Marriage And Citizenship
7:42 am
Fri February 15, 2013

Gay Couples See New Hope For Immigration Benefits

Ken Thompson and Otts Bolisay at their home in Seattle.
Credit Liz Jones / KUOW

If you want to marry someone from another country, and you’re a US citizen, chances are your spouse could also gain citizenship through marriage. That is, if the marriage is between a man and a woman.  This path to citizenship is not available to gay couples because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Next month, the US Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to this federal law. It’s a case Seattle resident Otts Bolisay is anxious to watch unfold.

In 2007, Bolisay faced a dread that had crept closer for months, then weeks, then days. Time was up on his immigration visa to work in Seattle. After 19 years in the US, he’d made friends and found a good job. He’d also met someone he wanted to spend his life with, Ken Thompson. They’d been together about six years when the visa deadline hit.

So, Bolisay boarded a plane for his home-country, the Bahamas. It’s a place he describes as deeply homophobic. Thompson went for the first couple weeks, as they figured out their future. Bolisay remembers how tough it was to say goodbye, before Thompson returned to Seattle.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a panic attack,” Bolisay said. “I’ve never had a panic attack. I felt hot and dizzy and I couldn’t breathe. Inside, I knew that I wanted to say ‘don’t go, don’t go, please don’t go.’”

Thompson says if he’d know that at the time, he would’ve stayed. But instead he followed the plan for him to return to Seattle for a while, then later take an extended leave from his job and return to the Bahamas.

They refer to that time, five years ago, as their exile. It lasted a year before Bolisay returned to Seattle on another work visa. He works at One America, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights.

"We'll be leaving the country again without any clear way to return unless laws or other things change."

Now, once again, time is running out on Bolisay’s visa. It expires in 2014. “As far as we can tell at the moment, we’ll be leaving the country again without any clear way to return unless laws or other things change between now and then,” said Thompson.

On a recent Friday evening, Bolisay is in their kitchen chopping veggies while Ken rolls out pizza dough. They make this dinner together at least once a week.

They bought this house last summer after long discussions about the looming visa deadline. Saying yes to the house was a major deal for Bolisay. For years, he’s resisted putting down deeper roots here. Whether it’s getting a cat or making a new friend, the questions would always nag at him: “Sometimes it’s, why bother? Or should I do this? Or what happens when I have to leave? It’s not if, it’s when.”

While they make dinner, Thompson brings up another huge life decision they agonized about: adopting a child together. Ultimately, Bolisay said he just didn’t feel right bringing a child into their limbo. “I think that ship has sailed, but I do think about how it might have been,” Bolisay said.

Sometimes reminders of “what could have been” are hard for them to escape. Bolisay and Thompson both have brothers in Seattle who also fell in love with someone from another country. Bolisay’s brother, also from the Bahamas, married a woman here who’s a US citizen. Thompson’s brother married a Guatemalan woman who was easily able to emigrate here and become a citizen.

This route to a permanent life here is not open to Bolisay. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the government only recognizes marriages between a man and a woman.

Bolisay’s brother has applied for a family-based visa for him, but the wait can be long. They’ve researched moving to Canada, the Bahamas, or any other country where they could stay for good. But problems always cropped up with securing a job or permanent status for both of them. Plus, Bolisay said, Seattle is where they’ve made a life. “As rainy and gloomy as this place is, this is where I am now. That’s why we want to stay -- it’s home.”

Despite the setbacks, Bolisay and Thompson see new reason to hope their immigration struggles will soon end -- two reasons, in fact. One is DOMA. In March, the US Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to this federal law. If it’s overturned, all married couples would have the same federal benefits with things like taxes, health care and immigration.

The second possibility is connected to comprehensive immigration reform. Momentum is building in the other Washington for legislation sometime this year. President Obama has said he wants it to include equal treatment for gay partners and families.

“I seriously doubt that those kinds of provisions are going to be in any bill that passes,” said Gaylen Carey, a spokesman with the National Association of Evangelicals. The organization is part of a growing coalition of faith groups that are backing immigration reform. But their position on same-sex marriage puts them at odds with Obama’s proposal.

"Whether or how to redefine families ... an immigration bill is not the place to do that."

Carey declined to say whether any provisions for gay partners would dampen support from his group. However, he thinks it would derail agreement in Congress on an immigration bill.

“Whether or how to redefine families, that’s a very fundamental issue that our country is addressing,” Carey said. “An immigration bill, which is already contentious in its own right, is not the place to do that. So, our council to the members of Congress would be to not to try to tackle both those things at once.”

During the year Bolisay spent in the Bahamas, he and Thompson would video chat every day to try to stay connected across thousands of miles and three time zones. Thompson also documented their days apart in a video diary he calls their Exile Journal. The last entry is from September 2008, on day 366, the day before Bolisay returned to Seattle.

It’s was a reunion they realize many couples like them never get. They feel lucky they’ve had the money and family support to jump through countless legal hoops to stay together. Now, they just hope their Exile Journal remains a part of their past, with the final entry well behind them.