As Americans debate the merits of immigration overhaul, some gay activists are using the moment to highlight the plight of gay binational couples who are sometimes forced apart by an immigration policy that disregards their relationships.
The couples' dilemmas reveal a gulf between the growing social acceptance of gay couples and an aversion to granting them the same kinds of legal rights as married heterosexuals, advocates say.
In many cases, the couples move in together, buy property and even raise children in the United States. The foreign partner often stays in the country under the terms of a temporary visa. When that visa expires or is revoked, the couples face tough choices: They can disregard immigration laws, move out of the country or break up.
"It's quite upsetting," said Mark Himes, a Harrisburg, Pa., resident who is raising two children with a Frenchman who may soon be forced to leave the country. "I'm following the rules, and I'm doing exactly what my heterosexual friends are doing -- and yet I am not allowed to succeed or achieve the American dream."
According to an analysis of 2000 U.S. census data commissioned by Immigration Equality, a New York gay rights group, the U.S. was home to about 36,000 same-sex couples that had one American and one foreigner. The group thinks many more are living in secrecy.
Last month, Immigration Equality and the nonprofit Human Rights Watch released a 191-page report detailing the dislocation that such couples face. The report called for passage of the Uniting American Families Act, a bill that would allow gay and lesbian citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor their foreign partners for immigration.
Gay rights activists acknowledge that they are making their case in a difficult political climate. Concern over America's porous borders is running high, and broader questions about the rights of gay couples remain highly contentious.
This week, President Bush urged Congress to support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. (Though the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act says states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states, Bush said a constitutional amendment would protect the institution from "over-reaching judges.") The Senate failed to pass the amendment Wednesday.
"We're talking about an issue that's the intersection of two real hot-button issues in American politics, with regard to same-sex couples' rights and immigration rights," said Scott Titshaw, an Atlanta immigration lawyer and Immigration Equality board member. "And unfortunately, I think that our side is losing in both cases right now."
Similar versions of the Uniting American Families Act, both sponsored by Democrats, are stalled in the judiciary committees of the House and Senate. Members of both parties say the bills have little chance of coming to a vote under a Republican-controlled Congress. The House legislation has been unsuccessfully introduced in successive congressional sessions since 2000.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the House bill, says it makes no sense to punish gay Americans who happen to fall in love with a foreigner.
"What I'm opposed to is wanton cruelty," he said.
But Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, finds the legislation problematic for a number of reasons. FAIR is wary of any proposal that would open the doors to more immigrants. And Stein worries that an immigration rights law for gay partners would flood the system with fraudulent applications.
"You're dealing with a rampant marriage fraud problem now for heterosexual couples," he said.
Denise Constant, 43, a real estate agent in Merritt Island, Fla., said goodbye to her Austrian girlfriend of nine years a few months ago, when the U.S. Embassy in Vienna refused to renew her student visa. The couple had been living together in a house they built in 2001. Constant is hoping her partner can earn a new visa to the U.S. by investing in a company here. But the couple first has to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the meantime, Constant will try to visit Vienna as often as she can as a tourist.
"Convicted felons, maybe even Charles Manson, could sponsor my partner to come to this country on a fiance or spouse visa," Constant said in an e-mail. "Yet I, a law-abiding, tax-paying, civic-minded veteran, am not allowed to sponsor the woman I love so we can live our lives together."
Himes, 38, an employee with the Pennsylvania state college system, has been able to live with his French partner for a number of years in the U.S. because his boyfriend keeps taking graduate school courses, and thus extending a student visa. But they are running out of money to pay tuition.