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Relationships are especially difficult for same-sex couples if one of them is here illegally



Editor’s note: Marie and Mame are real people, but their names and a few details have been changed to protect their identities.

Marie and Mame are, in most ways, a typical couple in the south Las Vegas Valley. They go to church, volunteer with local charities and hang out with their neighbors. Once a week, they go out for dinner.

Like hundreds of thousands of others in the metropolitan area, they came to the United States, in their case, from war-torn Colombia almost 25 years ago. They are a lesbian couple, but find that friends and family accept them as a typical family, just with two moms.

But Marie and Mame live in fear. Fear, because Marie is an undocumented immigrant. Federal officials could deport her at any time, severing her legal marriage to Mame, taking away the son they have raised together, shattering her family and the life the couple has built. Mame, although also of Colombian heritage, and partly raised in Colombia, was born in the United States and is a citizen here.

Anyone who has been caught in the bureaucratic morass that is the U.S. immigration system, or has followed the national debate about its reform, knows that coming to America is a years-long process loaded with unexpected and formidable obstacles.

But for some, the process is a whole lot trickier. Gays and lesbians, married or in long-term relationships, have unique issues to deal with, mostly because of the federal law known as the “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA. DOMA specifies that the federal government cannot take these permanent relationships into account.

The law directly threatens thousands of marriages, permanent relationships and families led by same-sex couples.

“It’s putting a huge toll on us, our relationship,” Marie says.

She recently lost a job in retail as a middle-level manager. Her bosses love her work, she says, but when she was required to go outside the country for a company meeting, she knew that she could be tagged going through Customs enforcement. She’s on leave from the company now and doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to go back.

That brings its own stress. “I’m used to working and moving 200 miles an hour,” Marie says. “I just love interacting with people, making a difference in someone’s day. Now I’m just feeling so wasted.”

She says her immigration problems started two decades ago, when a lawyer failed to properly file paperwork with the federal government.

If the federal government recognized Marie and Mame’s marriage — which was legally sanctioned in the state where they held the ceremony — it would be a different story. Marie would have a path to citizenship. But today, Marie is in a legal limbo, hoping that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will hold her potential deportation in abeyance until the law can be changed.

“We’re not recognized because of DOMA,” she says. “We’re not accorded the same rights.”

Marie says Mame has been her rock through years of stress.

“The support I get from Mame is just incredible,” she says. “Our love and our relationship are just so strong. Our family is the most important thing in our lives, and also our relationship with God. All we’re asking is to be recognized, to be treated with respect and dignity.”

Marie and Mame are far from the only same-sex couples to be threatened with immigration sanctions, despite the fact that gay men and lesbians can now marry in nine states and the District of Columbia. At least 20 other countries also support same-sex marriages. Nevada bans gay marriage, but in 2011 passed a law recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples that accord most of the same legal rights as marriage.

The DOMA Project, a national effort to address and mitigate the impact of the law that prevents federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages, specifically warns gay or lesbian couples from filing the I-130 petition that would begin the process of bringing a married, heterosexual partner to the United States. The same discrimination against gay and lesbian couples can also extend to a couple in which the would-be immigrant is a transgender person.

The project advises same-sex couples that regardless of their marriage status, even if they were legally married in the United States or were legally married in another country, the federal government cannot recognize that relationship.

Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, is a founder of the DOMA Project, a pro-bono project of his law firm, Masliah & Soloway. Soloway is selectively filing those I-130 petitions in an effort to challenge the law.

“We’re holding them [government agencies] accountable because we’re asking them to treat same-sex couples the same way as they are treating heterosexual couples.”

There are a few options for such couples. A gay man or lesbian can apply for asylum if she or he fears persecution in their country of origin.

In October 2012, the Obama administration directed deportation officers and prosecutors to set aside cases where there are no aggravating circumstances, such as a criminal violation.

“That’s in place now, and no one has ever done that,” Soloway says. “It is no substitute for recognizing those marriages. It is a Band-aid, but it is a concrete policy that they put in place.”

More changes could come. President Obama unveiled the proposal for an overhaul of the immigration laws during a speech here in January.

One proposed change is specific to same-sex couples: It would give U.S. citizens and permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with their partner.

“It says that if we’re going to overhaul immigration laws, were going to have to ensure family unification includes same-sex couples,” Soloway says. The law change, which would have to be approved by Congress, is critical because it recognizes same-sex couples with families, and that provides opportunities for immigration.

“Almost all legal immigration to the U.S. is through families,” Soloway notes.

He says there are perhaps 40,000 same-sex couples in the United States now with one undocumented partner. Those couples are living through a legal nightmare that disrupts or prevents employment, breaks families apart and forces people to live here on short-term visas for a few months at a stretch.

He notes that like Marie and Mame, many of those couples have children who legally live in the United States. Along with the emotional toll on the families, Soloway says, there is an economic cost, too, when trained employees have to leave their jobs and the country.

“We’ve got couples with two moms living in two different countries,” Soloway says. “It is just so difficult to stay together in this country. … When gay and lesbian people are treated unequally, it affects the whole family. And the children are innocent bystanders.”

Marie says the time for change is now, as the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider DOMA in June. She implores members of the lesbian and gay communities to make their voices heard.

“We cannot just sit and wait for change to happen,” she says. “We should take action because no one else will. … Now is the time to make sure our elected officials, especially the president, is good with his word.”