The American and Australian met in London. They fell madly in love. They got together, got a dog, got a house near Venice Beach.
But there is no happy ending in sight for Tim Miller and Alistair McCartney. That’s because the couple is gay, and U.S. immigration law does not allow the Whittier-born Miller to sponsor McCartney for a green card as heterosexuals cando for their husbands and wives. Federal law reserves immigration benefits for those with “valid marriages” to U.S. citizens, defining them as unions between a man and woman. It supersedes state laws that recognize civil unions or, in the case of Massachusetts, same-sex marriages.
Miller, a performance artist, and McCartney, a writer, are reluctantly contemplating moving to Britain as the clock runs out on the Australian’s teaching visa at Antioch University. Miller would be forced to leave behind his family and friends, a thriving career and two art centers he began that, he said, has employed hundreds of people and generated millions of dollars in revenue.
“U.S. laws are creating pointless heartache for thousands of American citizens,” Miller said.
The immigration difficulties faced by same-sex binational couples are explored in a documentary, “Through Thick and Thin,” which is scheduled to premiere tonight at Outfest, the annual gay and lesbian film festival in Los Angeles.
It marks the gay community’s latest effort to bring attention to the little-known issue, following a seven-year campaign for federal legislation that would bring the United States in line with at least 16 other countries and extend immigration benefits to same-sex binational couples.
New York filmmaker Sebastian Cordoba, an Argentina native, said he made the film as a “tribute to the couples who fought [the system] and stayed together.” His own relationship with an American broke up in part, he said, because of constant stress over the uncertainty of his visa issues.
But their cause faces widespread opposition.
“It’s one more area of trying to get privileges and benefits for relationships other than marriage,” said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “And marriage ought to be reserved for a man and a woman.”
About 36,000 same-sex binational couples were recorded in the 2000 census, although researchers believe that figure could be undercounted by anywhere from 10% to 50%, according to an 2004 Urban Institute analysis conducted for Immigration Equality, a New York-based advocacy group for gays and lesbians.
The analysis by Gary J. Gates, now at UCLA’s Williams Institute, showed that nearly one-third of the couples live in California, and that Mexico was the home country for the largest number of foreign partners, followed by Canada.
Same-sex binational couples say the legal restrictions cause them financial and emotional devastation. Some couples endure long-distance relationships, spending thousands of dollars on flights, phone calls and legal advice on how to obtain visas to reunite.
The problems don’t end for those lucky enough to obtain a visa, however. Visas expire, and then what? Some foreign partners go underground and live in the United States illegally. Those who refuse to do so face a wrenching choice: Break up or leave the country.
Aaron Ashcraft, a 67-year-old retired auto executive, chose to leave Laguna Hills last November to live with his partner, Tomas Milian Peiro, 32, in Barcelona, Spain. Ashcraft came out eight years ago after his wife of 32 years died. He began a relationship with Milian Peiro, then a computer science student at Cal State Fullerton.
Ashcraft said he was livid when he learned that he could not sponsor his partner for a green card. Milian Peiro is a talented software engineer who could contribute to the nation, he said, and he himself had more than enough financial resources, including homes in Laguna Hills and Colorado, to ensure that his companion would never become a public charge.
Milian Peiro refused to stay in the United States illegally, Ashcraft said, and returned to Barcelona in 2004 without him. Heartbroken and miserable, Ashcraft said he decided to sell his homes, leave his family and friends, give up his charitable church and civic activities, and join him.
The experience has embittered him. The lifelong Republican said he would not vote for his party’s candidates again since the leadership had failed to support gay immigration rights. Ashcraft also said he had soured on American idealism, saying that patriotic songs now “turn my stomach.”
“When I hear the words about liberty and justice for all, I just say that’s a complete fraud,” he said. “They’ve singled us out and said we don’t get the same rights as everyone else.”
Rita Boyadjian, a Los Angeles entertainment marketing executive, is also facing hard choices. Her partner, who is seven months pregnant and asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals by immigration officials, is studying to be a chef in Santa Monica. But her student visa expires next year; unless she can get a work visa after that, the pair will have to move.
Boyadjian said she researched, at considerable expense, different legal ways for her partner to stay in the United States. None panned out. An investor visa requires her partner to put up her own money, not Boyadjian’s. An H1-B work visa is difficult to obtain. Boyadjian’s partner has turned down offers by men to fake a marriage because they don’t want to skirt the law.
The pair has reluctantly decided to relocate to Canada, if necessary, with Boyadjian commuting weekly between there and Los Angeles. But Boyadjian said she resented the specter of having to spend so much time away from her family, possibly missing her baby’s first steps and words. It will be costly, too, to pay for weekly flights and maintain two households and offices, she said.
“I’m angry that I’m a U.S. citizen, born in L.A., and I may have to leave my own country as a refugee,” Boyadjian said, adding that her parents emigrated from Egypt in 1969 to escape persecution as Armenian Christians. “The whole thing has been a nightmare, quite honestly.”
The couples themselves aren’t the only ones who suffer. Families and friends do too. Some same-sex couples, forced to leave their home countries to stay together, must abandon aging parents, or siblings and friends in need. Cordoba’s film, for instance, chronicles the life of one man agonized at the thought of leaving a disabled sister, whom he regularly visits.
“It’s not pleasant feeling your children have been exiled,” said Anne Throckmorton, a San Diego real estate broker whose son, John, had to move first to France and then to the United Kingdom to stay with his partner.
Throckmorton described herself as a born-again Christian who doesn’t understand why secular laws on immigration should have anything to do with religious beliefs about homosexuality.
“Our sons and daughters are having their rights taken away from them, and I don’t quite know what that’s based on,” she said. “This country believes in separation of church and state.”
The battle over immigration rights for gays and lesbians has been fought in Congress and the courts for more than four decades. U.S. immigration law banned the entry of gays and lesbians in 1952, amid the Red Scare that linked homosexuals with Communists as subversive, according to a report on the same-sex immigration issue last year by Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality.
The ban was repealed in 1990. But HIV-positive gays and lesbians are still barred from entry.
To turn the political tide, gay and lesbian activists and their friends have turned to lobbying, networking and greater public outreach on the issue.
The biggest push is in support of federal legislation by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to allow Americans in a same-sex relationship to sponsor their “permanent partners” for legal residency in the United States. The Uniting American Families Act, which was first introduced in 2000, would require that applicants be adults in “committed, intimate relationships” who intend a lifelong commitment to one another.
According to Nadler’s office, at least 16 other countries grant immigration benefits to same-sex couples, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
In California, the San Francisco-based Out4Immigration advocacy group has focused on local advocacy. In 2004, the California Assembly and Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution supporting immigration benefits for same-sex binational couples.
The group also has joined broader immigrant-rights marches and held workshops on how to apply for different visas, said Doug Haxall, a board member.
The cause has yet to catch fire -- the federal bill, for instance, has not managed to gain one committee hearing so far.
But activists say they will not give up.
“It’s outrageous that U.S. citizens are forced to choose between their country and partner,” said Chris Haiss, another Out4Immigration board member. “What’s so threatening with people wanting to live here with their partners?”