Gay Partners Seeking Immigration Changes

Gay partners seeking immigration changes

By Mackenzie Carpenter
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 23, 2009

He came here nine years ago from Indonesia, a gifted young student who earned a Ph.D. in structural engineering — on a full scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh — met his partner at a Starbucks in Shadyside, got a job in Washington, D.C., bought a condo and got married.

And on Wednesday, he got on a plane to Indonesia — against his will.

Because he is gay, the man calling himself 'Joe Smith' — he asked that his real name not be used because he hasn't come out to his Indonesian family — is not recognized as married under U.S. immigration law. So, when he was laid off from his job in April, Mr. Smith lost his employment-based green card, couldn't qualify for a family-based green card — and the deportation clock started ticking.

Today, Mr. Smith's partner, Steve Orney, will appear at a congressional briefing on a House bill that would give gay couples the right to obtain lawful permanent resident status, in the same manner that spouses of citizens and lawful permanent residents petition for foreign-born husbands and wives — by showing that they are in a 'permanent partnership.'

An estimated 36,000 same-sex couples, many with children, face similarly wrenching separations under U.S. immigration law, noted Rachel Tiven, executive director for Immigration Equality, a New York-based group.

The House bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., along with a similar measure in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, complicates the already fractious debate over comprehensive immigration reform, which failed to pass in two previous sessions.

While labor and immigration groups have pressed President Barack Obama to make good on his pledge to take up immigration later this year, few believe it will happen. Moreover, Mr. Leahy has said he wants any immigration equality bill to be part of a larger immigration reform package, which opponents of the legislation say would torpedo that reform.

'It's an overreach, like pouring gasoline into a fire,' said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the conference has been a staunch supporter of immigration reform, the Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage and homosexuality makes this bill's inclusion unacceptable, he said. 'Why add another major controversy to an issue that's already divisive? It's a distraction that will simply hurt the overall effort.'

Another cosponsor of immigration equality for gay couples, Sen. Bob Casey, said he'd prefer to see a bill passed separately — to give it a better chance of passage, given that wholesale immigration reform proved a tough sell last session and may do so again. Mr. Casey, who supports gay civil unions, believes that it 'makes no sense' to deport people who meet the requirements of this bill.

'We're saying to tens of thousands of Americans, in effect, 'Sorry, we understand you're in this relationship and are committed to each other and to this country, but you have to leave.' '

And when the deportee's education was paid for with U.S. tax dollars, 'that's particularly disturbing,' he said.

Business leaders have been pushing for changes in immigration law that would give credit to applicants with higher education degrees or who have been successful in business, said Robert Whitehill, a Pittsburgh immigration lawyer, citing a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Oct. 19 by MIT President Susan Hockfield, who noted that four of this year's nine winners of Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine were born outside the United States, coming here as graduate or post-doctoral students.

'In her article, she noted that one of the reasons we're losing our advantage in science and other fields is that instead of giving these people permanent residency, we're kicking them out of the country and telling them to go home,' he said. 'It's just counterintuitive.'

Regardless of how it comes before Congress, either separately or as part of comprehensive immigration reform, this bill would probably come too late for Mr. Smith, who has filed papers to emigrate with Mr. Orney to Canada. Nonetheless, Mr. Orney, in his appearance today, will be bringing his 88-year-old father, who asked that he be allowed to testify about the strength and commitment of his son's relationship with Mr. Smith, which began eight years ago in Pittsburgh, Mr. Orney said.

After meeting online, the two agreed to meet at a Starbucks in Shadyside, and immediately clicked, said Loretta Barone, a Point Breeze yoga teacher and a longtime friend of the couple.

'They aren't any less committed than my husband and I, and we've been married for 47 years,' said Ms. Barone.

When Mr. Smith was laid off by his D.C.-based construction firm in April, he scrambled to find another job, to no avail. Ironically, a month previously, the couple had bought a home together in Washington. 'Joe first asked his bosses if he was safe,' said Mr. Orney. 'They assured him he was, and three weeks later laid him off.'

'We knew he would have a really tough time finding a job, given that most stimulus-funded projects have hire-American policies,' said Mr. Orney. 'And that turned out to be true.'

'I have spent half of my adult life studying, working and paying taxes here,' added Joe, in a telephone interview before he left the country. 'It's been really hard, an emotional roller coaster. I feel like this is my home, but it's a home that doesn't want me.'