October 08, 2008

U.S. Immigration Won't Allow Family Unification for Same-Sex Couples

|South Florida Sun-Sentinel

As soon as Terrence Smith saw his partner step off a plane from England three years ago he knew he had found a soul mate.

It's a modern day love story, starting with an Internet hello. After weeks of online chatting, they met in Atlanta. A long-distance relationship ensued. Then Smith proposed.

If Smith had asked a woman to marry him, he would simply ask immigration officials to grant his wife permanent residence here. It's called family unification and it's the most common way for immigrants to gain legal status in the country. But federal law prohibits same-sex couples from that right.

So the 43-year-old Hollywood lawyer and Halil Akkor, 39, of London, remain separated. So do 36,000 of other same-sex couples across the country, according to Immigration Equality.

"U.S. immigration law intolerably discriminates against gay and lesbian Americans by denying them the same rights received by heterosexual couples," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D- Boca Raton, a co-sponsor of the Uniting America Families Act. "This is offensive and unacceptable."

Advocates say the act would grant immigration benefits to same-sex couples so that they could stay together in this country. But the bill has stalled in Congress.

Critics say granting immigration benefits to same-sex couples would be a step toward gay marriage.

"Americans basically support marriage between a man and a woman," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a church lobbying group.

Up until 1990, homosexuality was grounds for not allowing people into the United States, said Victoria Nielson, legal director of the New York-based Immigration Equality, an immigration rights group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive individuals.

Current immigration law focuses on uniting families. But the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex relationships, Nielson said.

So many foreign-born partners of American citizens turn to renewing temporary work or student visas, asking for asylum, difficult-to-get employee-sponsored residency or staying illegally. Some leave the country.

Durrell Watkins, senior pastor of Fort Lauderdale's Sunshine Cathedral MCC, called immigration benefits for same-sex couples a "human rights and civil rights" issue. He has witnessed the current law's effect on couples. Watkins recalled a colleague who moved out of the country to be with her partner and spent the last year of her life abroad.

"She had to die in Spain," he said.

Friends and family held a funeral in Canada in September so her partner, who overstayed a visa and was deported from this country, could attend.

In another instance, an ill congregation member spends six month of the year alone without his Taiwanese partner, who's allowed into the United States temporarily for the other half of the year.

"People should be able to spend their lives with the people that they love," Watkins said.

For Smith that may mean moving to London, leaving a well-established law career and his home. However, he struggles most with the thought of leaving his mother and father, both 83.

"My dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer," Smith said.

Still, the time may come when he'll leave his homeland.

"I have a country on the other side that is willing to embrace me with open arms," he said.

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