NEW YORK - After Erwin de Leon successfully defended his dissertation, he felt relief at being closer to earning his doctorate in public and urban policy. But the achievement also meant that time was running out to find a way to stay in the United States.
Despite the fact that de Leon, a Philippine international student, is married to a U.S. citizen, John Beddingfield, both live in uncertainty about the future of their family.
The hopes of de Leon and other activists were raised earlier this year when President Barack Obama declared that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. This section defines marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman".
According to Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the group Immigration Equality, since then, a growing number of immigration and LGBT communities have joined together to demand a halt to green card denials for gay families. Ralls told IPS that the "national conversation among these groups has never been greater".
On Apr. 6, a coalition of member organisations of the American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security emphasising family unity, for straight and gay couples, as a guiding principle of U.S. immigration law.
The co-founder of the campaign Stop the Deportations-The DOMA Project, Lavi Soloway, told IPS that "more than 65 members of Congress requested the White House to hold green card applications in abeyance and suspend the deportations."
"Abeyance" means that petitions and applications would have "pending" status until the Supreme Court rules on DOMA or the Congress overturns the decision taken by the White House.
Soloway cited the hold placed on deportation proceedings for Argentine immigrant Monica Alcota, who is married to Cristina Ojeda, a U.S. citizen, by a New York immigration judge in March as a turning point in the debate.
Regarding the media buzz in recent weeks over whether or not the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCSIS) was holding bi-national gay family cases since the president's announcement, the press secretary of UCSIS, Chris Bentley, told IPS that "the agency had held cases in abeyance for about a week".
"We needed a time out to know what was happening in legal terms. Once the president ordered to enforce DOMA again, the agency continued to apply this norm. There has not been a great change in policy," explained Bentley.
In the meantime, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) stated through its website that the recognition of only heterosexual marriages cannot be interpreted by the government as discrimination, because this would be a "serious threat to the religious liberty of marriage supporters nationwide."
Although de Leon and Beddingfield have been in a committed relationship for close to 13 years, they have yet to fully settle down and buy a house. "We really don't know what is going to happen, we might have to move to Canada or another country in the following years," de Leon told IPS.
To get a green card, Leon was sponsored by his mother, who married a U.S. citizen and is a permanent resident. However, family visas take many years to be approved.
Another option is finding an employer to sponsor him. He currently works part time as a research associate at a think tank in Washington, D.C. "The question is whether the institute would choose to hire a foreign professional over a US citizen," said de Leon.
He said a "fair alternative" would be sponsorship by his spouse, who is legally recognised as such by Washington D.C.
To guarantee residency rights for gay couples, Democrats in both the House and Senate re-introduced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) on Apr.14. But Soloway said that with the House dominated by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, the "Congress is frozen."
He said that the UAFA has gained more supporters during the 11 years it has been debated in Congress, but is still far from having a majority of votes. Thus, one possible solution for the project to move forward is its inclusion in a comprehensive immigration reform package.
Implications of bi-national gay family separation
If there are no legal changes, John Beddingfield, de Leon's husband, will likely have to become an expatriate. "Thousands of Americans are being forced to live in exile," Soloway said.
According to a UCLA law school study, there are at least 35,000 bi- national gay couples in the U.S. and nearly half of them - 46 percent - are raising children. Many of these children are either separated from one of their parents - who has been deported - or might have to leave their home country in the future.
Ralls told IPS that a large number of those fleeing the country are middle-class professionals. More than 34 corporations, including Nike, Estee Lauder, and American Airlines, among others, have signed a letter to ask Congress to take action on gay bi-national families.
De Leon worries that he will not be able to live close to his immediate family members, who are all either U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Regarding his spouse, an Episcopal priest, he said, "It would be difficult for John to leave his position as rector of All Souls Episcopal Church and its community."