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Divided by Law: An American Takes On Immigration to Reunite with the Person He Loves

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Roi Whaley probably never imagined the United States government would play a role in ripping his family apart.

The Gulfport, Mississippi resident has deep roots along America's Gulf Coast. He worked, for 17 years, at one of Gulfport's best-known casinos. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Roi was on the ground. Five years later, he is still in Gulfport, where most of his family still lives, too.

I say "most" because one very important member of his family has been kicked out of the country and is in danger of being half-a-world away as Roi wages what is, quite literally, the fight of his life.

When Roi learned that he is HIV-positive, he was despondent, and unsure of where to turn for help. Like many people, he ended up finding support on the web where he could instantly talk to other people in his situation and find an understanding ear.

That's when Roi met Aurelio Tolentino. At the time, Aurelio was working as a nurse in California. He counseled Roi and gave him the encouragement and optimism he needed to deal with his diagnosis. Along the way, their friendship evolved into a relationship.

They were virtually inseparable from the start. Until, that is, U.S. immigration intervened.

Aurelio applied for a green card in 2006, and when immigration officials discovered his HIV status, his application was denied. (At the time, the U.S. maintained a ban on HIV-positive immigrants and travelers. That ban has since been rescinded by the Obama administration.) Fearing a return to his native Philippines - where he was targeted and attacked because of his sexual orientation - Aurelio then applied for asylum. To qualify, however, individuals must petition for asylum within one year of arriving at the U.S. border. Aurelio, believing he would receive a green card to work as a nurse in his adopted country, had not done so in time. As a consequence, his asylum application was denied as well.

Then, when immigration asked Aurelio to leave - even though it would also mean leaving behind the person he loves - he did just that. Indeed, he even departed earlier than immigration had required and went to Canada, where his mother is a legal permanent resident.

His application for asylum in that country, however, was declined as well. Now, Aurelio will likely be forced to return to the Philippines.

That separation would be hard enough for almost any couple. But for Roi and Aurelio, it is particularly traumatic: Roi is now battling terminal cancer. He wants nothing more than to have his partner by his side as he wages a life-and-death battle. But, so far, the U.S. government has said "no."

Now, because of his deteriorating health, it is unlikely Roi will be able to visit Aurelio in the Philippines. So when he arrived in Canada this past weekend for a brief visit, he was well aware that it may well be their last.

In short: Though the couple have followed every rule, and complied with every request immigration made of them, they are now being punished for adhering to the law.

Unfortunately, the situation facing Rio and Aurelio is not unique. More than 36,000 lesbian and gay binational couples are facing separation or exile under current immigration laws. Unlike their straight neighbors, lesbian and gay Americans do not have the opportunity to sponsor their partners for residency. As a result, they are forced - like Roi and Aurelio - to make painful, even torturous choices. That, in turn, leaves many of them with no good choice at all.

Every day, similar calls and emails come into the offices of Immigration Equality. In fact, we hear, constantly, from families that are being torn apart. Some, like Roi and Aurelio, are struggling to stay together as they also face other challenges, such as caring for a sick loved one. Others are faced with an untenable decision to make about their children: An estimated 17,000 lesbian and gay binational couples are raising young children, who face the very real prospect of either losing a parent or leaving the only country they have ever called home. All of them are put into that circumstance by immigration laws that refuse to recognize their families with the same rights as other families.

More and more American citizens are being forced into exile, forced apart and forced to make painful choices because their own government refuses to make simple - but profoundly important - changes to immigration law in order for them to remain together.

For Roi and Aurelio, hope now rests with the Department of Homeland Security. The couple are considering making a request for humanitarian parole, which would allow Aurelio to re-enter the United States, on a temporary basis, in order to be with Roi as he confronts his illness. Immigration Equality is assisting them in doing so, and Roi's Congressman, Gene Taylor of Mississippi, has indicated a possible willingness to help, too. Meanwhile, Aurelio is also looking for a job in the nursing field - where his skills are in demand and his talents desperately needed - with an employer who would sponsor his residency in the United States, now that the Obama administration has rescinded the prohibition on HIV-positive individuals that resulted in his ultimate departure in the first place.

For other couples, however, hope rests with Congress. While humanitarian parole is virtually impossible for most people to obtain, lawmakers can amend immigration law to end discrimination against couples like Roi and Aurelio. Passage of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) - either on its own or as part of a long overdue comprehensive immigration reform bill - would allow American citizens, like Roi, to sponsor their foreign-born partners to be with them in the United States. The Senate Democratic leadership has included UAFA in its framework for comprehensive reform, and Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) has also included it as part of his family unification bill, The Reuniting Families Act. Meanwhile, support for UAFA continues to grow, as its Congressional sponsors, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) work with the Immigration Equality Action Fund to press for an end to unequal treatment of LGBT immigrant families.

Until the legislation passes, however, law-abiding, tax-paying American citizens will continue to be torn apart from their families by the American government. For many of them, it will mean a life in exile. For others, it will mean spending their lives apart from the people they love. For all of them, it is a painful choice that no American, or their families, should ever have to make.