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Kelly McGowan and Nathalie Fuz are just like any married couple. They’ve been together for eight years, rent an apartment on the Lower East Side and jointly own a car and a house in the Catskills. The only thing they lack is a marriage certificate.

Under U.S. immigration law this means that McGowan, 43, cannot sponsor her lesbian partner for permanent residency in America. So Fuz, 39, who was born in France, has had no choice but to indulge in visa juggling in order to stay with her partner in the United States.

“I am told I have a choice: leave the person I love or leave the country I have dedicated my life to,” McGowan told City Limits. “No one should have to make such a choice.”

McGowan and Fuz are one of approximately 5,000 bi-national same-sex couples in New York State suffering because the foreign-born partner cannot get legal status, said Adam Francoeur, program coordinator at Immigration Equality, a New York-based advocacy group. (According to the 2000 census, there are about 40,000 bi-national gay and lesbian couples in the U.S.—a number advocates say is artificially low because people resist informing federal enumerators of their sexual preferences.) “Almost every one of these couples has been affected,” Francoeur said. “Same-sex bi-national couples are torn apart in dramatic ways by immigration policies.”

Though a straight U.S. citizen can sponsor his/her spouse or fiancé for permanent residency status in America, no such option is available to same sex couples. Instead, they must invent creative ways to stay in the United States. Some take low-paying jobs because the employer is willing to sponsor them for an employee’s visa that allows them to stay for three years; others go to school simply to obtain a student visa, which permits them to live in America for the duration of their study.

McGowan and Fuz had to hunt for such options. Initially, Fuz was in the U.S. on an E-2 investor’s visa, and she opened three vintage clothing stores in Lower Manhattan. September 11th dealt a devastating blow to her business, compelling her to close two shops. One of the conditions for renewing an investor’s visa is sustained business growth. With more than half her enterprise defunct, Fuz no longer qualified.

In desperation, the two partners sought out a lawyer and made a plea for a special visa (called an O-1) based on Fuz’s outstanding ability in kickboxing. Her O-1, which was approved this March, buys her another three years in America.

The couple was prepared to flee the country if the visa had been denied. “Had the O-1 visa not come through, Natalie and I would have left the country and gone to Ireland or Britain or France,” said McGowan. “That would have been the only way for us to be together.”

Such tough decisions are part of the daily lives of same sex bi-national couples, said Jessica Stern, researcher for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at the Human Rights Watch. “Though our immigration policy is guided by a fundamental principle of family reunification, this doesn’t seem to apply to LGBT families,” she said.

A proposal currently pending in Congress–the United American Families Act, championed by New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler–would allow sponsorship for permanent residency on the basis of permanent partnership.

That idea doesn’t sit well with Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports stricter border controls. Though FAIR has not taken an official stance, he said, the bill could open a new avenue for immigration fraud. “Since the law doesn’t allow heterosexual partners to bring a partner over, such a provision should not be made for same sex couples,” he said.

But advocates for the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community see this as part of a broader fight against discrimination. “There is discrimination against LGBTs in social security, Medicaid, Medicare, federal taxes,” said Sean Cahill, director of the policy institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “There are over a thousand policy implications of the non-recognition of same sex couples by the federal government.”

–Ayesha Akram

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