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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Gay couples take on an immigrant divide

By Maria Sacchetti-

   The final touches are in place for their late October wedding by the sea: the marriage license, the red and orange orchids, and the matching gold rings.
But the honeymoon will be different. After they exchange vows, Greg Gould and Aurelio Tiné will immediately go to battle with the US government.
Gould said he will formally apply for legal residency for Tiné, a native of Venezuela, even though he fully expects to be rejected, to lay the groundwork for a possible legal challenge to a federal law they say discriminates against gays. The US government offers a path to legal residency for immigrants who marry Americans, but it does not recognize same-sex marriages.
   The couple would rather honeymoon in Italy, but with Tiné facing deportation, Gould says that is not an option.
   “We don’t have a choice, if we want to be with each other,’’ Gould, a 42-year-old former investment banker and a New Hampshire native, said as he and Tiné sat on Boston Common for a recent interview. “We just have to fight.’’
   A lawsuit would be part of a nationwide effort among advocacy groups to push for same-sex marriage rights. Gay-rights groups are holding rallies, lobbying Congress, and challenging in court the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
   Lavi Soloway, Gould and Tiné’s lawyer and a longtime gay rights advocate, said his clients are among a handful of couples whose immigrant spouses are facing deportation that are filing the legal residency applications with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Rejection letters would serve as tangible evidence of discrimination, he said, and possible fodder for legal challenges.
   “The few people that have done this have done it for the specific purpose of holding the government accountable for its discrimination,’’ Soloway said. “They’re aware that one way to resolve this issue . . . is to sue in federal court. That’s an option that’s definitely open and will be considered.’’
   The campaign links two politically explosive issues — immigration and gay marriage — that have already divided the country. Gay marriage is legal in five states and the District of Columbia, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, and Iowa.
   Voters in 31 states have rejected same-sex marriage, said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a vocal opponent of such unions.
   “We remain committed to marriage being between one man and one woman, and that is what the federal law reads until it is finally decided in the courts,’’ said Mineau.
   “Therefore, the immigration bureau has to acknowledge those laws and submit to those laws and operate in the purview of those laws.’’

    A linchpin in the debate is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines matrimony as exclusively between a man and a woman. Federal immigration officials are bound by the law to reject applications from gay spouses, said Paula Grenier, spokeswoman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The United States is home to about 24,000 same-sex couples in which one person is an American citizen and another is foreign born, according to an analysis of 2008 census survey data by Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School.
   About a quarter of the couples are raising a child, he said. Nationally, there are about 12,000 couples in which neither partner is a US citizen.
   It is unclear how many of the couples face problems with their immigration status, Gates said, because the census does not collect that information.
   Some immigrants obtain legal residency in other ways, such as by applying for asylum or green cards on their own.
   Others decamp for the more than 20 other nations — including Brazil, Israel, and Canada — that recognize same-sex relationships for immigration purposes, according to Immigration Equality, a New York-based advocacy group.
   A rabbi from Attleboro wrote in a local newspaper last year that she and her partner moved to Israel because they cannot live legally in the United States.
   Earlier this year, the Brazilian government granted a Massachusetts man, Gary Dotterman, legal residency based on his marriage to a Brazilian man. Now they live in the state of Minas Gerais, with his husband’s extended family.
   “I was very honored; I really felt great,’’ Dotterman, a retired instructor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said in a telephone interview from Brazil.
   Other couples endure long separations. A Haverhill couple, Tim Coco and Genesio Oliveira, lived apart for nearly three years until Oliveira was allowed in June to return temporarily to the United States from Brazil.
   Coco said he applied to the federal immigration agency for his husband last year but was rejected. Now Coco is searching for other ways for him to stay permanently.
   Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, estimated that thousands of gays and lesbians have left the country because of US immigration laws and said the issue arose long before the Defense of Marriage Act. Until 1990, homosexuality was grounds to exclude people from the United States.
   “Gay and lesbian couples that have been forced to choose between their families and their country really see it as exile,’’ she said.
   For Tiné and Gould, time is running out because Tiné faces a deportation hearing in December.
Tiné, a 33-year-old contractor, said he came to the United States in 2002 fleeing discrimination and violence against gays in Venezuela. In Florida, he married a woman to obtain a green card and was placed in deportation proceedings after government officials determined the marriage was fraudulent.
   “I was so afraid to go back to my country,’’ Tiné said.
   In December, he met Gould, and they fell in love. The deportation hearing will come a month and a half after their wedding. If he loses, they will appeal and explore any other options under the law, like a possible lawsuit.
   But they acknowledge that they may ultimately have to consider the possibility of moving to another country.
   “It would be awful to be a political refugee, especially from the United States,’’ Gould said. “That’s not what this country is about.’’


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