SAN DIEGO — Marrying a United States citizen has long been the surest way for an immigrant to gain permanent residency in the U.S. But under current immigration law, this doesn’t apply to same-sex spouses.
That has complicated the lives of people like Jesus Rodriguez and William Wood, one among an estimated tens of thousands of bi-national, permanent same-sex couples trying to stay together despite mixed immigration status.
Rodriguez and Wood’s romance started in 2009, after they met through mutual friends at a bar in Atlanta. Last year, when Wood got into a master’s program at the University of California, San Diego, Rodriguez’s company agreed to transfer him to its San Diego office, and he moved west before Wood did to get a head start settling in.
But on Labor Day weekend, he drove into a traffic checkpoint without a license. He was arrested. He called Wood from the San Diego police detention center.
“I said ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to get to see you ever again,’” Rodriguez recalled. “And he said why? I said, ‘they’re going to deport me.’ He said ‘why?’”
Rodriguez is undocumented. He overstayed a tourist visa in 1995 when he was visiting from Mexico. But during their three-year relationship, he never told Wood, a U.S. citizen.
“And obviously he couldn’t believe what I was saying. He said, ‘but why didn’t you tell me?’”
Rodriguez had hoped that eventually, a reform package like the one now being discussed in Congress would be approved, and he’d be allowed to stay. But now he had been caught.
With a lawyer’s help, he applied for a stay of deportation. He has a court hearing next month. But in the meantime, Rodriguez and Wood flew to Washington, D.C., to get married.
Not that this would help Rodriguez's situation. The federal rule that makes it easy for the spouse of a U.S. citizen to get a green card doesn’t apply to same-sex couples. That has forced many bi-national gay couples to split up. Rodriguez and Wood decided to get married anyway.
“We wanted to be prepared just in case” an immigration reform bill grants immigration rights to same sex-couples, as President Barack Obama has proposed, Rodriguez said.
He hopes that before he’s forced out of the country, at least one of three things will happen.
If a reform package includes a legalization for the 11 million people in the country illegally, he could qualify for legalization and get to stay in the U.S.
But he knew legalization would be a huge sticking point on Capitol Hill. So he figured that if a reform bill didn’t include it, but did grant same-sex immigration rights like the president wants, Wood could petition for him to stay that way. That’s why they rushed to get married.
There’s a third possibility. The reason same-sex partners don’t qualify for immigration benefits and more than 1,000 other federal benefits is because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which on a federal level recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on DOMA’s constitutionality this summer. If it’s overturned, Wood could possibly sponsor Rodriguez even absent an immigration reform bill.
“That’s why it’s very important for either DOMA to be repealed or, in comprehensive immigration reform, every time the word spouse is mentioned, three more words are added: ‘or permanent partners,’” said Amos Lim, a member of a San Francisco-based coalition called Out 4 Immigration.
He and other LGBT activists fear a benefit for permanent partners of the same sex may be an early casualty in the debate over what immigration reform will look like.
Unlike the president’s proposal, the one unveiled by a bi-partisan team of senators did not mention immigration benefits for gay couples. Soon after releasing the proposal, Sen. John McCain said including same-sex immigration benefits could doom an immigration reform bill.
“If you’re going to load it up with social issues, that is the best way to derail it, in my view,” McCain said.
But Lim and activists across the country are sending the message that immigration reform would not be truly comprehensive if it ignored the roughly 40,000 same-sex permanent bi-national couples who risk being separated because the U.S. citizen in the relationship cannot adjust his or her partner’s status.
For Jesus Rodriguez, whose deportation case is working its way through court, it’s become a race against the clock to see which reform, if any, will allow him to stay with his husband.
Rodriguez is “hoping for the best,” he said.
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