As Valentine’s Day approaches, same-sex binational couples hope 2013 will be the year that finally brings them a permanent solution
Kenny Hill and Rick Ziraldo’s love story spans three continents and eight-plus years.
The couple met in 2004 in Australia, where Ziraldo was studying abroad for a semester and Hill was vacationing.
“One Tuesday we ended up meeting and spending the rest of the day together, and that kind of went into the rest of that week,” Hill recalls. “Toward the end of that week, Ricky had to be back in school and I was moving on to other places in Australia. He said, ‘Well this has been fun, but I’m Italian and you’re American, and I don’t see that we could ever make this work.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to travel around the world to find you and make it work.’”
Nine months later, Ziraldo had returned to Italy when Hill sent him a message saying he’d be in Venice for the weekend.
“The same spark was there,” Hill says. “At that point, we made the decision to see what we could do to formalize it.”
After Ziraldo finished his bachelor’s degree at an Italian university in December 2006, he obtained a 90-day visa waiver to visit Hill in Dallas.
“We basically at the end of that 90 days determined that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together,” Hill says.
Ziraldo enrolled at Richland College, and they traveled to Italy to obtain a three-year student visa.
“At that point we realized the only way we could bring him into the States to live anywhere close to permanently was on a student visa,” Hill says.
Since then, they’ve spent about $50,000 in out-of-state tuition to keep Ziraldo in school — he’s now working on his doctorate at the University of Texas at Dallas. Ziraldo renewed his student visa for five years so that he can remain with Hill in Dallas. But the couple notes the visa could be revoked if authorities determine he intends to emigrate to the U.S.
When Ziraldo’s student visa finally expires, Hill is prepared to become an expatriate, leaving his country, family and career behind so the couple can remain together.
Hill and Ziraldo are among some 40,000 binational same-sex couples in the U.S. who face a similar predicament. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts, they are unable to obtain spousal visas because of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.
However, as another Valentine’s Day approaches, LGBT advocates say they’re optimistic those couples will finally see an end to their uncertainty this year.
The Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gay Americans to sponsor “permanent partners” for residency in the U.S., was reintroduced in
Congress this week. Advocates hope UAFA will receive sufficient bipartisan support to be included in a comprehensive immigration reform package.
But even if UAFA doesn’t make the cut, advocates say a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging the constitutionality of DOMA would fix the problem once and for all. The Supreme Court’s decision in the DOMA case is expected in late June.
“I am optimistic and hopeful that 2013 will be the year that we finally get a permanent solution,” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Equality. “We hear from couples literally every single day who have used so many temporary options to remain together — student visas, work visas, tourist visas. And for many of those couples those temporary options are expiring, and they need a permanent solution now.”
DOMA case looms large
Ralls said Immigration Equality is working on three fronts — administrative, legislative and judicial — to help binational same-sex couples.
Administratively, he said the group has seen “great progress” under President Barack Obama.
“The White House assured us many months ago that they would work to make sure that no LGBT binational couple was separated under their watch, and they have kept their word, and when we have brought cases to their attention where a partner is facing potential removal, they have moved very quickly to make sure that those individuals are not separated from their U.S. citizen partners,” Ralls said.
The White House also sent a directive to immigration field officers saying LGBT couples should be considered family, an important distinction because federal agencies take family ties into consideration when deciding which individuals to target for deportation.
However, Ralls said these changes could easily be reversed under a future administration, and for most couples, they don’t come with any real benefit.
“While stopping deportations is good and important, it doesn’t provide that lasting piece of mind that couples need to build a life together and have some permanency,” he said, adding that almost half of binational same-sex couples have children. “Their kids face the prospect of either having to pack up and leave the country and move abroad, or see their family split apart. Republicans who want to talk about family values should talk about keeping those families together.”
On the legislative front, Obama has signaled his support for including same-sex couples in comprehensive immigration reform. However, same-sex couples were left out of the Senate’s framework for immigration reform unveiled last week, which Ralls called a disappointment.
“The framework is just that,” he said. “It’s a framework. It’s not a bill yet. Our goal is to make sure that when a bill is introduced, that it does include the UAFA. Our view is that we should be in the bill when it’s introduced. It’s much better for us to be in the base bill than to have to be added in the amendment process later.”
Ultimately, though, Ralls said UAFA is now a legislative “safety net” in the event that the Supreme Court doesn’t strike down DOMA in United States v. Windsor, the case brought by lesbian Massachusetts widow Edie Windsor challenging a section of the 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Immigration Equality has filed its own lawsuit challenging DOMA on behalf of LGBT immigrant families, but a judge has put that case on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor’s case. Ralls said if Windsor prevails, binational same-sex couples who marry in a state where it’s legal would enjoy the same immigration rights as heterosexual spouses. He said there’s a long tradition in immigration law of recognizing marriages based on where they are performed.
“If DOMA is struck down, couples like Kenny and [Ricky] should have the ability to pursue a green card,” Ralls said. “Any victory for Edie [Windsor] would translate into a victory for binational couples regardless of where they live.”
TX couples hope for the best
Back in Dallas, Hill says he doesn’t have much faith in a legislative solution — “Republicans control too much,” he says — but he puts the chances of a favorable Supreme Court ruling at 70-30.
“That’s pretty optimistic,” Ziraldo responds during an interview in the living room of their high-rise condo at Victory Park’s House.
“I’m an optimist and he’s a little bit of a pragmatist,” Hill says.
If a favorable ruling does come down, the couple is prepared to marry in California or New York.
“We consider ourselves engaged,” Hill says. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s more a matter of when.”
Hill grew up in Granbury, and his dad once served as mayor of the town. His family owns a large Fort Worth-based pharmaceutical software company. He says the couple is lucky to have the financial resources to keep Ziraldo in school.
Hill praises Immigration Equality for its work on the issue, but criticizes other national LGBT groups for not focusing on it enough.
“We’ve been telling this story to anybody that will listen,” Hill says. “It’s amazing to me how many people in the gay community have no idea this issue exists. Their first comment is, ‘Go get married in a state that allows marriage,’ which does absolutely no good other than having a piece of paper.”
Ziraldo, who grew up in a small town in Italy, which is largely controlled by the Vatican, notes that his home country doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage either. He calls the situation “definitely stressful.”
“It’s been years of uncertainty,” Ziraldo says. “It would be very nice to settle this issue, and at least know whether we’re going to be able to live here or if we’re going to have to move. Now that we’re kind of settled here, it would be nice to be able to stay.”
Hill and Ziraldo are one of 1,607 binational same-sex couples in Texas, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. That’s fourth-most behind New York, California and Florida.
Elizabeth Allen and Jennifer Wigle, who live in Katy, Texas, met through the LGBT group at the University of Houston in 2007.
Wigle, who’s Canadian, is currently on an Optional Practical Training visa, basically an extension of her student visa. When it expires this July, Wigle said she plans to return to Canada and try to obtain yet another type of visa.
“It’s something that can keep me here for a few years, but we can’t buy a house, can’t start a family,” she says. “We’re in a better situation than a lot of people, so I don’t want to complain too much, but it kind of sucks.”
Wigle and Allen were married in Canada, which has marriage equality, in 2012.
“Legally it would be a lot easier for us just to go there,” Wigle says of her home country, noting that she could sponsor Allen for citizenship. “But that’s not what we consider our home. The possibility of being forced to move there without having any choice is kind of frustrating to say the least.”
Describing the harrowing process of returning home and coming back to the U.S., Wigle says she chose not to take Allen’s last name in part because it would lead to even more questions from immigration officials.
She says the couple also chooses not to invest in better furniture or anything that would be too big to move to Canada. Like other LGBT immigrants, she’s hoping for a ruling striking down DOMA, but she also understands that a negative ruling would be a huge setback that could take years to overcome.
“If it doesn’t go our way, we’ve pretty much decided we’re going to end up going to Canada. We can’t sit out and wait,” Wigle says. “It’s very exciting but also incredibly scary to know we’ll have some sort of decision soon.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 8, 2013.