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Binational Gay Couples Have Hard Choices

November 23, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) _ The choices can be wrenching: skirting the law, leaving one’s country, splitting up with one’s lover. Under U.S. immigration policy, those are the options facing many same-sex couples when one partner is American, the other a foreigner.

``They’re in a double closet of being gay or lesbian, and being an immigrant _ people don’t feel safe talking about it,″ said Sophie Fanelli, a French woman unsure if she will be able to remain with her American partner in California beyond next year.

When a binational couple is heterosexual, the foreigner can emigrate to America as a fiance or spouse. Not so with gay and lesbian couples: Under policies adopted with bipartisan support, they have no status in the eyes of U.S. immigration officials, even if they had legal same-sex marriages in the Netherlands or Canada.

Gay rights groups are trying to change the policy, backing a measure in Congress called the Permanent Partners Immigration Act. It would treat same-sex partners the same as heterosexual spouses for immigration purposes.

The act has nine co-sponsors in the Senate and 118 in the House, but supporters doubt it will advance while Republicans are in power. Any loosening of immigration laws has been a tough sell since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and some GOP leaders want to strengthen _ not weaken _ the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denies federal recognition to same-sex unions.

``On both issues, the opposition is vehement,″ said Leslie Bulbuk, a California activist. ``It’s like we’re fighting up two different hills simultaneously.″

Though the Permanent Partners act hasn’t yet been subject to hearings, it has drawn fire from some conservative groups. Glenn Stanton, director of social research for Focus on the Family, said the bill’s central flaw is that it ``looks at all relationships as equal.″

``Marriage is more than simply a close, committed relationship between two people,″ Stanton said.

Said Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute: ``Homosexual activists are nibbling around the edges, trying to validate their version of marriage without confronting the public head-on.″

It’s not known how many gay couples would benefit from the bill; Bulbuk said many such binational couples keep a low profile because of uncertainty over immigration status.

During years of legal limbo, Bulbuk and her partner, Brazilian-born Marta Donayre, considered moving to Canada _ where immigration officials recognize same-sex relationships even between two non-Canadians. Donayre eventually obtained political asylum in the United States; the two now run a support group, Love Sees No Borders, that helps other binational couples.

``Some people try to smuggle their partner into the country after failing with every legal avenue,″ Donayre said. ``People’s lives are on hold, they can’t have a pet, buy a home, adopt children.″

A decade of uncertainty was enough for Tony Eitnier, 33, and his German partner, Thomas Arnold, 34. They have abandoned hope of a swift change in U.S. laws and decided to live in Berlin, to the dismay of Eitnier’s family in San Diego.

``I’m very close to my family, and it was extremely traumatic to have to leave,″ Eitnier said in a telephone interview during a visit home. ``My parents are bitter at the government.″

Eitnier plans to teach English in Germany, one of 15 countries with immigration policies that recognize same-sex couples. Though sad to leave his American friends and relatives, he is comfortable with his decision.

``It was a mental battle not to go crazy, never knowing if your partner is going to have to leave tomorrow,″ he said. ``You become paranoid.″

Sophie Fanelli and her partner, Molly Sides, hope to avoid moving to France, but Fanelli is uncertain how long she can stay in the United States.

``We bought a house; we’d like to have a child and start a stable life,″ she said. ``But it’s difficult not to know where you’re going to go next year. It’s emotionally and financially draining.″

Yet a group that favors tighter border controls, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, is skeptical of the proposed Permanent Partners act.

``Supporters of gay marriage are trying to use it as a vehicle for legal recognition of a status they’ve been unable to convince the public of,″ said federation spokesman David Ray. ``The real battle for them is the right to marry, and the Permanent Partners act shouldn’t be used to sidestep that debate.″

Ray also said gays and lesbians might misuse the act the same way some heterosexual immigrants make use of fraudulent marriages.

In addition to the position regarding same-sex couples, the U.S. immigration policy for people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, also is criticized by gay-rights organizations.

The policy _ in place since the late 1980s, and affirmed by both Republican and Democratic administrations _ bars people with HIV from the United States, though waivers are available for brief professional visits and for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.

Victoria Neilson, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force, denounced the policy as discriminatory. She said immigrants with other serious diseases, such as cancer, are allowed in while people with HIV are rebuffed even if they have a job lined up that includes private health insurance.

Doug Ireland, a New York City journalist, still seethes at the anguish caused by the HIV policy when his partner, Frenchman Herve Couergou, was dying of AIDS in 1994. With Couergou barred from the United States, Ireland had to fly back and forth to France to be with him sporadically during his illness, and was not there at his death.

``There’s no question that the damage to his morale from this inhumanly enforced separation shortened his life,″ Ireland said. ``We were kept apart in the most crucial moment in our partnership when we should have been together.″

One component of U.S. immigration policy _ political asylum _ has won praise from gay activists. Since 1994, persecution based on sexual orientation has been among the grounds for obtaining asylum; scores of gays and lesbians have benefited.

However, gay-rights groups are appealing a Los Angeles judge’s recent refusal to grant asylum to a Mexican man. The judge said Jorge Soto Vega didn’t seem gay and could avoid persecution by hiding his sexual orientation.

Jon Davidson, a Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund lawyer who is handling the appeal, assailed the suggestion that gays should conceal their identity.

``A judge would never tell someone who’s Jewish, ’Well, you don’t look Jewish _ you could go back to your country as long as it’s not known you’re Jewish.‴

___

Lesbian & Gay Immigration Rights Task Force: http://www.lgirtf.org

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