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LGBT Immigrants: An Untold Story

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A few days ago I spoke to a friend about the need for immigration reform in this country, reform that would honor and respect both this nation and those who seek citizenship here. My friend asked me why, as an advocate for LGBT equality, I would care about immigration. He could not fathom how migrant rights might affect me. This is my response.

Three of my grandparents came to Ellis Island fleeing crop failures, famine and starvation in their home country. They were Lady Liberty's tired and poor. They were young and unskilled, and their road to citizenship was built simply on difficult and laborious factory or housekeeping work and a desire for full citizenship. My family lived what used to be the American dream: Come to this country, work hard, send your children to school and create your own providence.

This is not the scenario for most migrant people today. We have a broken immigration system where young people face deportation from the only home they have ever known, and where workers are illegally hired and horribly exploited. This is the broken system that must deal with the reality of more than 10 million people living in this country illegally and myriad issues that affect all people living in the United States, including LGBT people.

The reality for binational couples who are gay or lesbian is complicated. Same-sex couples in which one or both partners are foreign-born face the constant threat of being separated from their families because their visa expired or they lost the only job that their visa supported. Or it's possible for them to face difficulties at work. LGBT immigrants also face specific challenges that other immigrants don't, including delayed asylum claims, barriers to entrance based on HIV/AIDS status, and issues facing transsexual spouses.

The story of my friends Alex and Petro illustrates the hardship that LGBT immigrants deal with.

They met online. Alex is a journalist on the East Coast; Petro was a student in Ukraine. After two months of lengthy and daily online conversation, Alex traveled to Ukraine, and they fell in love. Petro came to live in the United States on a tourist visa and was eventually granted an H-1B three-year work visa. It should be noted that an H-1B allows the holder to work only for the one employer articulated in the work visa. If the employment ends for any reason, the person must leave the country. Petro abandoned his computer science doctoral studies and lived with Alex, and they built a home together -- even though Petro was tied to the one job that his visa status allowed. They were active in their church, they volunteered in the community, and they made new friends as a couple. Alex's family members are immigrants, too, and Petro quickly learned to speak their native language fluently and became invested and involved in their community.

Near the end of the three-year visa, they filed a petition to transfer to a new employer. However, the IRS found those filings unacceptable. As they got closer to the deadline, it became clear that Petro would need to leave the country. He would have to return with a tourist visa and then apply again in the annual cycle for another H-1B.

After five years together, this couple has been forced to leave the country. Alex is living with Petro in Germany. Alex does not speak the language and makes his living remotely, but this is getting more difficult. The real struggle is that they do not get to see their families in the States. Alex's father is in his mid 80s, and Alex wonders if he will ever see him again. Their nieces and nephews are growing into adulthood -- without their uncles.

Alex said to me, "It is stressful to be so far away from my father at this stage in his life. And I miss my church, my friends, my family and my activism. The arrangement feels like a house of cards."

He went on to say, "Our relationship is strong -- we love each other -- but any one thing changing -- school, job, a denial from the German authorities for my residency -- would leave us with few options. President Obama's commitment to LGBT family reunification was a wonderful surprise. ... We're taking it one day at a time, but I have never felt so less-than as an American as I have during this ordeal."

At One Iowa we believe that Alex and Petro have the same rights as any other loving and committed couple. Unfortunately, their story is not unique. LGBT immigrants are being told by our federal government that they are less than American and deserve to be treated differently from their partners. This is not the America of our founders. This is not the America promised to all visitors to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

We stand with President Obama and all our leaders who are committed to comprehensive immigration reform that includes LGBT people and families. At the very least, we owe that much to couples like Alex and Petro -- and the thousands of other couples just like them.