The Other Immigration Reform: When a Husband Can't Sponsor His Spouse

Because federal law remains unchanged, deportation can split up gay and lesbian couples even in states that permit them to marry.


Jim Young/Reuters

While advocates for both gay rights and immigration reform pursue comprehensive solutions to the problems they want addressed, one group at the center of both debates is desperately hoping their troubles will finally be over. For the estimated 32,000 same-sex couples in which one partner is a U.S. citizen and the other is not, finding ways to legally stay together in the United States has been a constant source of anxiety and uncertainty. If the Supreme Court doesn't strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, these couples are in trouble: Immigration reforms currently being considered in the Senate do not include a fix for bi-national families, if those families are same-sex.

Tim Simulian and Edwin Blesch have struggled to find a legal path to remain together since they first met at a teashop in Simulian's native South Africa 14 years ago. Blesch, a New Yorker, wants to sponsor Simulian, whom he married in 2007, for immigration to the United States, but he can't, because the federal government only grants that benefit to individuals in heterosexual relationships.

"If Tim were a woman I could sponsor her for a green card in a minute and the problem would be over," said Blesch, 72.

After being forced to split their time between countries for years, Simulian, 66, was granted a deferred action status last year. He can stay in the United States for two years, but he is not allowed to leave and reenter the country, meaning that Simulian won't be able to visit his 92-year-old mother in South Africa.

"It's a long stretch for an old lady not to see her son," said Blesch. "They give with one hand and take with the other."

U.S. citizens are denied the right to sponsor their foreign-born partners because the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, specifies that, for federal purposes, the definition of marriage shall be restricted to unions between a man and a woman, said Tony Plummer, an attorney with Immigration Equality, a gay-rights advocacy group.

Plummer said that the legal roadblock imposed by DOMA could be removed if the Supreme Court, which heard a case earlier this year with regard to the act, declares it to be unconstitutional. He also said that legislation proposed by New York Representative Jerry Nadler, a Democrat, would permit Americans to sponsor their same-sex spouses for immigration purposes. The immigration reform bill unveiled last month in the Senate currently does not include this provision.

"It's a small and practical fix that would allow families to be together and stay together," Plummer said.

Congressman Nadler said that he is working with his Senate colleagues to include his bill in the Senate version, and that this was its best chance for passage.

Presented by

Andrew Welsch

Andrew Welsch is a writer living in New York.

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