Gay U.S. citizens seek to claim residency for foreign spouses

 

A recent immigration reform measure proposed by an Illinois congressman would give gay U.S. citizens the right to claim foreign spouses for green cards.

achardy@ElNuevoHerald.com

Juan Carlos Galán and Greg Nardi of Miami Beach live together as a family and would like to get married.

Then Nardi, a U.S. citizen, would claim Galán as a relative and help the Panama-born computer expert get a green card.

For now, though, these are just dreams -- unless President Barack Obama can convince Congress to pass immigration reform.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who last December introduced the first immigration reform bill of the current congressional session, announced in May that he intends to add provisions that would include same-sex couples and their families.

Gutierrez plans to incorporate into his bill language from the Uniting American Families Act, offered by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a longtime proponent of the measure.

``Our immigration system must reflect the reality of our economy and society and how we treat same-sex couples and families is just one example,'' Gutierrez said. ``Right now, too many same-sex binational couples face an impossible choice: to live apart or break the law to be with their partners, families and children. That's not good for them, and it is not good for the rest of us either.''

Such a change would for the first time allow U.S. citizens in gay relationships to claim foreign partners as relatives so they can apply for permanent residency and then citizenship.

Galán and Nardi say they hope U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami -- a leading Republican gay-rights proponent -- becomes a co-sponsor of the bill.

So far, Ros-Lehtinen is noncommittal.

``I am studying a variety of important immigration bills that may be debated later this year,'' Ros-Lehtinen said in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. ``Each bill is of great importance to those individuals who are impacted, and I will give this legislation serious consideration.''

Under existing immigration law, a U.S. citizen or resident married to a foreign husband or wife can file what is known as a Petition for Alien Relative, which is not available to gay or unmarried couples.

Proposals would modify immigration law, adding a permanent-partner option. The change would define a permanent partner as an individual 18 or older in a committed, intimate relationship with another adult in which both intend a lifelong commitment. The United States does not recognize same-sex marriages.

Obama resumed efforts to push for reform during a speech Thursday at American University in Washington. He did not address the issue of same-sex partners.

Whenever reform is adopted, it may be too late for Galán and Nardi.

Tired of waiting for the American Dream, they have decided to leave the United States and move to Canada, where Galán will be able to claim Nardi as his foreign spouse.

Canada is one of several countries that recognize gay couples for immigration purposes, according to Immigration Equality, a Washington-based group seeking rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive people.

Galán, who has a U.S. business visa, qualifies for Canadian residency under Ottawa's point-based immigration system. His technology expertise, education and proficiency in languages helped him score the necessary points to win a Canadian green card.

As an immigrant in Canada he can then claim Nardi.

``It's ironic,'' Nardi, a yoga instructor, said, reflecting on the sharp differences in what gay couples can and cannot do in neighboring countries. ``Here I am not allowed to file for Juan Carlos but over there he can file for me.''

Galán arrived in the United States as a 17-year-old student and studied psychology at the University of Texas. He now works in data management in a North Miami office. His employer sponsored him for the business visa that allows him to live and work in the United States.

He met Nardi two years ago online and they began dating. Eight months into the relationship they began living together in a Miami Beach apartment.

It was at that point Galán and Nardi began discussing their future because of Galán's immigration status. Though he is legal and has a visa, that visa will expire at some point and he has no direct path to permanent residency unless his company sponsors him for a green card.

``They are nonprofit and they cannot afford it,'' Galán said.

Talk of incorporating the permanent partner provision into immigration law ``gives me hope'' that eventually Nardi could sponsor him for residency, Galán said.

But hope is not enough. Galán and Nardi decided they could not wait to shape their future together and began the process of moving to Canada.

``I'm applying on my own merits, and I'm taking my partner with me,'' said Galán, who plans to marry Nardi soon after settling in Canada.

They plan to move early next year.

If immigration reform, including the same-sex couples provision becomes law before Nardi and Galán leave, they might stay in the United States.

``We'll cross that bridge when we get there,'' Galán said.

A majority of binational gay couples in the United States live in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, New York, San Francisco and the major urban centers in Texas, according to Steve Ralls, communications director for Immigration Equality, a 10,000-member group founded by two attorneys in 1994.

An estimated 2,902 LGBT binational couples currently live in Florida, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, a think tank that concentrates on sexual orientation law and public policy.

Same-sex binational couples in the U.S. are about evenly split between male and female, Ralls said.

Immigration Equality's increasing caseload indicates that the binational gay couples issue has become a more common trend, Ralls said.

``This is, unfortunately, their only option for a permanent solution,'' he said. ``Canada certainly is option No. 1, because of the proximity to the United States. It allows the American partner to maintain their extended family connections in the U.S.''

Ralls said a second option is Britain, then other countries in the European Union.

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