Seattle Times
Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company
Posted at 04:02 a.m. PST; Monday, October 26, 1998

Immigration law leaves gay, lesbian couples no place to call 'home'

by Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter

Susan Fairo and Christine Suter would like nothing more than to win the lottery.

Not the lottery that allows living in luxury, but the one that would mean Fairo, a U.S. citizen, and Suter, a native of Switzerland, could live together.

Suter is among an estimated 6 million applicants worldwide vying for 45,000 permanent resident visas available under the U.S. government's diversity visa program. The deadline for applying is Saturday. If she is picked in the Immigration Naturalization Service's lottery, she will move to the front of the application line for green cards, which give a person legal permission to work and live in the United States indefinitely.

"It's a long shot," Fairo says. "But it does happen."

The United States has never recognized same-sex partnerships, and with the passage of the 1996 Defense Of Marriage Act, it likely won't for years. So while a male-female couple separated by borders can speed the green-card process through marriage, that door continues to be closed to same-sex couples.

"Almost all immigration is based on family reunification," says Lavi Soloway, national coordinator of the Lesbian & Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF). "Unfortunately, gay and lesbian families are not included."

"The chances of success are virtually nonexistent," says professor Joan Fitzpatrick, who teaches immigration and human-rights law at the University of Washington. "There is no immigration category that would encompass that kind of relationship. There is no room for people with a close emotional bond."

Fairo, an administrator for a local software developer, and Suter, a clinical therapist for a Seattle mental-health agency, traded international visits for several years before moving in together early last year. Suter's renewable temporary work visa, which expires in August 2000, has bought them some time - as much as six years altogether.

"Nobody wants a committed relationship where you have to travel back and forth," Fairo says.

But unless they are incredibly lucky, they will have to do it again.

No one knows how many couples are caught in such situations, although a report prepared last year by LGIRTF's New York City chapter estimated the number at 30,000 nationally, 1,200 of them in the Seattle area.

While that number sounds high, Seattle's position as a gateway city, and Canada's proximity, make the region more apt than most to spawn such relationships.

The local chapter of LGIRTF, which Fairo now co-chairs, has seen its mailing list grow from a dozen names several years ago to more than 230 people today.

They include:

-- Stephen Knight of Seattle, who is author of a Web site dedicated to issues faced by same-sex, bi-national couples. He "met" his partner through an on-line, Japanese-language chat room a year and a half ago; they've traded numerous visits but remain separated.

-- Bruce MacDonald of Seattle, a medical social worker who met his partner, a resident of Thailand, five years ago. The two men also remain apart.

-- Bob Hall and his South Korean partner of five years, who have uprooted themselves several times in an effort to make the relationship work. "It's very difficult," Hall says. Until his partner's temporary visa runs out, they are living in Poulsbo, trying to figure out their next move.

These are long-distance relationships strained not only by absence, effort and cost but by the weight of impermanence and the stress of fighting an imaginary line's restrictions.

The battle eventually wears down many couples, who either break up or decide to leave America behind.

"I feel shortchanged because my happiness is with another woman," says Fairo. "It's blatant discrimination."

Same-sex, bi-national couples generally try to land the foreign partner here temporarily, then worry about how to make the arrangement permanent.

A limited number of temporary H-1B work visas, renewable for a maximum stay of six years, are available for workers in high-skilled jobs - accountants and computer-systems analysts, for example. Suter received one of these.

Employers can sponsor foreigners already working here for permanent-resident status but must open the position to new applicants and show the worker is uniquely qualified for the job. That's how Australian native John Burbidge, now a Seattle editor, finally gained entry. He and his American partner just celebrated their 10th anniversary.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," Burbidge says.

Other possible routes are extremely rare, limited either to very wealthy immigrants who invest here or to the persecuted who can obtain asylum by showing that their sexual orientation makes it dangerous to return to their native country.

The federal diversity visa program is designed to supplement newcomer levels with qualified residents of countries with low U.S. immigration rates. People from places with high numbers of U.S. immigrants - Mexico, Canada, Vietnam and South Korea, for example - are ineligible.

Suter has been applying every year, and should her name be chosen, her chances are better than most because of her education, European background and high English skills. If not, those qualities at least make her more likely to find an employer willing to sponsor her residency application. But for others without higher education or who can't speak much English, the lottery may be the only legal option.

"It's the best option for us at this point," says Knight, the Web site author. If his Japanese partner, a paraplegic, fails to win entry this time around, he says, he'll likely move to Japan, which he says does not deal well with either gays or people with physical disabilities. "That won't make his life any easier," Knight says.

Nine countries worldwide recognize same-sex partners for immigration purposes, including Canada, Belgium, Australia and the United Kingdom. They use concepts like relationships and partnerships, not marriage, as the criteria. But most here agree the chances of such relationships being recognized in the U.S. are unlikely.

And so, some are heading for Canada, including MacDonald, a 17-year Seattle resident, and his Thai partner. Canada is the only country that allows same-sex couples to immigrate when neither partner is a Canadian resident.

Many couples remain active in LGIRTF, knowing that while the group cannot offer much hope, it can still offer something of value - the support of others who are in the same situation.

"I think it's a shame anyone should be forced to leave their country just to be with their partner," Fairo says.

A few years ago, they realized friendship was not enough for them, and before Suter returned to finish her graduate studies at Switzerland's University of Fribourg, they held a ceremony to declare their mutual commitment.

"I'm a Christian," Suter says, "so for me, it was important to speak the words."

" `I do,' " Fairo remembers.

"And wear the rings with each other's name inside."

Both women agonize over Suter's chances for permanent residency. Should she take more classes? Learn another language?

And they know the story would play much differently were they a traditional male-female couple. Fairo's cousin, a woman who met a man from Germany, fell in love and found many more doors open to her, for example. Ironically, "she lives over there now," Fairo says.

For information on eligibility for the U.S. Department of State's visa lottery, call 1-900-884-8840 at a flat rate of $5.10 per call.

The Seattle office of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force may be reached at 206-442-2085. The phone number for the national office is 212-818-9639.

Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company