Note: This article was written in 2003 so some laws have changed since then, but the immigration struggles of gay and lesbian couples continues in 2013.
"It's blatant discrimination," says Leslie. "They give straight couples protection, but not gay couples." Leslie and her partner of six years, Belgian citizen An, are fighting to change the verbiage in U.S. immigration laws so same-sex partnerships are allowed equal rights as married couples. As it stands, gay couples are not afforded the same benefits as heterosexual couples in the boundaries of immigration. Once a heterosexual couple gets married, a green card is almost a shoo-in for the foreign partner. Because gay couples can't marry, they are not only shafted in taxes and other financial means, but they are also being ripped apart because of antiquated immigration laws. Leslie and An are a part of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF), a nationwide organization that's trying to keep couples together. LGIRTF addresses the widespread discriminatory impact of immigration laws on the lives of lesbians, gay men and people with HIV.
Leslie and An, now living in Portland, Oregon, met while they were in grad school in England and have been wrestling the system to live in the same country ever since. An, born in Belgium, moved to the United States to be with Leslie on a J-1 Visa in 1997. A J-1 Visa, specifically designed for young people to come to the U.S. for job training or exchanges, only allows the person to stay for 18 months. An took an unpaid internship with a non-profit women's bookstore in Portland as part of her Visa requirements. After that Visa expired, she applied for an H-1B Visa that allowed her to work in the states for three years, with one three-year extension, which she is in the process of reapplying for now. If this request for extension were denied, she would have 10 days to leave the country," says Leslie, rubbed raw from their six-year battle. "Just like that, the INS can take your life away. Just like that, they can take my girlfriend away."
The couple joined LGIRTF when the Portland chapter first assembled in 1999. While there are only 10 core members, they have an email list of 90 others who rally for support. By joining the group, they hoped to meet other couples in same situation and learn as much as they could about how to keep An in the country. With the Internet, international travel and world trade skyrocketing in the last decade, there are so many couples falling in love with foreigners that the need for LGIRTF is greater than ever. The organization, made up of immigrants, attorneys and other activists, hopes to raise awareness of the injustices through education, outreach and advocacy. Also, by providing legal services, information, referrals, and support, the LGIRTF trusts that one-day, they will end the discrimination.