senators have come to be known, detailed major shifts on immigration but did not refer to measures for same-sex couples.

“We were disappointed that the Senate framework yesterday did not include an explicit mention of lesbian and gay families,” said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the activist organization Immigration Equality. Last year, the organization filed a lawsuit in April 2012 on behalf of five bi-national couples, including Morgan and Verdugo, to repeal DOMA.  “We get a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our country’s immigration laws and we should be all be committed to working for a bill that helps as many families as possible, and that’s what including lesbian and gay couples is all about.”

Pablo Garcia Gamez and Santiago Ortiz on their wedding day May 5, 2011. The couple hopes lawmakers will include benefits for binational LGBT couples in immigration reform. (Photo courtesy of Pablo Garcia Gamez)

Pablo Garcia Gamez and Santiago Ortiz on their wedding day May 5, 2011.

While some couples remain together in the U.S. through an employers’ sponsorship, many non-citizens opt to overstay their visas and continue their lives as part of the U.S.’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Pablo Garcia Gamez, 52, moved from his native Venezuela to New York to marry Puerto-Rican-born Santiago Ortiz. He’s lived undocumented in the country for close to 20 years.

“I’m in love with Santiago. I’m in love with New York,” says Garcia Gamez, a PhD candidate who teaches a Spanish GED class at Columbia University but passes up promotions that require a Social Security number.  “I could be a professor but I cannot right now.”

Ortiz, 56,  was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. The two met in Venezuela while he sought treatment for it from a Caracas doctor. Though once a psychologist at Rikers Island, Ortiz now remains at home on disability. He says the two have discussed living in Venezuela, but his survival depends on the medicines and support he can only find here.

“It’d be a death sentence for me and we’d have to go back in the closet,” says the 56-year-old Ortiz. “I’ve realized what he’s given up. It’s a very difficult road.”

Lawmakers predict legislation on immigration reform will pass as early as this summer and bi-national LGBT couples are awaiting details on the proposals. But there’s still a long way to go, as President Obama pointed out in his Las Vegas speech.

“Immigration has always been an issue that inflames passion,” said the president. “There are few things more important to us as a society than who gets to come here and call our country home.”

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