The Immigrant Experience

Couples Walk a Legal Tightrope

By Marjorie Ingall

Published December 29, 2006, issue of December 29, 2006.
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Dov Aryeh grew up attending Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in New York City. He still has the little English-language Tanach the synagogue gave him for his bar mitzvah almost 40 years ago. He’s been involved in the Jewish community his entire life. Today he’s in a long-term, committed relationship with a fellow Jew. But he can’t be open about his relationship, and he asked for a pseudonym in this story.

Why? Because Dov Aryeh is gay. No, this isn’t another story about Conservative Judaism’s current identity crisis. This is a story that’s simultaneously much smaller and much bigger.

Dov Aryeh is one of about 40,000 Americans whose same-sex partner is not an American citizen. And that means the men’s relationship has absolutely no recognition in federal law. If Dov Aryeh were straight, his wife (or even his fiancee) could easily stay here legally. But because Dov Aryeh and Avram (another pseudonym) are gay, they can’t legally stay together in America.

Non-American partners of gay and lesbian Americans can be deported if they overstay a tourist visa by one day, or if their work visa lapses and they don’t realize it, or if they accidentally take one credit too few to meet the terms of a student visa. It doesn’t matter if the couple have children; the family can be torn apart. Dov Aryeh and Avram, a South African Jew, never have been able to live together at all.

Dov Aryeh, now 52, is the former executive director of a national Jewish organization. He’s the former president of his synagogue, Bet Mishpachah, a congregation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews in Washington, D.C., where he often still leads services. He met Avram, 41, at a convention in Australia. “We were bashert,” he said simply. Meant to be. “We spent the week getting to know each other, and then he went back to his home in South Africa and I went back to the States… but we kept e-mailing,” Dov Aryeh said. “We decided to meet in London the following summer, where we talked and talked… and we’ve been together ever since.”

Avram’s job as a technical editor lets him telecommute to Johannesburg. Dov Aryeh works for the federal government and has earned a great deal of leave. They arrange to travel back and forth and take frequent vacations together.

But ultimately, Dov Aryeh will have to choose: his country or his bashert.

“It’s a tightrope,” Dov Aryeh said. “The best of all possible worlds would be for him to be recognized as my spouse, my husband, so that we could split our lives between both countries without worrying every time he visits whether they’ll let him in or not. South Africa has recognized gay partnerships for immigration rights for years, even before recognizing gay marriage last month. The country doesn’t seem to have collapsed from that. Everyone’s not pretending to be gay to take advantage of that.” He continued: “I don’t know why our existence threatens people. Avram’s a wonderfully productive member of American society as well as South Africa’s. In three years I’ll be able to retire, and rather than continue to work for the government I’m going to take my pension and pull up stakes and leave for South Africa as soon as I can so that we can be together.”

Both their families offer love and acceptance. The two are doting uncles to Avram’s 3-year-old niece and nephew. Avram’s mother and sister are nudging them to set a wedding date in Johannesburg, where they’ll have legal protections — the same rights to health and insurance benefits, and to inheritance and residence, as straight couples. “We just want to take care of each other,” Dov Aryeh said.

A bill called the Uniting American Families Act could help. It would amend immigration law by adding the words “permanent partner” wherever the law now refers to a “spouse.” The bill wouldn’t grant gay and lesbian couples any rights beyond immigration status equal to that of straight spouses. Anyone claiming partnership would be subject to investigation, just as binational married couples are.

Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which is a nonprofit organization that works for gay and lesbian equality under U.S. Immigration law, said: “The new Congress is more amenable than the old Congress to immigration rights, gay and lesbian rights and family rights. But we didn’t have the support of all the Democrats in the last Congress, so there’s still a good bit of education to be done. The bill will be reintroduced in the spring, by Jerry Nadler in the House and by Patrick Leahy in the Senate… but we don’t want to bring it to the floor until we can win.”

For Mark, an American citizen, and Fabien (another pseudonym), his French-born partner, that day may come too late. “We met at a mutual friend’s birthday party in 1990,” Mark recalled. “I was 21, and he was 25. We’ve been together ever since.” In 1999 the couple adopted a son; in 2003, their daughter (“our princess!”), now 3, followed. Their life is like that of many young families: Fabien does morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up at school. He makes lunches and dinners. “On weekends we clean the house, go to the farmer’s market, go hiking, hit the flea markets, get together with other families in the neighborhood,” Mark said. “Most of our friends are straight couples with children.” Mark works in academic administration in Pennsylvania; Fabien has been teaching French — at first in a local college and then at a Catholic boys’ high school. When Fabien’s work visa expired, the school never applied to sponsor him. Mark and Fabien suspect it was because they found out he is gay.

They’ve had to scramble to keep the family together. Fabien got a student visa, allowing him to stay in the country as long as he went to university. But they had to sell their house to pay for school.

“All we ask is to be left alone and to try to pursue happiness,” Mark said. “We’d love to stay in America. But we can’t afford to keep going like this. I’m paying the mortgage, school for both kids and university for Fabien. Each month we fall more behind. And Fabien would love to work. He’s gotten his master’s and is working toward his doctorate, but he really wants to be teaching! There’s another school that wants to hire him, but because his work visa has expired, they’ll have to justify hiring him instead of an American,” Mark explained. “If we were straight, none of this would be an issue.”

If Fabien’s job doesn’t come though quickly, Mark and Fabien will use the money from the sale of their home to move to France. “But it’s unclear whether the kids can have French nationality or health insurance,” Mark said. “They may just be seen as visitors and may have to exit and enter the country every six months. We’re not sure — the French Embassy in D.C. was not clear.”

Mark paused for a moment. He sounded dispassionate, flat. “Here’s the thing,” he said slowly. “A gay person is always coming out. I’m always having to explain, even to my gay friends, that I can’t sponsor Fabien for immigration. They assume that because he’s been here so long, of course he can stay! I get tired of selling the same story. You can assume there’s heartache. If something were to happen to me — if I died — Fabien would be deported and the kids would stay here. If we go to France, I’ll be taking my parents’ only grandchildren away, the only ones they’ll ever have. My sister is very ill with multiple sclerosis. I could be in France when she dies. But we can’t stay here.”

He continued: “People worry that if we change the law it’s going to open the floodgates… to whom? Professional men? When Fabien and I went to lobby in Washington, everyone in the group had master’s degrees! All these people are educated people who just want to make a living, doing jobs like teaching that are good for their adoptive country.”

The picture for gay couples does seem to be changing. According to a 2001 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds support gay and lesbian unions or partnerships (68%), marriage (60%) and adoption (55%), whereas people aged 65 and older are far less supportive. (Only 27% support gay unions, 25% support gay marriage and 25% support gay adoptions.) Another survey conducted by the foundation found that more than three quarters (78%) of the American public believed that gay men and lesbians experience at least some prejudice and discrimination; more than half (57%) felt they experience “a lot.” And most Americans want to protect gays and lesbians against discrimination in employment (76%), as well as to extend certain rights and benefits to lesbian and gay domestic partners, including inheritance rights (73%) and employer-sponsored health insurance and other benefits (70%). That’s something.

Hey, we’re a nation of immigrants. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had opportunities that lawmakers today are awfully stingy about: the chance to raise children, to work hard and to believe in the promise of this country. As a mother, I try to teach my kids about American values: fairness, respect for diversity, having the chance to write your own story. I want those values to exist, still. I’m not always sure they do.

Write to Marjorie at

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