The Thomas-Oakley family.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The greater part of Barbara Thomas and Susan Oakley’s days at their Mansfield apartment outside Boston is spent worrying about their children.

Shayne Thomas, 18, has chronic medical conditions and Oakley says she can usually be found organizing his medicines. "He has to take six pills a day," she says. "That’s a lot to keep track of."

Younger sister Jami Thomas, 14, has a different way to drive her parents crazy.

"She wanted to begin dating when she was 13 and didn’t take our ‘no’ very well," says Thomas.

The two women have been in a committed relationship for about six years and are proud parents to Thomas’ two children from an earlier marriage to a man. Like many couples in love, they say they have simple dreams: a bigger house with a deck, barbecue dinners with their family and the chance to always be together.

But the latter has proved to be a tiresome struggle.

While a U.S. citizen can sponsor a spouse for permanent residency in the United States, Thomas is unable to do the same for her British-born partner. Under current U.S. immigration laws a same-sex partnership–even if the couple has been joined in a formal civil union or marriage ceremony–is not considered sufficient grounds for sponsorship.

"It’s nerve-wracking and frustrating to constantly be figuring out a way to be together," says Oakley, 35. "It takes a tremendous toll on the family."

The Senate and House both passed immigration bills earlier this year; after the November election, the two sides will begin to hammer out a final version. Those bills, however, focus on the status of migrant workers. Nowhere in the final product will there be relief for same-sex couples with uncertain immigration status.

‘Together Like Everybody Else’

"It’s discrimination," says Thomas, 43, rage seeping into her voice during a telephone interview. "It’s discrimination against lesbians, it’s discrimination against same-sex couples and it’s discrimination against our families. We should be able to be together like everybody else."

There is no question that U.S. immigration laws are discriminatory toward same-sex couples, says New York University law professor Arthur Leonard. "And America is definitely out of step with other Western democracies in this regard."

Nineteen countries in all recognize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships for the purposes of immigration.

Advocates estimate approximately 40,000 binational, same-sex couples in the United States are affected. About 42 percent of these couples are lesbians, according to the 2000 Census, but some advocates believe the number is an undercount since many people are reluctant to reveal their sexual orientation and nationalities to federal data collectors.

Lesbians are bearing the brunt of this discrimination, says Jessica Stern, researcher for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Statistics show that lesbians are far more likely than gays to be raising children and so when immigration tears apart these couples, it affects entire families," she says.

Debanuj Dasgupta, immigration policy analyst for Queers for Economic Justice, a New York advocacy group, agrees. In addition, he says, "Our research shows that lesbians have less access to immigration and asylum services making it harder for them to navigate their way through discriminatory policies like the immigration laws."

Work Visa Woes

For Oakley, things were looking bright when she first came to the United States. She was able to easily find a job in Massachusetts and her employers sponsored her for a work visa. With immigration sorted out, the couple began planning for a better future. Oakley sold off her townhouse in England and she and Thomas began looking for a house in Massachusetts.

"It was all good," says Oakley. "Everything was going well."

However, her company was sold and the new owners decided they no longer wanted to continue sponsoring employment-based visas. Suddenly, Oakley found herself in danger of becoming illegal. Her best bet was to enroll in college and get on a student visa, which allowed her to stay in the United States for two years.

"The money we had saved up for the house now went toward paying tuition and legal fees," says Thomas.

After graduation Oakley was able to find a job and get on an employment visa, which allows her to stay for another three years. Though the couple is celebrating now, they say they fear that the respite is only temporary.

Adam Francoeur, program coordinator at New York-based Immigration Equality, says this couple is among the lucky ones because they were able to find a way out of the immigration dilemma. "I have seen partners becoming undocumented because they couldn’t figure out a way to stay here legally," he says. "I have seen couples go into debt and others just splitting up because of the stress."

With Oakley and Thomas, their main concern was keeping the family intact. "We thought about moving to Canada when we were worried about Susan not being able to come back, but we weren’t sure if our son would be allowed to come with us since he is now 18 and legally an adult," says Thomas. "Jami was sleeping with Susan’s photograph every night and was constantly asking about her."

Legislation a Long Shot

Stern says such heartbreaks are common for binational, same-sex couples. She recently co-authored a 190-page report titled "Family Unvalued: Discrimination, Denial and the Fate of Binational Same-Sex Couples Under U.S. Law," compiled by Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality. The report advocates for the Uniting American Families Act, which would permit spouse sponsorship on the basis of permanent partnership. The bill has been introduced in Congress, but has not come to a vote.

In April, a diverse group of activists came together in New York to circulate a petition titled "Beyond Marriage" which asks Congress to modify immigration laws to broaden the definition of family, currently defined as a legal union between two adults from the opposite sex. The activists have already collected more than a thousand signatures.

Such ideas have their opponents both inside and outside Congress. One main critic is the Federation for American Immigration Reform, based in Washington, D.C. "Since the law doesn’t allow heterosexual partners to bring an unmarried partner over, such a provision should not be made for same-sex couples," said the group’s spokesperson, Ira Mehlman.

Although the federation has not taken an official stance on this issue, Mehlman says he fears that since there is already widespread abuse within marriage petitions, allowing lesbians and gays to sponsor their partners would open up an avenue for even more immigration fraud.

Each year over 400,000 U.S. citizens sponsor their foreign-born spouses for permanent residency. It is impossible to know how many of these petitions are invalid, but a Feb. 2006 report released by the General Accounting Office concluded that immigration fraud is rampant.

Stern says that is no reason to stifle reforms. "To direct policy that impacts and potentially benefits millions of people on the basis of fear of a few exceptional cases is illogical and an impossible way to legislate justice," she says.

Ayesha Akram is a freelance writer whose work has been printed in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and other publications. She is currently working on a book on liberal Islam being published by Beacon Press in 2008.

For more information:

Love Exiles Foundation:

Federation for American Immigration Reform:

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