By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 3:22 AM
When gay couples were given the right to marry in the District earlier this year, John Beddingfield and Erwin de Leon were among those who quickly obtained marriage licenses. In April, the Woodley Park couple - who have been together for 12 years - quietly exchanged vows before a justice of the peace.
Yet even as they pledged to stand by each other in sickness and in health, Beddingfield, 46, the rector at All Souls Episcopal Church, and de Leon, 44, a doctoral student from the Philippines, were aware that their marriage still hadn't guaranteed them the same rights as heterosexual couples. The District recognizes their marriage, but the federal government does not. The country that had given de Leon a home, given him an education and given him Beddingfield would not allow him to start the process of becoming a citizen, even as it extends that benefit to the foreign-born spouses of heterosexual U.S. citizens.
Once de Leon's student visa runs out next year, he will likely be forced to join the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
"I grew up looking to this country for its ideals and really believe strongly that it is about equality, freedom and opportunity," de Leon said. "It is too bad that a small minority - gays and lesbians - are still treated as second-class citizens.''
About 24,000 gay and lesbian couples in the United States include at least one foreign partner, according to an analysis of census data by researcher Gary Gates at UCLA's Williams Institute. Though five states and D.C. issue marriage licenses to gay couples, a large number of the 24,000 so-called binational couples in long-term relationships live in states that do not allow or recognize gay marriage.
The demand by these couples to gain the same immigration rights as heterosexuals is supported by key members of Congress, but is undermining the fractious coalition of groups needed to push through an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. Including equal treatment for gay partners of U.S. citizens, key advocates say, threatens to doom the already fragile hopes for change.
"It introduces a new controversial element to the issue which will divide the faith community and further jeopardize chances for a fair and bipartisan compromise," said Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which last year said the inclusion of gay couples in a House bill aimed at reuniting families made it "impossible" for the group to support the measure. "Immigration is hard enough without adding same-sex marriage to the mix."'Death knell' for change
The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a 16-million-strong group of evangelical Latinos that could play a key political role in an immigration overhaul, is similarly opposed to including provisions for gay and lesbian families. The president of the organization, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, said that including such a measure would prove to be the "death knell" for comprehensive change.
Gay and lesbian foreigners around the country who are in the same predicament as de Leon said the opposition of powerful Catholic and Latino groups was ironic because those groups often saw an immigration overhaul as a civil rights issue - and were quick to blame xenophobia and racism for anti-immigrant sentiment - while simultaneously arguing against equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Another Washington gay couple, who requested that their names not be published because the foreign partner is a Latino man currently living in the country under false pretenses and the American partner is a prominent Republican whose identity could easily lead authorities to the other man, said gays and lesbians fall in love in the same unpredictable way as straight people. Sometimes, the object of that love happens to be a foreigner.
"When you love someone, it feels the same," said the Latino man, who is in the country on a tourist visa and has been working in violation of it. He is afraid that his immigration status could be exposed at any time, and he could be forced to leave. He travels outside the country periodically to keep his tourist visa valid, always making sure when he presents his visa at the border that he has an air ticket showing when he plans to leave the United States.
"I am insecure because I am worried," he said. "If I have trouble with the police, they will send me back to my country. I have a partner. All my life is here. My family lives in Mexico City, but I feel comfortable here. I drive everyday - if I have an accident or the police stops me and ask me for my papers, I am afraid."
"Every time he leaves, I wonder is he going to come back to his house, to our friends, to my family," added his partner.Evangelical support
It is unclear whether an immigration overhaul will take place in the next 12 months. The rise of the "tea party" movement, the popularity of tough new anti-immigration laws in Arizona and other states and the growing likelihood that Republicans will control the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate after the 2010 midterm elections all suggest that an immigration overhaul will be difficult.
At the same time, advocates for such an overhaul say, there are also powerful social and political forces that could move changes forward: Chief among them, the presence of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and the growing political clout of Latinos in states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Rodriguez rejected the argument that opposing gay marriage provisions in an immigration overhaul constituted homophobia. Rather, he said, the choice was between excluding gay and lesbian families from an overhaul of immigration laws - or losing out on an overhaul altogether.
The key constituency to changes getting passed are white evangelicals, he added. After years of outreach, Latino evangelicals have formed alliances with white evangelical groups - and those evangelicals are key to getting Republican votes in the House. Including provisions related to gay marriage, Rodriguez said, would prompt white evangelicals to desert the coalition.
"It is not a matter of being anti-anything but being pro-immigration reform," he said. "It is not fair to morph the immigration agenda with the same-sex agenda."
Steve Ralls, director of communications at Immigration Equality, a legal aid and advocacy organization that seeks to include gay and lesbian families in any immigration measure, said he was confident that equal rights would be part of any overhaul. In the Senate, he said, an immigration bill would have to pass through the Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has been a strong backer of equal gay and lesbian immigration rights.
For Beddingfield and de Leon, the issue is personal as well as political. De Leon expects to finish his doctorate in public and urban policy in the spring. If an immigration overhaul does not allow Beddingfield to sponsor his spouse for citizenship, de Leon might be able to acquire U.S. residency through his mother.
That's ironic because de Leon's mother came to the United States from the Philippines after he did. Like de Leon, she married an American, but quickly obtained legal residency because she was straight. It currently takes about 10 years for Filipinos to sponsor their children for U.S. residency. To de Leon, that's a long time to wait for a legal right he argues he should already have.