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Same-sex couples find rough road to immigration

When one partner is not a U.S. citizen, some couples find a friendlier legal reception in other countries. A favorable decision on the Defense of Marriage Act would let them return.

June 06, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • When the last of a series of work permits and tourist visas was set to expire for Max Oliva, left, of Argentina, he and fiance Jesse Goodman, a U.S. citizen, left the country to continue living together. They are shown in East London.
When the last of a series of work permits and tourist visas was set to expire… (Max Oliva )

When Jesse Goodman and his Argentine fiance left the United States in 2006 after an unsuccessful immigration battle, they expected that one day they would be able to return home to New York.

Goodman and Max Oliva had become used to finding temporary ways to be together. They had fallen in love quickly and planned on marrying but soon learned that, unlike similar situations with straight couples, their relationship wouldn't help Oliva stay in the country.

For a time, they relied on a mix of work permits and tourist visas to stay together. When the last permit was set to expire five years ago, they decided it was best to leave the U.S.

"We ran out of options," Goodman said.

While straight American citizens can obtain green cards for their spouses and fiances, the Defense of Marriage Act has precluded same-sex couples from receiving the same benefits.

In February, the couple was encouraged when the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the act in court, saying it violates the Constitution's equal protection clause, a conclusion that two federal district courts had reached in 2009.

The announcement that the Obama administration would no longer defend the law was applauded by gay and lesbian activists.

But the administration has sent mixed signals about its intent to enforce the law, which has led to some confusion among same-sex couples as they try to navigate the immigration system.

Rather than continue waiting for a resolution to that issue, Goodman and Oliva decided to move forward with trying to return to the U.S. by filing a fiance visa petition for Oliva.

The couple expects that it will be denied. But they are prepared to go to court.

"I think we're right," Oliva said. "We're fighting against something that is unfair."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) and 47 other members of Congress have written to the attorney general and the Department of Homeland Security asking that immigration officials hold off on rejecting visa petitions for same-sex couples and suspend deportations of married same-sex partners until the courts resolve whether the Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional.

The department said it would exercise discretion in individual cases, but that it would continue to enforce the law, which remains in effect.

"Right now the department's position is that they can't defend [the act] because it's unconstitutional," Lofgren said. "If that's the case, then that leads you to the conclusion that you should not be enforcing it."

Those who support the law were angered by the administration's decision to stop defending it in court and have argued strongly that the executive branch must continue to enforce it.

"President Obama's personal policies are trumping his presidential duty," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said at the time, calling the decision "deeply disturbing."

Linas Alsenas, a former New York resident, spends his days scouring the Internet for news about the Defense of Marriage Act from his home in Stockholm.

Alsenas, a children's book author, and his husband, Jan Wilhelmsson, have lived in Sweden since 2005, after Wilhelmsson's work permit was set to expire.

"Neither of us wanted to risk him becoming illegal," said Alsenas. "We're generally not built for that kind of lifestyle."

They now rent an apartment provided by Wilhelmsson's company and are reluctant to buy a home because they still hope to return to New York.

Alselnas is slowly learning to speak Swedish but, he says, he still thinks of New York City as home. He reads the New York Times every day and listens to New York radio.

"I don't want to stay in Sweden for the rest of my life," he said. "It's hard to imagine doing that."

When Goodman and Oliva's plane landed in Hungary in 2006, it was in the middle of a severe winter.

"All you could see was a frozen white tundra," Goodman wrote of that day. "Max looked scared.... My eyes were wide as we drove along, everything new, not knowing what to expect."

They imagined their adventure would last three years — five years max.

Goodman had managed to get a job in Budapest, and his employers agreed to hire Oliva so that he could live legally in that country. They tried to settle in. They learned to love going to the local flea markets together and riding their bikes around the city.

Eventually they left Budapest for London, where Goodman was able to get a five-year work permit. In that country, their long-term relationship qualified Oliva as well for a visa.

They live on a narrow boat in the canals of the city where they are now in the third year of the work permit.

The United Kingdom offers them a path toward citizenship, but they're hoping something will change at home before they have to make that decision. It's been several months since they filed the fiance petition and they have yet to hear any news.

"We're living in a country that recognizes us as a couple," Oliva said. "But it's still not home."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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