Despite Legalized Gay Marriage, a Missing Piece for Immigrants

Many states do not offer full rights for same sex spouses. (Photo: Flickr/weho)

This article was originally posted on WNYC’s It’s a Free Country Blog as part of the “That’s My Issue” series. 

On March 9, 2010, lesbian and gay couples were finally able to legally wed in the District of Columbia. On April 5, John and I finally got married, eleven and a half years after we moved in together.

Friends and family were happy for us. Many were relieved. Our “problem” was solved.

Like most immigrants, I came to the United States with my American dream. I was going to work hard, improve my lot, and give back. I was going to live openly and with integrity. I was also going to fall in love, settle down, and have my own family.

For the most part, I have been fortunate and have done okay. I am working part-time while completing a doctoral degree. I volunteer and help out when I can. I am doing what I love and believe that in my small way I am making a difference. Best of all, I have fallen in love, settled down, and started a family with someone whom I share the same faith and core values.

Until we had the freedom to marry, John and I did our best to get whatever legal protections were doled out to same-gender couples. While living in New York, we registered as domestic partners. Upon relocating to Washington, we again signed up as domestic partners and eventually got a marriage license.

Although no one can deny the fact that we are a married couple, the hard and unfair reality is that our marriage license isn’t worth much outside the District. Because of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which precludes the U.S. government from recognizing lesbian and gay unions, we and thousands of other committed couples are denied over 1,100 benefits and privileges blessed upon straight couples. Only because of whom we love.

Even though we have been paying our taxes and contributing to Social Security, neither of us will be entitled to the other’s benefits. Anything we give or bequeath each other – property, money, and other material possessions – will be taxed. The list goes on.

My mother was among those who thought my marriage to John solved the problem. When I shared the news, she congratulated us and said “Great, so he should be able to sponsor you.”

Thanks to the vagaries of our immigration system, I still do not have a green card, a Damocles sword that has hung over our heads since we committed to each other fourteen years ago.  I may consider the United States my home, having lived here legally for over two decades, and in my heart feel American, but at the end of the day I am still technically a foreign visitor, a foreign student.

I explained to my mom that because immigration is a federal matter, John will not be able to sponsor me for legal permanent residency. If we were a straight couple however, I’d have a green card by now. In the meantime, the choice we face is to find some way to keep me here legally or leave friends, family, and country we love once I get my Ph.D.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund. 

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.