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Gay Man Testifies On Immigration Reform


A congressional briefing held Friday to discuss immigration reform included five witnesses, one of whom was a gay man testifying about the struggles faced by binational LGBT couples.

Steve Orner of Washington, D.C., said goodbye on Wednesday to his partner of nearly 10 years, "Joe Smith" -- who asked that we not use his real name -- when Smith left to return to his native Indonesia.

"I'm scared to go back," Smith said by phone on the day of his departure. "This is my home; I have been living here for half of my life."

Smith came to the United States 18 years ago to pursue his education. Federal scholarships funded his studies entirely as he earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, where he met Orner. "I met Steve and I fell in love. I didn't choose to fall in love," he said. "I didn't plan to stay in this country at the time."

But now Smith is returning to the closet -- to a country where being gay is criminal in some provinces, and to a family who doesn't know he is gay or that he was forced to leave behind his love in America. "I will survive there, but it's hard because I have a family here -- my partner, the person that is most important in my life, is here," he said.

Smith was well on his way to receiving his green card, having been approved for one after he was sponsored by a D.C. firm that hired him as a structural engineer.

"Once he got approved, even our immigration attorneys said, 'Congratulations, it's only a matter of time,'" recalled Orner. But Smith was laid off in April, before his work visa came through. "It was just a huge blow," said Orner, noting that they had already bought a house together.

The sting has been particularly acute because Smith is well qualified to help rebuild the crumbling infrastructure that major federal stimulus funds are now targeted toward repairing -- but the stimulus package stipulates that almost all the jobs it creates must be filled by U.S. citizens.

"He's educated with American money, he's a scientist, a Ph.D., and there's a brain drain in this country -- it's a stupid policy," said Orner.

For now, the two have determined that living separately is their only option since they would have to be closeted in Indonesia and Orner would not be employable there.

Smith plans to search for jobs in other countries that might take both of them and they have also applied to immigrate to Canada. While they believe the Canada option holds promise, "The hardest part is not knowing for sure," said Orner. Altogether, the two estimate that they have spent more than $12,000 on immigration attorneys.

"I'm an American and I feel like a 3rd class citizen," said Orner. "I don't have the same rights as LGBT couples that were both born here, and I don't have the same rights as heterosexual binational couples. It's heartbreaking and it's cruel."

That's the message Orner took to Capitol Hill Friday in a closed-door meeting with Congressional staffers.

Four immigration bills have already been introduced this Congressional session, and LGBT families have been included in three of them. But another set of bills to be introduced later this year by New York Senator Chuck Schumer and California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren may prove to be more decisive since they will lay out the framework for comprehensive immigration reform -- a debate that will extend into next year.

Friday's briefing dealt with Rep. Mike Honda's LGBT-inclusive Reuniting American Families act. A spokesperson for the pro-LGBT lobby group Immigration Equality said Orner's invitation to speak provides hope that LGBT families could make it into immigration legislation yet to come.

"This is the very first briefing that Congress has convened since turning its attention to immigration reform," said Steve Ralls. "The fact that from the very beginning we are being included in that process is a very good sign."

Ralls explained that Immigration Equality is pushing for LGBT binational couples to be part of the comprehensive package.

"Inclusion in a multi-issue, high priority bill for this Administration means that we would have a new level of visibility and support to pursue other legislative avenues," Ralls said, even if LGBT families don't make the final version of the bill.

If LGBT families are eventually left out of comprehensive immigration reform, Immigration Equality will move forward with the LGBT stand-alone bill, the Uniting American Families Act.

Congressional leaders have stated their intent to tackle comprehensive immigration reform before considering any stand-alone immigration bills.

"We will try every available avenue to win on this issue," said Ralls.

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