For countless millions of people in America and around the globe, Lady Liberty and her torch light the way to freedom and equality. For gay and lesbian bi-national couples, the famed statue, with a cold and stern face, seems more like a heartless sentry guarding the nation’s borders and ripping lives apart.
Ryan Wilson, a Columbia resident and a sexual health coordinator at the University of South Carolina, first met his partner, Shehan Welihindha, at the 2008 National Lesbian and Gay Task Force Creating Change conference in Denver.
“We met in the very first session on the very first day,” Wilson told Q-Notes. “We ended up sitting at the same table because we were from the same region. Shehan was working at the University of Arkansas.”
They’ve been in a committed, mostly long-distance relationship ever since.
Both Wilson, 25, and Welihindha, 27, have earned masters degrees in higher education and made their careers in the world of academia. Wilson grew up in Baltimore and moved to South Carolina to attend college. Born in Sri Lanka, Welihindha attended middle school and high school in Dubai and came to the U.S. for college.
Their divergent life stories have created a tense and uncertain future for the couple. Faced with deportation after his graduation, Welihindha has been forced to go back to school, this time earning an MBA.
Wilson, a natural-born U.S. citizen, said it is hard knowing his partner is faced with obstacles he’s never had to experience.
“If it weren’t for immigration, I wouldn’t be here,” Wilson said. His great-grandmother fled World War I Germany to come to the U.S. “My family is an immigrant family; both sides aren’t native to America.”
Wilson can’t help but feel as though his government has betrayed him and his loved one.
“It is hard for me to see what Shehan is going through. There’s this promise of America being a better place to come to and all that it offers,” Wilson said. “We say all that, but when you actually get here we say get out, especially if you are gay. Then, we really don’t care.”
Welihindha’s brother and sister also came to America for college. Both married and received their green cards. His brother is now a U.S. citizen.
“I’m really happy for my siblings,” Welihindha said. “I’m glad they were able to meet someone they love and want to spend the rest of their lives with. But, I feel it is a little unfair — I definitely feel discriminated against. I can have a relationship with Ryan and we’ve been together for going on two years now, but I can’t have a relationship that is recognized by South Carolina, North Carolina or the federal government.”
There’s no argument that discrimination against same-sex couples in current immigration law most affects his life, but Welihindha thinks there are much bigger problems with the system.
“I think that sometimes there is a hint of hypocrisy in the way things are presented,” he said. “You’ve got a view of America as a nation of immigrants and everyone here except Native Americans are immigrants. That is what has made America, but we also have an immigration system in place where all these systems don’t work with each other. There is an injustice here and it is one of the reasons why we need comprehensive immigration reform.”
Tony Snell, a businessman who also makes his home in Columbia, and his Asian-born partner will soon find themselves facing a similar situation.
Tony’s partner — who has requested to remain anonymous — is a research assistant and student. As of now, he’s living, working and studying legally in the U.S. under a student visa.
The Uniting American Families Act
U.S. Senate: S. 424
U.S. House: H.R. 1024
Brad Miller (NC-13)
David Price (NC-4)
What is the Uniting American Families Act?
The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA, and formerly known as the Permanent Partners Immigration Act or “PPIA”) is a stand-alone bill addressing the rights of LGBT American citizens to sponsor their same-sex partner for immigration benefits to the U.S., similar to policies and laws allowing heterosexual couples the same privilege through marriage.
What other bills address this issue?
A House bill entitled the Reuniting Families Act addresses this issue as one of seven important immigration issues. A bill with a broader scope, a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) also addresses the issue.
How is a permanent relationship defined?
According to the UAFA, a person in a permanent partnership must be able to show (a) they are in a relationship with another adult in which both parties intend a life-long commitment; (b) financial interdependence; (c) exclusivity; (d) an inability to marry in a manner that is recognized by the U.S. government under the Immigration and Nationality Act; and (e) the absence of a close blood relationship.
Is a permanent partnership equivalent to marriage?
No. A permanent partnership is not equivalent to marriage. The UAFA does not seek to add same-sex couples to the category of spouse. The Act would create a new category of relationship.
What about fraud?
Fraud will not of any higher likelihood with the addition of a new relationship category. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is charged with enforcing U.S. immigration laws and will be able to apply the same standards it applies to marriage when determining whether a permanent partnership is genuine. Applicants for permanent partnerships would face the same rigorous interview process as a married couple seeking similar benefits.
— Compiled by Q-Notes staff as adapted from UAFA FAQs by Immigration Equality.
“He still has school for a year and a half,” Snell said. “But, you never know with the economy the way it is. There is volatility there. There are no guarantees.”
This uncertain and volatile future makes creating and maintaining a relationship harder than it should be, Snell said. “There are no guarantees with a relationship and it is even more difficult to have a relationship when you know it could be a possible roller-coaster ride.”
Snell regrets he and his lover aren’t given the same opportunities once afforded to his parents. His father, an American citizen, met his Spanish mother 50 years ago.
“They met and married in Spain and came back to the U.S. to raise a family,” he said. “I’m only asking for the same thing; just something as simple as that. How does that harm anybody or change anything here? It only impacts us and our lives.”
Snell is passionate about the basic unfairness exhibited by the nation’s immigration law and policy.
“It is almost as if your country is turning its back on you,” he said. “You want to be patriotic and want to love your country, but the country turns its back on you…You aren’t the one turning away from your country, but your country is pushing you out and pushing you away from the one you love and care for. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The reality of the immigration debate is hitting home for Wilson and Welihindha right now. Just one day before he was to embark on a plane flight to Dubai, where he’d eventually be forced to return to Sri Lanka, Welihindha received another student visa. But, the stability won’t last — in as little as a year’s time, and no more than two, his student visa will expire.
The couple has several options — none of them too appealing. They could travel to Welihindha’s native Sri Lanka, a land and society he left at age 11, and in which Wilson would be completely lost. Or, they could move apart, with a 12-hour time difference fuel a possible slow death to their relationship.
The most unappealing and dangerous option is to move to Dubai — where Welihindha spent his teenage years and where his parents still live. In a nation where homosexuality is still punished by
imprisonment, deportation or death, a move to Dubai is far from practical.
Their final, and perhaps most realistic, option is migration to Canada. America’s northern neighbor recognizes marriage for same-sex couples, as well as immigration rights and privileges.
Of course, their lives and choices would be much easier if U.S. law recognized permanent partnerships between same-sex couples.
Immigration Equality, a national organization working to secure rights and benefits for LGBT immigrants, hopes to have the issue addressed soon. They’re pouring their resources into supporting three separate bills — Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) comprehensive immigration reform bill, the stand-alone Uniting American Families Act and the seven-point Reuniting American Families Act.
Steve Ralls, Immigration Equality’s communications director, said rights and recognition for same-sex bi-national couples is on the top of his group’s agenda, as Schumer’s comprehensive reform bill is being fast-tracked along the legislative calendar.
“The next few weeks will be critical in our work to include gay and lesbian couples in comprehensive immigration reform,” Ralls told Q-Notes.
Schumer’s large multi-issue bill will address immigration reform “from the top to the bottom,” Ralls said.
Ralls expects South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will be among leading GOP lawmakers working on the legislation. Immigration Equality is working with constituents and reaching out to legislators.
“What is most critical is bringing along some of the GOP lawmakers…to ensure they are not opposed to our inclusion,” Ralls said. “Immigration reform is a sticky issue in general, and it will need Republican support to pass. The political reality is that it will not pass along partisan lines.”
Both Wilson and Snell say they’ll work to get their representatives on board with the immigration reform. Snell hasn’t met with any of his elected officials yet, but Wilson has already written letters to both his senators and all of the Palmetto State’s U.S. House members.
“I sent them a photo of us as a couple, wrote about the UAFA and its sister bills,” Wilson said. “I was pleading for their support.”
Activists are hopeful that LGBT couples will be included in forthcoming immigration reform. Four reform bills are currently circulating in the House and Senate — three of them include relief for gay couples. That’s incredible chances for change.
Ralls said President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders have come out in support of the inclusive reforms.
“The White House has been steadfast in its support from the campaign trail through today of including us in any immigration reform effort,” Ralls said, noting many of the key players in the immigration debate have been LGBT-supportive in the past.
But, if meaningful reform doesn’t happen within the next year or two, the debate really won’t mean much to Welihindha and Wilson, and Snell and his partner. For these two couples, and thousands across the country, time is running out.
Welihindha said it is past time for America to live up to its global reputation. “Most of the world has this one view of America — that it is the land of the free — but when you actually get here, sometimes that only applies to certain people. It doesn’t apply to everyone.”
The denial of equal immigration rights to partners of gay and lesbian Americans is felt around the globe.
Jill Story, an elder in the Metropolitan Community Church, was once forced to return to England when her visa wasn’t renewed. If she had been allowed to marry her partner, Story could have stayed in the U.S. and continued her work with the denomination.
In September 2008, the Triangle’s Independent Weekly published a piece by Merrill Wolf, profiling area bi-national couples affected by the disparate immigration laws and policies.
Tamara Fetters and her partner Noreen Fagan, a citizen of the African country Zambia, were forced to move from Carrboro to Ottawa. The soccer moms’ move to Canada uprooted their family from their jobs, schools and community.
The same happened to Glen Tig and his Thai partner Chitpol Siddhivarn. Both men moved to Canada and have since gained citizenship there.
Numbers from the 2000 census suggest that many bi-national, same-sex coupes are raising children. It is estimated that almost half or more of the 36,000-plus bi-national same-sex households in the nation include children.