Residency rights sought for gays' foreign partners

Advocacy groups want Congress to grant status

October 13, 2002|By HOUSTON CHRONICLE

HOUSTON, Texas -- Chris Rigdon never paid much attention to immigration issues. Then, three years ago, he met a man at church from Venezuela who was working in Houston. They fell in love and decided to spend their lives together.

If Rigdon were heterosexual and wanted to be with a woman from another country, he would only have to marry and sponsor his spouse for permanent residency in the United States.

But his commitment ceremony last Nov. 24 means as little to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as it does to nearly all states and the federal government.

Partners of gays and lesbians are not considered family members eligible for immigration. Thus Rigdon, 30, and his partner, a 38-year-old engineer named Carlos, officially are nothing more than roommates.

Their continued relationship depends on Carlos' employer. Carlos has worked in the United States for seven years. But if he lost his job, his work visa would be canceled, and he would have to return to Venezuela.

Anger at that prospect led Rigdon to fight for a change in immigration laws. He heads the Houston chapter of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force, a national group based in New York. Its top priority is getting Congress to pass the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, a House bill that would add "permanent partner" to the list of family members eligible for residency.

"My sense of mission started shortly after we met, when I soon realized that I had absolutely no right to sponsor him for residency," Rigdon said. "I could not believe as a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen born and reared in the United States ... that I had no right to keep Carlos with me in my country."

Some are unsympathetic. Conservative groups argue the legislation would radically alter the government's definition of family and is worded so loosely that it would open the door to anyone of the same gender an American wanted to sponsor.

"How do you prove intimacy?" asked Glenn Stanton, senior research analyst for marriage and sexuality for Focus on the Family, a Christian-based organization. "If you and I are friends for life, we're intimate. It's a very nebulous term. It's important to stick to the objective definition of family that has been consistent throughout human history."

Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said America must not extend benefits to a group of people based on their sexual behavior. Better to limit immigration sponsorship to heterosexual spouses, Sheldon said, because they "could have children and that would increase the state's income" when the children grow up and become taxpayers.

Such arguments mean little to Rigdon and thousands of others nationwide who have a personal stake in seeing that their partners are treated no differently than those of heterosexuals.

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay civil rights group, has joined the push for changing immigration law. It has held town hall meetings across the nation this year on immigration rights, including one two months ago in Houston attended by about 100 people.

About 20 couples are active in the local task force. Of the American half, a few are thinking about moving abroad with their partners to countries whose immigration laws recognize spouses and permanent partners.

Others, including Rigdon, hold out hope that their partners will obtain green cards via sponsorship by their employers. Unlike work visas, which are temporary and generally bind foreign workers to a specific company, a green card grants permanent residency status, and the holder is later free to switch jobs.

John Nechman, a 37-year-old Houston immigration attorney who specializes in helping gay immigrants, said the dilemma faced by these couples does not attract much attention, even among gay men and lesbians. And it's not as if those affected feel free to raise a stink about their problem.

Many gay and lesbian foreign workers fear that their employers would fire them if they revealed their homosexuality.

Many of those interviewed for this story asked for anonymity or requested that their full names not be used.

"They fear the INS is sitting there taking names," Rigdon said. "As you look to keep your partner here legally, you don't want to rock the boat."

An INS official, who declined to be named because the agency doesn't generally speak about pending bills, disputed that statement.

"As long as those individuals are pursuing legal avenues and are adhering to the terms of their current visas, they have nothing to be concerned about by expressing the desire ... to remain in the United States on a legal basis," he said.

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