Bi-National Same-Sex Couples Fight to Keep Families Intact
For the 40 bi-national same-sex couples and individuals who gathered at the LGBT Community Center in lower Manhattan on Sunday, April 10, to discuss immigration and gay rights, the battle at hand literally remains a fight to keep their families intact. Joining the panel discussion were Kelli Carpenter of R Family Vacations; Yves Rivaud, headmaster of École Internationale de New York and immigration attorneys Andrew Carter and Lavi Soloway.
Soloway’s clients, Mark and Frederic, may be split apart in May-even though they have been together for 21 years and have four children. "Because of DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], we are blocked from all federal benefits," Mark, who was born in the United States, told EDGE before the panel began. "I can’t sponsor Frederic for immigration like a husband would sponsor his wife. We are going to apply for a green card like anyone would, but that will probably be denied."
Soloway, a founder of Immigration Equality and the Stop The Deportations-The DOMA Project, noted tens of thousands of Americans who live with and marry same-sex partners from other countries are currently forbidden from sponsoring them for American residency. In addition, 47 percent of bi-national couples currently have children.
It started with ’allo’
Mark and Frederic met at a party in 1990, and it was love at first sight.
"He had me at allo," joked Mark, referring to Frederic’s French accent.
They spent the next seven years flying back and forth to be together. A local high school hired Frederic to teach French in 1997. He had to return to France in 1998, but was able to return to New York the following year. The two men bought a condemned house for a dollar; renovated it and adopted their first child, John, in April 2000. Mark and Frederic adopted their daughter Claire in 2003.
With Frederic’s work visa due to expire in 2004; the men sold their house, thinking they would move to France. Frederic received a student visa at the last minute. And he and Mark rented an apartment while they found and renovated another condemned house.
Finances caused the men to sell the house and move into a smaller home in 2007. Mark and Frederic adopted two more boys, Jacob and Joshua, in April 2009
With Frederic’s student visa set to expire in May, the men are once again considering a move to France. The French government would recognize their relationship, but not their parental status. Either Mark or Frederic would have to cede legal custody of their children, leaving them in a dangerous predicament should something happen to their only legal guardian.
"We thought we would go back to France, and tried to get the kids their papers, but the New York personnel just hung up," said Frederic. "They told me that our children meant nothing to them, that they were nobody."
"The government here gives us the right to adopt kids, but they will deport one of the fathers," added Mark. "We have 21 years together and four children; and the problem is that if they deport Fred, they are taking him away from his legal children. And if we go to France, although they recognize same-sex relationships, it’s unclear whether they recognize them for immigration rights. There may be a change in the fall, but we’re not quite sure even if children are legally allowed to have two fathers there. One of us might have to give up their legal rights to the children."
Soloway said Mark and Frederic’s case highlights the plight of many bi-national same-sex couples.
"We are working to expand family-based immigration sponsorship for green cards," said Soloway. "We need action from Congress, for DOMA to be struck down by the Supreme Court. We are facing how to keep families together and raise their children in that situation."
Bi-national same-sex couples had hoped the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service would approve green card applications after Attorney General Eric Holder announced in February that the Obama administration would no longer defend DOMA in court. USCIS said late last month that DOMA prevented the agency from approving these applications.
Soloway and other attorneys said some immigration officials could continue to quietly hold these applications, deferring final decisions and protecting bi-national couples from deportation. He stressed, however, leaving the fate of one’s family to the arbitrary decision of individual immigration officials is far from ideal.
Hope lays with the Uniting American Families Act?
Congressmembers Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Mike Holda (D-Calif.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) plan to reintroduce the Uniting American Families Act on Capitol Hill on Thursday, April 14. The bill would allow gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor their partners for legal residency in the United States.
Soloway remains optimistic about UAFA’s prospects because of the Obama administration’s decision to longer defend DOMA-U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.] has introduced a bill that would repeal the Clinton-era law once and for all. UAFA has also been included in a comprehensive immigration reform bill for the first time.
"This shows that the faith-based groups have given up their fight to exclude us," said Soloway.
Mark was less sure of the impact UAFA would have.
"It’s a bill they put in the House every year and try to get sponsors," he said. "That’s been going on for over a decade, and they haven’t brought up that bill for acceptance or denial. Nothing federally legally has changed in our case. They want to do it, and keep proposing it, but nothing is voted on."
For now, this is a complicated process with limited options. Soloway said one possible solution is helping an American’s foreign-born spouse open a company to keep them in the country.
"They sound daunting, and they are," he said. "It is an alphabet soup of non-immigrant visas, trying not to max one out, or maxing one out before moving to another. Once you start planning, you need to sit with a professional and talk options that apply to you as a couple."
Meeting bi-national families’ needs
Rivaud and others are trying to make the best of things by serving the needs of those bi-national families currently living in the New York metropolitan area. "There is a demand for young children to be bilingual, to understand, write, express yourself, travel around the world and eventually expatriate yourself and work outside the U.S.," said Rivaud, who noted his school had three LGBT couples apply this year. "It takes time for children to soak up two languages and coded systems...but it pays off well. After three years in a bilingual school, your child will be bilingual and can teach you the language."
Carpenter is also trying to address this issue at R Family Vacations through developing cruises and resorts that cater to the needs of bi-national same-sex families.
"There are so many multi-national families that are coming on our trips, and we see a real need to bring these families together and start addressing their needs," she said, noting the International LGBT Parenting Symposium will take place on July 12. "I think it’s a slow process, but the needs and challenges that face families from different countries or have children from other countries to find a place to live that will accept them as a family is very challenging."
The issue is far more pressing for Mark and Frederic.
"We take love for granted," said Mark. "Why can’t we be together and happy like any other couple? Even within the LGBT community, people assume because we’ve been together for 21 years, Fred can stay. That’s not so. He’s only here because of alternate visas he had throughout the years."
Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.