Same-sex couple's future in legal limbo

Visa issues plague two women who married in Vancouver in December

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

Same-sex couple faces legal limbo

One of the first same-sex couples married in Clark County now faces uncertainty about whether they can legally remain together in the country.

One of the first same-sex couples married in Clark County now faces uncertainty about whether they can legally remain together in the country.

After a long-distance romance of 16 years, Shawn Sanders, 49, of Anchorage, Alaska, and Jocelyn Guzman, 45, of Mexico City, Mexico, married Dec. 9 in Vancouver, the first day it was legal to do so in Washington state.

But their celebration turned to distress Feb. 13 when the couple attempted to return to Portland from their honeymoon in Mexico.

"Because the federal government does not legally recognize same-sex marriage, the visa document required for her to enter and stay in the U.S. does not yet exist," Sanders said. "We found this out the hard way."

The couple's predicament serves as a reminder that legalization of gay marriage in individual states doesn't provide equality when it comes to federal marriage benefits.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act excludes gay couples from every federal benefit afforded to married heterosexual couples, including the ability to sponsor one's spouse to apply for legal residency.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a case that challenges the federal act.

In addition, some members of Congress introduced legislation last month that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor same-sex "permanent partners" applying for a green card.

In the meantime, binational same-sex couples remain in legal limbo in the United States. There are an estimated 28,500 binational same-sex couples in the United States, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.

Sanders and Guzman said they hadn't anticipated the immigration obstacles they would face as a married couple.

They first met in Costa Rica. Both were travel agents employed by separate companies in separate countries and were sent at the same time to Costa Rica to do travel research.

"The first night we met, that was it," Sanders told The Columbian on Dec. 6.

During their 16-year courtship, Guzman visited Sanders in the United States for periods of two weeks to a few months, Sanders said. Her tourist visa was renewed in October for another 10-year period, she said.

They said they didn't think marriage might actually jeopardize their ability to remain together in the United States.

1,500 mile drive

Guzman was visiting Sanders in Alaska last November when voters in Washington upheld a law to allow same-sex marriage.

Sanders proposed; Guzman accepted. The couple drove 1,500 miles from Anchorage to stand in line Dec. 6 at the Clark County Auditor's Office to be among the first same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses in Washington state. They were the eighth couple in the county to receive a license.

They married Dec. 9 on a friend's property in Vancouver. They went to Mexico to celebrate Dec. 12 with family and friends, marry legally in Mexico City (the only place in Mexico where same-sex nuptials are legal), and to honeymoon.

Their return tickets to Portland were booked through Seattle, where they went through U.S. immigration and customs on Feb. 13.

Customs officers initially denied Guzman's entry to the United States because she lacked a nonimmigrant visa, the kind usually issued to a U.S. citizen's spouse who wants to live here, Sanders said.

After hearing the couple's story, the custom officers relented and allowed Guzman to enter the country on her still-valid tourist visa. But she will be required to leave the country by March 16, Sanders said.

Seattle immigration attorney Andre Olivie has had clients who are part of a binational same-sex couple. When they say they want to live together in the United States, he recommends that they don't marry. Unmarried same-sex couples have more options for remaining in the country than those who marry. For instance, the noncitizen may be able stay in the country on a tourist visa, work visa or student visa.

Marriage may signal that a person intends to remain in the country permanently and reduces the chance of being approved for any of those temporary visas, Olivie said.

In some cases, same-sex spouse immigration cases have been administratively closed by the Department of Homeland Security because of the uncertain future of the Defense of Marriage Act. "Administrative closure" is a court order that removes the immigration case from the court's calendar of hearings because the case is considered a "low enforcement priority," according to the Justice Department. Same-sex marriage, now legal in nine states, is one of the factors that may be considered.

Sanders and Guzman said they are doing everything they can to receive permission for Guzman to remain in the country. They are staying with friends in Portland while they try to figure out what to do. They said they are looking for an immigration attorney who specializes in the issues specific to binational same-sex couples, to help them through the process.

"We hope this can be resolved very soon and that we can start living a more normal life, rather than having to fight for our very existence together," Sanders said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.