Involuntary Exile: What Binational Couples Still Face

The Defense of Marriage Act prohibits LGBT Americans from sponsoring their foreign-born partners for residency, forcing many to live worlds apart or even abandon their homeland for a chance to be with the person they love.



Cameron Gray, left, and Mark Smalley. Photos courtesy of Mark Smalley. 
Cameron Gray, left, and Mark Smalley. Photos courtesy of Mark Smalley. 

On Sunday, October 7, Cameron Gray expected to deplane his flight from Sydney, Australia, to meet his partner of two years, Mark Smalley, at the arrivals gate of Los Angeles International Airport's Bradley International Terminal. Instead, Gray was met by a uniformed officer, who wouldn't let him through Customs.

The immigration officer informed Gray that he was being denied admission to the country because he had too many recent entries on his passport, which listed his official residence in Australia. And with that, the officer sent Gray back into the bowels of LAX, where Gray boarded a flight returning to Australia.

It's now been more than 100 days since Gray and Smalley have seen each other in person. They'll be reunited Christmas Day, when Smalley lands in Sydney at 6 a.m., but even that happy reunion will be tainted with the knowledge that the couple's geographic separation is once again imminent, when Smalley heads back to his home in West Hollywood January 7.

Since Smalley is an American citizen and Gray is an Australian citizen, the two men traverse the globe trying to make their federally mandated long-distance relationship work. Because Smalley's partner is of the same sex, he cannot sponsor Gray for permanent residency or citizenship. As far as the federal government and immigration departments are concerned, the couple, who entered into a civil union in November 2011, are strangers.

"Until we have a secure visa or until we have gay marriage or there's options for us, there's always that uncertainty," Gray says on the phone from Sydney. "But other than that, it's definitely worth it to be in love, and I wouldn't change a thing. If I had my chance again, I would still ask him on a date, and we would still be where we are today."

Gray and Smalley are just one of the thousands of binational LGBT couples who are forced to live apart from each other thanks to the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The legislation, signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton, restricts the federal government from recognizing any relationship aside from that of one man and one woman as a marriage for purposes of benefits, taxation, and immigration. 

Gay and lesbian Americans are unable to sponsor their same-sex spouse for a green card thanks to DOMA, even though straight couples can receive an unlimited-entry visa for a fiancé, says Lavi Soloway, a California-based attorney who's been handling LGBT immigration cases for 20 years. Soloway cofounded the DOMA Project in 2010 to end separations, deportations, and exile of binational lesbian and gay couples caused by DOMA. He also founded Immigration Equality in 1993.

Soloway says that in cases like Smalley and Gray's, the only roadblock keeping the happy couple apart is DOMA. And if Smalley and Gray were an opposite-sex couple, U.S. immigration law would provide a litany of options for sponsored citizenship, says Soloway. 

"Spouses of U.S. citizens are given access to a limitless number of visas," explains Soloway. "And even fiancés are included in this process — [they are] provided for so that they can get married and be here and create a family together. And yet, despite all of those provisions, none of them are available to same-sex couples. And that's only because of DOMA."

Soloway also highlights the unique injustice that DOMA forces gay and lesbian Americans into exile in order to live with the person they love. Soloway is clear that he and the DOMA Project view these couples as involuntarily exiled. He estimates that there are 40,000 binational couples in the U.S. threatened with separation because of DOMA, but there are thousands of others separated or in exile.

"The folks who are in the United States are visible," says Soloway. "They can be active, they can fight. The folks who are separated or who live in exile are the least visible. They're really the invisible consequence of DOMA on our community. We actually have a disappearing population of lesbian and gay people, because of DOMA. And we've had that phenomenon for years."