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Friday, July 22, 2011

Japanese in gay marriage struggles for green card

U.S. laws stifle 10-year partner's attempt to get spousal visa

Kyodo

NEW YORK — At first glance, their life together seems ideal. Rie and Dianne (who have asked that their real names not be used) have a home overlooking a lush garden in a small, caring community.

But Rie is Japanese, and even though she and Dianne are legally married in their state, a federal law prohibits her from obtaining a spousal green card. And so their 10 years together have been overshadowed by a struggle to keep Rie in the country.

"I've done everything I can. If it comes to the point of deportation, I guess I will just have to go. But to have to leave your family thinking you cannot come back is awful," said Rie.

The couple spoke at their East Coast home the day before her student visa was set to expire.

Dianne found the timing ironic. "It's July 4, Independence Day, and here I am an American. . . . Where is my 'liberty and pursuit of happiness' when the next day my partner is counting down to deportation?"

The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by then President Bill Clinton, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Since immigration is federally regulated, same-sex partners cannot sponsor their spouses.

Rie and Dianne have tried everything. Rie has entered the green card lottery every year. Dianne has written multiple letters to state officials and also to President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Rie, now in her 50s, has lived the life of a perpetual student and this has put a strain on the couple's relationship. Attempts to gain qualifications and look for work have been repeatedly thwarted by stress and depression.

Rie did not want to stay illegally and risk deportation, a threat that now looms in their future. She can stay on her expired visa until September when the grace period afforded to her as a student and a Japanese national after the March 11 disaster in Japan runs out.

"I am very proud to be Japanese. But I can't imagine myself living in Japan with nothing. This is my home."

For her to become a U.S. permanent resident as Dianne's spouse, one of two things has to happen. DOMA must be repealed, or U.S. immigration law must be amended, explained Steve Ralls, spokeman for Immigration Equality, a group providing legal help to couples like Dianne and Rie.

There are currently several court cases challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. Since a decision by Obama in February, the federal government no longer defends the law from these challenges.

Rie and Dianne are now filing a petition for a spousal green card with the help of Immigration Equality. For a few other couples, this has led to a postponement of their deportation. Their hope is that their petition will be delayed until the court cases against DOMA are settled. But that could take months or even years, says Ralls.

Another possibility is for U.S. immigration law to be changed to enable same-sex partners to go through the same process as heterosexual couples. According to Immigration Equality, 21 countries, including some that do not otherwise recognize same-sex partnerships, have immigration provisions for such couples. Such a law is being considered by U.S. lawmakers.

For now, all Dianne and Rie can do is wait. And they are not alone.

"We've seen more and more couples come to us in the past one or two years as their temporary options expired," Ralls said. On average, the group has as many as 100 cases open at a time.

There are 581,300 same-sex couples in the United States, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The group's study of the 2000 census data found that 6 percent of same-sex couples are binational.

Though the couple made a commitment 10 years ago and have recognized themselves as married since, getting legally married in April was bittersweet, Dianne said.

Despite the limitations and uncertainty attached, she is thankful for the perseverance of others who fought to make same-sex marriage possible. "We are where we are because people took risks," she said.

For Rie, speaking about her situation was a risk. "No matter how you look at it, the fact of being the same as others is a source of comfort in Japan. And if something about you is different, you're labeled. It is a culture of shame . . . and being made to feel ashamed for who I am, is so very hard."

The couple's biggest hope is that they will succeed in their challenge to the U.S. government and that will enable them to help people in both of their countries.

"If our example will encourage other Japanese people who want to express who they are, and by acknowledging us, they can get courage to speak up, that's why I'm taking the risk," said Rie.



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