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Binational Same-Sex Couples Still Seek Immigration Equality

The Uniting Americans Families Act currently before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees would help gay and lesbian U.S. citizens get their "permanent partners" citizenship.

By DANA AMIHERE, Capital News Service

Maryland’s same-sex couples may have won the right to marry on Election Day, but binational couples like Kelly Costello and Fabiola Morales continue to fight to have their unions recognized.

Immigration law permits one’s parent, spouse or child to petition for a move to the United States.

However, a sponsor has to be a permanent U.S. resident to make the petition. Morales’ mother is in the naturalization process herself, her brother can’t sponsor her by law, she doesn’t have any children and there’s a backlog for nurses in immigration.

“As thrilled as we are and see it in a positive light that we’re moving on the right path,” Costello said, “I think it’s important for people to realize that the state can’t give us that critical benefit of being able to sponsor a spouse (for naturalization as a U.S. citizen). DOMA blocks that.”

The Defense of Marriage Act, which only recognizes heterosexual marriages, bars same-sex couples for all federal purposes, including filing a joint tax return, Social Security survivors’ benefits and obtaining a green card.

Morales, 39, and Costello, 30, aren’t unique. About 29,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. include a foreign partner, according to UCLA researchers Gary Gates and Craig Konnoth’s 2011 analysis of census data.

“Through my mom it would be 8-10 years (to become a citizen), and through my profession it’s not possible,” Morales said. “My only way is my spouse, but that’s not possible.”

Morales left her native Peru after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in systems engineering. Despite a lucrative job working for a Miami bank’s IT department, she said she found her passion volunteering for a hospital. When she met Costello in 2007, she decided to become a nurse.

Following her graduation from Georgetown University in 2010, Morales’ student visa became a temporary work visa. But that expired one year later, Morales said.

“We had two options. I could either keep studying, or we had to leave the country,” Morales said.

She quickly enrolled in the master of nursing program at Marymount University in Virginia.

“Leaving the country meant that we had to leave our family and friends and our community, and her patients, and my students,” said Costello, an English as a second language teacher. Staying, however, has come with its challenges.

Under a student visa, Morales can no longer work. With only one income, the couple was forced to move in with Costello’s parents. They’ve also accumulated significant debt paying for Morales’ education out-of-pocket.

Morales graduated cum laude from Georgetown, but isn’t eligible for any scholarships or federal student aid because she’s not a citizen. Attorney consultation fees have also added up.

“We thought that somebody has got to be able to have the answer (to our problem), but after five lawyers, everyone was telling us the same thing,” Costello said. “There’s nothing she can really do except continue going to school. If Fab keeps at it, she’ll end up with a doctorate in neurosurgery," Costello joked.

Costello said she and her wife “live day by day and semester by semester” in hopes the Defense of Marriage Act will be repealed. Another piece of federal legislation, however, may help them and couples like them sooner rather than later.

The Uniting American Families Act, currently before the Senate and House Judiciary committees, would allow gay and lesbian U.S. citizens and lawful residents to help their “permanent partners” obtain citizenship in the same way as heterosexual spouses. Maryland Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, are cosponsors of the bill.

“Our laws in the United States still contain discriminatory provisions that we need to correct. I think the more we can put a face on the issue so that this isn’t an abstract problem –– that this is a real problem facing real families –– I think the better chance we have of getting it resolved,” Cardin said, in an interview.

Cardin said he’s hopeful for bipartisan support even though bills involving the rights of gay couples do not often get a lot of Republican support.

“I think that we showed on marriage equality in Maryland that there is broad support that doesn’t break down just because of party affiliation. The question is finding the way to get it done,” he said.

With this year’s session almost over, Cardin said the odds of moving the bill before 2013 are slim. But he thinks it has a chance to move as part of an immigration reform package or a civil rights act sometime next year.

If or until something is done, Morales and Costello will continue to wait, but refuse to stand idly by. Both are active within the Washington-based organization Immigration Equality, which advocates for and provides legal aid to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants.

“The immigration system is broken, but it can be repaired. I’m a US citizen and my family is here and my wife is my life. We work hard in our communities and are trying to make our country as a whole better as a nurse and a teacher,” Costello said. “Besides, I think they’d be losing out on some great people.”

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