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The U.S. Is Becoming a Friendlier Place for Gay Residents -- Unless They're Immigrants

Even in the states where same-sex marriage is legal, same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens are not eligible for green cards because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Last month, Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu resigned as the Arizona co-chair of Mitt Romney's campaign. The resignation came after Babeu's ex-boyfriend, an undocumented Mexican immigrant named Jose Orozco, accused Babeu of threatening deportation.

The scandal seems to have had little impact on Romney's campaign; he picked up Arizona, and then Michigan, Washington and more than half of the Super Tuesday states. For his part, Babeu is continuing his campaign for a congressional seat. One would hope that he is also doing some soul searching. When the juicy drama has settled for onlookers (if not for those involved), LGBT immigrants -- a population marginalized not once, but twice -- are likely to be pushed once again into the shadowy space where mainstream media do not bother to reach.

On the whole, America is becoming a friendlier place for gay and lesbian individuals to live. Recently Maryland became the eighth state in the country to legally recognize same-sex marriage. The repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" last year, the recent ruling against Proposition 8 in California, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington, and the New Jersey legislature's passing of a similar bill last month (although vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie), and last year's ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that the majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage are all evidence of a more tolerant country for LGBTQ residents.

However, for gay immigrants, many aspects of life in this country are still quite grim. Even in states where same-sex marriage is legalized, same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens are not eligible for green cards because the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 prohibits same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, which include immigration benefits.

Although DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional by several federal and district judges, it will remain law until it is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or repealed by Congress. A little more than a year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder  announced that the Department of Justice would not defend in court the constitutionality of Section 3, which defines marriage as only between a man and woman. However, according to Steve Ralls, spokesperson for the non-profit Immigrant Equality, the federal government continues to decline marriage-based green-card petitions filed on behalf of a same-sex spouse citing DOMA.

Happily Ever After Until the Expiration Date

Thirty-six thousand binational same-sex couples live in the U.S., according to the Williams Institute, a research institution affiliated with UCLA's School of Law. None of these couples, who together are raising almost 25,000 children, are eligible for permanent immigration options available to different-sex spouses.

"Most couples, for many many years, have relied on temporary visas to remain together," said Ralls. Many of them use tourist visas, which allow them to stay six months in the U.S. and six months abroad, and some use student visas. "The really lucky ones have an employment visa which is a little more long-term," said Ralls, "though we have seen as the recession took hold of the last two years, that more and more couples are losing their employment visas."

According to Ralls, around 100 couples contacted Immigration Equality about the issue of visa expiration a year or two ago, and this year, the number is probably going to be around 500. The total number of calls Immigration Equality received in 2011 from binational couples looking for legal advice totaled 1,431, a 142 percent increase from 2010.

Judy Rickard and Karin Bogliolo have been traveling and living in two countries since they met in 2005. Bogliolo, a citizen of the UK, had to leave Rickard, who lived in San Jose, California, every six months in the first four years of their relationship. Once she had to stay out of the U.S. for as long as nine months. Frustrated, Rickard decided to take an early retirement so she could travel with Bogliolo, despite the reduced pension that decision entailed.

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