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Editor's note: Noreen Fagan is a former intern at the Independent Weekly.
They had planned the move for years, though not willingly. Tamara Fetters and Noreen Fagan, who recently moved with their two teenaged sons from Carrboro to Ottawa, Canada, were forced to make a cruel choice: live together in another country, far from friends, families and the lives they've built, or separately, by entering into a stressful long-distance relationship or splitting up for good.
Like thousands of other gay and lesbian couples in this country, and countless more abroad, they were caught in a little-known intersection of two controversial public policy issues: gay rights and immigration.
Though U.S. immigration policies purportedly are based on the principle of family unification, they do not recognize bi-national same-sex couples as families. That means American citizens who are gay don't have the same rights as other citizens to sponsor their foreign partners or families for immigration.
The current law leaves couples like Fetters and Fagan, and their family with no choice but to leave the United States.
When Fagan, a citizen of the central African country of Zambia, earned her bachelor's degree from UNC-Chapel Hill earlier this year, her student visa immediately expired. The family, which had been together since 1998, and moved to Carrboro in 2000, packed up their household and headed north. They had already gone through a long, costly process of establishing permanent residency in Canada, one of about 19 countries that offer immigration rights to same-sex partners.
"If we could have stayed, we definitely would have," says Fetters, 44, who now telecommutes from Ottawa to her job with an international health organization in Chapel Hill.
Both she and Fagan, 46, have been involved in their community, in addition to being soccer moms. Fetters served on the board of directors of Weaver Street Market Co-op in Carrboro. Fagan has been a volunteer and board member for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.
The 2000 Census suggests that, like Fetters and Fagan, most couples affected by the current discriminatory immigration law are in long-term relationships, with strong community ties. Nearly half of the more than 36,000 bi-national same-sex households in the United States—almost certainly an under-count—are raising children.
Thousands more Americans and their same-sex partners are living in what they consider exile abroad, with only rare trips home to visit aging parents, other family members and friends.
Glen Tig, 52, and his partner Chitpol Siddhivarn, 43, met in 2000 while Siddhivarn, who is Thai, was completing a doctoral degree in oral biology at UNC on a visiting-scholars visa. Tig, a North Carolina native, had a psychotherapy practice in Carrboro.
As soon as they knew the relationship was a keeper, "We started looking at options for how to stay together and realized that it's impossible," Tig says.
The couple moved to Canada in 2003, after Siddhivarn's visa was unexpectedly cancelled while they were in Toronto applying for an extension; he was barred re-entry to the U.S.
Both men are now Canadian citizens, and, though still angry at having had so little control over their own fate, they're glad to be somewhere friendly to gays. They married earlier this summer.
"We were chased out of where we didn't belong and ended up by default in a place where we do belong," says Tig, who still commutes monthly to see clients in Carrboro. "It slaps you in the face how unfriendly [the U.S.] is after you've lived in Canada, where equality actually means equality."
Efforts to reform U.S. immigration law to grant sponsorship rights to gay Americans have been under way since the mid-'90s. U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are primary sponsors of the current proposal, known as the Uniting American Families Act.
The proposed legislation, which has 17 co-sponsors in the Senate and 105 in the House—none from North Carolina—would provide U.S. citizens the right to sponsor their partners for immigration, not by redefining marriage, but simply by adding the words "permanent partner" after every reference to "spouse" in the current law.
"The UAFA would allow U.S. citizens and green-card holders to sponsor their long-term same-sex partners, provided they can prove that the relationship is long-standing, that they're financially interdependent and that they intend to remain together—the same standard of proof that opposite-sex couples are held to," says Victoria Neilson, legal director for the advocacy group Immigration Equality. "It's a matter of fundamental fairness."
The bill is languishing in committee in the House and the Senate. Neilson says it "has the double whammy of being an immigration bill, which makes it controversial, and an LGBT bill, which makes it controversial."
Also problematic is that the constituency affected is small and most likely reside abroad or are reluctant to call attention to themselves.
"When you're here living in that situation," Fetters says, "you can't advocate for it because you're putting your family in jeopardy. ... I've written letters to my representatives but never dared send them," she adds, because she knew that immigration officials could refuse to renew Fagan's visa.
The bill has attracted predictable condemnation from conservative groups, including the right-wing Family Research Council. Peter Sprigg, the group's vice president for policy, explained its contentment with the status quo by saying, "I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them into the United States."
Immigration Equality and other advocates are working to raise awareness among communities concerned with both immigration and LGBT issues.
"Even people who have known us for years and years haven't really understood what we've been going through," Fetters says.
What they've gone through has included having Fagan declared an unfit mother so Fetters could be named their sons' legal guardian, making them eligible to attend public schools.
The couple also looked into seeking asylum for Fagan, who has friends who have been imprisoned for being gay in Zambia, where homosexuality is illegal. But a local immigration lawyer told them that these days, even a very real threat of persecution wasn't enough. Fagan, he told them, "would have to show scars."
The recent approval of gay marriage in Massachusetts and California hasn't helped, and in some ways has made things worse for bi-national same-sex couples. While states regulate marriage, immigration is a federal issue. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law and gives states the right not to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Neilson advises bi-national same-sex couples not to marry under any state's or country's provisions allowing gay marriage; doing so would likely endanger the foreign partner's immigration status by implying intent to remain in the United States permanently.
Fetters and Tig acknowledge that, as difficult as the current law has made their lives, many couples are far worse off. As educated professionals, they have struggled financially and emotionally, but have managed.
"When it gets to having to choose between your country or your love, some people don't have the luxury of choosing their love," Tig says.