When Mike Williams decided to run for Congress in Connecticut's 5th Congressional district, he did it, he said, "to be a role model for the underprivileged -- not just LGBT kids, but all the kids in Connecticut who don't have the same opportunities they're supposed to." And then Williams found himself one of those people in Connecticut who lack certain opportunities when his Dutch partner, Bart Hoedemaker, was told he was losing his job and faced deportation.
Despite recent headlines highlighting changes to the Administration's immigration enforcement policies as they apply to same-sex binational couples (namely, that deporting the same sex spouses of American citizens is now deemed a "low priority") and the recent dismissal of a deportation case brought against the non-citizen same sex spouse of a California man, the fact remains that binational couples still aren't entitled to immigration rights because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And for a Congressional candidate and his partner, that's a big problem.
Hoedemaker said, "With Michael's job and running for Congress, we really can't do anything remotely illegal," so even though the Administration is no longer strictly enforcing the law, the couple faces a long-distance separation 10 days after Hoedemaker's job ends at the end of September. "I've lived here for three years, and it's impossible to pack up your life in 10 days," he said -- but skilled workers like Hoedemaker, a horse trainer whose visa is sponsored by his employer, have exactly that long to leave the country voluntarily after their jobs end.
"Most people don't realize about DOMA, they think, well, you're married in Connecticut, it's fine, and they're shocked to find out that it doesn't matter," said Williams. But no matter what the Administration does about enforcement, Williams cannot sponsor Hoedemaker for a green card -- a right Williams' sister will soon exercise on behalf of her Argentinian fiancé. Without a green card, not only could Hoedemaker's status be subject to the whims of a new Administration or a Congressional action, he would not be eligible to work.
And as author Elizabeth Gilbert once learned (and chronicled in her book, Committed), maintaining a binational relationship isn't just a matter of hopping a plane: Hoedemaker's right and ability to visit the States, even on a tourist visa, is up to the discretion of any immigration officer he encounters at the airport. It's a situation he experienced once already and doesn't want to go through again.
He said, "I've had this happen before: I came to America four times in a row [on a tourist visa] and I was interrogated at Immigration for two and a half hours [the last time]," -- an apparent effort to determine whether he planned to return to the Netherlands after his visit. (Gilbert's now-husband faced similar problems after returning to the States with her after one visit.) "They went through my luggage, my computer, they looked me up on the Internet. I was treated as a criminal, and I was just here as a tourist," added Hoedemaker. In his case, he was luckily allowed to proceed past customs; in many cases, as was the case with Gilbert's now-husband, the person using a tourist visa to visit a partner is simply deported and not allowed to return.
More frustrating yet: immigration officials may look at the marital status of the non-citizen partner and determine the person is at-risk to overstay their visa on that basis alone, and turn them away.
Steve Ralls, the Communications Director for Immigration Equality, says the majority of couples they see face similar problems to Williams and Hoedemaker -- and reclassifying same sex binational couples as "low priority" for enforcement is no solution. "Gay and lesbian Americans still cannot sponsor their husbands and wives for citizenship, which is the only way to permanently protect our families," he said. "We need permanent solutions for every couple, and not just temporary fixes for some."
Though the situation with his partner hasn't dissuaded him from his Congressional bid, Williams does admit a level of disappointment in the man he worked for two years (as a foreign policy adviser) to help elect. "The Obama Administration has been woefully inadequate on LGBT issues and this one in particular," he said. "It's sad they can't be supportive of this equality agenda that he speaks so warmly about but has failed to enact."