Jet-lagged and nervous, Matthew lands at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport dreading the next leg of the journey. He’s traveling home with his partner, a man with whom he’s spent the last 22 years in the capital of an undisclosed Middle Eastern country not known for its social tolerance. The drill is always the same: Somewhere between stumbling off the plane, shuffling through the jet bridge with passports in hand, and entering separate lines at immigration (“U.S. Citizens Only” and “Noncitizens”), the men go from intimates living in a strange land to strangers who avoid making eye contact through the glass wall that divides them. They take these precautions, Matthew says, because he fears that his partner could be barred from entry if there’s any evidence suggesting he might be enticed to stay in the United States.
Invariably, Matthew’s partner is pulled aside for questioning anyway. His Middle Eastern ethnicity and the impression that he’s traveling alone are red flags for immigration officers in the post-9/11 world. But he is not traveling alone, which is why Matthew’s dread turns into rage. “He is led off, I do not know where,” he says. “I want to help him. I want to ask what the hell they are doing with him, to keep their hands off him.… And I sob as I look through the glass.”
Matthew (not his real name) moved to the Middle East in 1986 for work. He doesn’t stay there because of its charm. Like many of the estimated 36,000 gay men and women who are by law ineligible to sponsor their foreign-national partners for permanent residency, he has three choices: Live in the United States with his undocumented partner and face uncertain consequences, live alone, or, as he’s chosen to do for the majority of his adult life, live with his partner overseas. Today, the two men reside in a quiet neighborhood of side-by-side town houses; they have separate entrances for keeping up appearances, though an interior hallway joins their two units. “This is the life we live,” he says. “It’s not a life of tragedy or bitterness. But it is a life of lying and hiding -- and not a life that an American citizen and taxpayer should lead.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the injustice faced by Matthew, his partner, and thousands of other gay couples historically has failed to achieve a critical mass of outrage, despite persistent grassroots efforts and a series of legislative attempts to address the inequity. Most Americans simply will never find themselves falling in love and building a life with a person who is forever forced into the “Noncitizens” line at JFK. Only 6% of same-sex unmarried couples are binational, according to one study by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, a think tank focusing on laws regarding sexual orientation, and the affected couples who are active in lobbying for policy reforms have worked largely behind the scenes -- particularly if a nonresident partner is in the country illegally.
This year the landscape is changing. In June the Department of Health and Human Services enacted policy reforms that will bring down one long-standing barrier to immigration, a ban on HIV-positive foreign visitors (George W. Bush last year signed a bill into law approving the change but did not implement it). And in Congress two bills that would grant immigration rights to gay couples have given the issue unprecedented attention in the fractious battle over immigration reform expected to play out in the upcoming autumn legislative session. Should the bills be included in a larger immigration package (one that could ultimately include a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants), they could become a significant step for gay rights under the Obama administration. For the first time the federal government would acknowledge the rights of gays and lesbians to live in this country with their partner of choice, regardless of national origin.
The timing of the legislation is unclear. Democratic Senate leaders have pushed to pass a bill by year’s end but are mired in the colossal tug-of-war that is health care reform, and sources say a vote on immigration likely won’t happen until next year. Hispanic groups and pro-immigration lobbies that saw reform attempts in Congress go down in flames in 2007 also are cautious. “They want to do it right this time and move forward smartly,” says one lobbyist, “which means taking the time to build consensus.”