Comprehensive immigration reform didn’t happen in 2010. The DREAM Act failed to get enough Senate votes in December, setting the tone for a challenging year ahead.
Yet the Senate managed to provide a victory for gay rights. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the federal law barring homosexuals in the U.S. military from being open about their sexuality, was repealed. This landmark change marks the first time in history that LGBT people in the military can reveal their sexuality.
But the battle is not over for gay rights activists, particularly for those who are immigrants. The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners so they could join them in the U.S., is at a standstill, leaving thousands of same-sex couples in limbo.
Heterosexuals can bring their chosen partners to the United States through marriage—but same-sex couples are explicitly barred from that privilege. According to a report by the UCLA School of Law, at least 35,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. are bi-national and in danger of being separated forever because one partner cannot attain citizenship.
Judy Rickard, author of the upcoming book Torn Apart, which will be published in April 2011 by Findhorn Press, has suffered over the past five years because there is no path to citizenship for her partner, Karin Bogliolo, who is a citizen of the UK. Rickard, 63-years-old, and Bogliolo, 70-years-old and a grandmother, are both experiencing financial and emotional hardship because of forced separation and maintaining two separate households.
“The whole reason that we’re not together is that we’re both women and Karin isn’t a U.S. citizen. It’s that simple and it’s that complicated,” Rickard said over the phone.
Rickard is a tireless activist for immigration reform for same-sex bi-national couples. Her activism is fueled by the personal pain and frustration she feels. “The emotional and physical separation is huge. It’s like we broke up, but we didn’t break up. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s stress, depression, panic attacks; it’s the same thing that would happen to anyone put in a situation they didn’t choose,” Rickard said.
Rickard and her partner are currently separated. Bogliolo left in October because she had been in the U.S. for 6 months, the maximum time allowed for a visit, and Rickard could not leave due to a family emergency. Because of this, they were separated at Thanksgiving, and will spend Christmas, New Years, and Judy’s birthday apart.
“My ordinary life is on hold. I can’t tell you with any certainty when I’ll see Karin. We haven’t broken any laws, we haven’t done anything we shouldn’t have done. We’re careful to stay within the visa compliance,” Rickard said. If at any point Bogliolo is determined to be “visiting too often,” she could be barred from ever returning to the U.S.
The Uniting American Families Act exists as a standalone bill, but it has also been incorporated into frameworks for comprehensive immigration reform. California Congressman Mike Honda included same-sex couples in the Reuniting American Families Act, and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez also included same-sex couples in his Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act.
Rickard is not alone in her struggle for this cause. Immigration Equality is one of several organizations that actively promotes the UAFA. In addition to lobbying for UAFA, Immigration Equality says it is working to keep families together.
“There’s not doubt that beginning next year the new congress on Capital Hill will bring new challenges in moving legislation forward. At Immigration Equality we’re finding ways to keep LGBT families together as often as possible. We also have a full-time attorney that works one-on-one with bi-national couples. Until the UAFA is passed, we’re helping keep them together until we have a permanent legislative solution,” Steve Ralls of Immigration Equality said.
According to Ralls, the UAFA has faced primary opposition from religious groups, as well as immigration opponents. UAFA opponents have argued that creating a path to citizenship for same-sex couples would further complicate the already fraught immigration debate.
Judy Rickard responded to these claims, saying, “For the people that think it will open the floodgates to illegal immigration—it is not true. [The legislation] puts the phrase “or permanent partner” wherever the word “spouse” appears. What it does is make the playing field level for same sex couples. All we’re asking for is the same rights that all Americans have,” Rickard said.
“The two worst words a person can put into a conversation, it seems, are ‘gay’ and ‘immigrant.’ People go ballistic. It’s like pouring gas on a fire,” Rickard said.
Torn Apart was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” and it features fifteen same-sex bi-national couples.
Among the stories in Torn Apart is that of a same-sex couple where one partner lost his job due to downsizing, and thereby his employment sponsorship. Both men in this couple are HIV positive, and they fear not being able to take care of each other if one of them is deported. Another story profiles Shirley and Jay, a same-sex couple with two young sons, where one of the parents—a Filipina immigrant—is in imminent danger of deportation. According to Rickard, this mother was not notified that special legislation enabling her to stay in the U.S. expired, and was subsequently arrested and required to wear an ankle bracelet. For these couples, there are no laws protecting them from deportation.
This year, the U.S. deported more than 390,000 people, and aims to increase that number in 2011. The Department of Homeland Security says it is focusing on deporting serious criminals, but in practice, in many places the majority of deportees last year had not been convicted of serious crimes.
Rickard hopes her book will serve as a handbook for people interested in same-sex bi-national immigration reform, and will donate the proceeds. “Four dollars of every book sold will be donated to one of the groups fighting for this issue. I’m advocating for the issues, and I want the groups that are out in the trenches to be supported. That’s my gift to our community,” Rickard said.
Von Diaz is a Feet in Two Worlds LGBT fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.