Love Without Borders


Immigration laws are the next battleground in the fight for equal rights.

“I never should have let you go to England,” sobbed my mother when I returned to Canada after a year abroad and declared my love for a British woman. It seems irrational to reproach an entire nation when your daughter comes out of the closet, but it’s hardly unreasonable to cast blame on a country when its immigration policy is denying her the right to live with the person she loves.

When I decided to complete my third year of university overseas, I had no intention of becoming one-half of a binational couple. However, when Sam knocked on my door to welcome me and introduce herself, butterflies erupted in my stomach and I knew right away my determination to avoid a long-distance relationship was going to be challenged.

Our love was deepening just as the world was coming to accept same-sex relationships. Marriage became legal throughout Canada in 2005. And after we both had spent five years traveling back and forth on a variety of visas, the Canadian government granted Sam permanent residency. She became a landed immigrant (what Canadians call a permanent resident) on my birthday, and the fact that we will never be separated again was the greatest possible gift, but it was a bittersweet victory considering that other binational same-sex couples still lack the basic right to be together.

Although 19 countries now permit legal residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for residency, the United States is not among them. According to Immigration Equality, an estimated 35,820 same-sex binational couples were counted in the 2000 U.S. census, but it is assumed that these figures miscalculate the reality. Without hope of gaining recognition under U.S. immigration law, many couples have been forced either to seek refuge in a more receptive country, to spend their savings traveling between countries or to remain in the United States illegally.

“I thank the happy demons of visa fortune every day for not getting Yvette and me into such a situation,” professes Ursula Schmidt*, a German author now living in San Francisco with her American partner Yvette Torres.* After meeting online in 1999 through a newsgroup for lesbians with disabilities, and then in person in 2001, Schmidt and Torres decided to pursue living together. Rather than find a company willing to sponsor Schmidt for an H1 work permit, she decided to apply for the O1 special ability visa for artists. Both visas expire after three years, but if you can prove your talent is unique, it is easier to obtain a green card through the O1 visa.

Since Schmidt had already published three lesbian mysteries in Germany, her lawyer created the unique category, lesbian mystery writer, to improve Schmidt’s chances, although an American publisher still had to petition with her for the visa application. In the meantime, Schmidt could stay on a tourist visa for 12-week periods, risking refusal of entry with each visit. In the spring of 2004, as they were about to submit their O1 visa application, Schmidt unexpectedly won a slot in the diversity green card lottery, which is a luck-of-the-draw system awarding 55,000 green cards to some 6 million applicants each year.

Schmidt and Torres beat the odds in their pursuit of immigration happiness, but for many binational couples, living together in the States is simply not an option.

When Tammy Sullivan, a Texas  resident, first met her British partner, Sally Hunter, through an online support group in April 2003, they were both unhappily married with children. The couple knew their developing relationship was worth pursuing, so, after leaving their husbands and finally meeting in England, they decided to find a way to be together permanently.

Since Hunter’s four children were all under 10 years old, Sullivan applied for a UK visa. The UK Civil Partnership Act, which ensures that registered same-sex couples are legally recognized as equal to married couples, would not come into effect until December 2005. Since they had not yet lived together for the required two years, Sullivan applied for a visa through the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. Her first application was rejected, but her second application was approved in the summer of 2005, just months before the Civil Partnership Act would have waived the two-year cohabitation requirement.

“Accept that it isn’t going to be an easy process, especially if one of the couple is a U.S. citizen,” advises Hunter. “You have to really be sure of what you are doing and totally committed to each other, being patient with each other when the hard times hit—and they do.”

Hunter also stresses that it is important not to give up and to explore multiple ways to immigrate. Sullivan and Hunter proactively appealed for changes to immigration policy, appeared in the documentary Through Thick and Thin and had their story presented before Congress in support of the Uniting American Families Act. If passed, the UAFA bill would change the word “spouse” to “permanent partner” in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, and allow U.S. citizens and legal residents in same-sex relationships to sponsor their partners for immigration purposes. Although it has not been easy, Sullivan and Hunter are finally living together in Manchester, England, and Hunter insists it was well worth the struggle. “I live with my best friend and soul mate. I have the love and the partner that I have always dreamt of. Life is harder in many ways, but it is happier.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself and, in spite of what my family thinks, England was the best thing that ever happened to me.