Worlds Apart

"I have idealism in the face of a huge lie -- it's very American," says performance artist Tim Miller. He is standing on the sixth-floor veranda of a central Phoenix apartment building, but it seems more like he's hanging over the edge, clinging to that last shred of optimism as he counts down his remaining days as an American artist. Miller handles the pressure well. He is collected and humble, calm and articulate -- despite the fact that he's certainly pissed.

"America is fucked," he says as simply as if he's just ordered pastrami on rye. An hour ago Miller was standing naked on a stage in front of 200 people, talking about love, U.S. immigration policy, the constitutional lie about equality for all people and rimming, among other things. No need to mince words now. The idea that the U.S. government is not nice to gays is not news to this cocktail party attended mostly by gay men. He's preaching to the choir boys.

The stage he just exited was Miller's Phoenix performance of Glory Box, a one-man show about same-sex bi-national couples. Glory Box is an intensely personal account of Miller's struggle to keep his partner of six years, Alistair McCartney, from being deported from their home in California to Australia. The audience seemed sympathetic. The only ones shifting uncomfortably in their seats were probably the plainclothes police officers brought in because of death threats aimed at a local theater writer who previewed Miller's show. (Evidently, not everyone in Phoenix is sympathetic.) But the majority of audience members laughed at the right places, nodded in knowing agreement and gave the play a standing ovation. The collective sigh was one of relief at seeing a candid portrayal of an issue that is gaining recognition in the gay community and getting some attention in the straight press.

Many of the same faces in Miller's audience appeared at the first meeting of the Phoenix Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF) held last Saturday, a week after Miller's performance. Nearly 30 people gathered to discuss how to keep their loved ones in the country. LGIRTF points to refusal to allow marriage as one of the more obvious ways the U.S. government denies homosexuals their civil rights, citing more than 1,000 rights and privileges that are granted to heterosexual couples when they marry. In the case of same-sex bi-national couples, the most important right is citizenship -- and the ability to share it.

When a heterosexual person marries someone from another country, or, say, orders a bride from Russia, the Immigration and Naturalization Service grants residency to the foreigner. However, same-sex partners mean nothing to the INS because gay marriages are not legally recognized. In most cases, this leaves a gay person with a foreign partner two options: separation or exile.

For the couples at Saturday's meeting, neither of these options is attractive.

"We don't want to go to Canada. Our family is here," says Diane, a computer programmer from Phoenix. "But I'd like to wake up in the morning and feel safe that the next day we're not going to be separated."

Diane met her partner, Emola, while serving in the Peace Corps near Fiji in the South Pacific. It is difficult to get even a visitor's visa for people from Emola's island, but Diane's Peace Corps supervisor had a friend at the embassy who did them a favor. The couple initially settled in Hawaii, but when Emola's temporary visa expired, she was sent home within 24 hours. Diane holds back tears as she describes Emola's deportation.

"At first we thought life was going great," Diane says. "Twenty-four hours later, she was on a plane back to Fiji. Gone. We had just rented a new apartment in Hawaii. It was the most torture I'd ever been through, wondering if my girlfriend was coming back, or if I had to pack up and go to Fiji. After that happened, I never feel safe."

Emola is here now on a student visa. And once again, the clock is ticking.

Cee-Cee, from Costa Rica, is in a similar situation. She is here with her wife, Anne, on a student visa. They met Diane and Emola on a list-serve for gay international couples.

"It was nice to find someone in the same situation," Diane says. "We wondered, "Is there anyone else out there?'"

Cee-Cee and Anne exchanged wedding vows six months ago in Costa Rica, which also does not recognize the legality of gay marriages.

"When it comes to the law, when it comes to citizenship rights or taxes, we're as good as single," Cee-Cee says. "We cannot file joint taxes, we cannot claim each other as dependents, we cannot visit each other at the hospital. And if I have to go back to Costa Rica because my visa expires, then we will be separated again."

Both couples came to the LGIRTF meeting with the hope of learning new ways to stay together in the United States and meeting other couples in similar predicaments. This issue is still marginalized even within the gay rights movement, although gay rights activists estimate that 30,000 gay couples must contend with immigration issues. Many of their stories go unheard because they are forced to live underground.

Russell Ahr of the Phoenix INS says the agency doesn't keep track of how many homosexuals are deported annually. However, he does say seeking out same-sex couples is not a priority for the INS.

"There's a universe of deportable aliens out there," Ahr says. "What we are currently focusing on are criminal aliens."

At the meeting, Christopher Nugent, an immigration attorney and executive director of the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project, offered practical advice on how to survive as an undocumented person.

"You want to avoid any interaction with law enforcement to the best of your abilities," Nugent says.

For example, driving south of Phoenix is not recommended for the dark-skinned individuals in the audience who may be pulled over for what Nugent calls "driving while Mexican." Nugent also reminds people that if police stop them, they do not have to offer any information about their documentation status.

He outlined some of the loopholes in the law. Immigrants might seek asylum protection if their home country persecutes homosexuals, or they could try to find an employer to sponsor them for citizenship.

Cee-Cee was excited to meet William Calvo, another Costa Rican who says he was recently granted political asylum because he was able to prove that he feared persecution if sent home.

"I knew there was a good reason I came here today," Cee-Cee says.

The best possibility for bi-national, same-sex couples might be the Permanent Partners Immigration Act of 2000, introduced by Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat. This bill would provide same-sex couples virtually all the immigration rights that legal spouses enjoy. The bill defines "permanent partners" as people older than 18 who are involved in a lifelong committed relationship and are not eligible for marriage. This means heterosexual couples are not eligible for permanent partner status because they have the option to marry. The couple must be financially interdependent and provide testimony from friends and family about their relationship.

So far, no Arizona congressmen have endorsed the bill.

"That bill is our only hope," says Diane.

Thirteen other countries already recognize lesbian and gay couples for immigration purposes. They are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Eric Schmeltzer, press secretary for Nadler, says the bill may not stand a chance unless the Democrats take back Congress.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't heard right away," Schmeltzer says. "If you look at the Republican record on gay rights, it's pretty abysmal. And immigration doesn't seem to be one of their favorites, either."

Couples like Diane and Emola, Cee-Cee and Anne hope the United States will be added to this list soon. In the meantime, they are surviving on one salary, paying out-of-state tuition and living with the fear that they will be deported. They also realize that the passage of this legislation is a long shot, with the GOP domination in Congress and the possibility of a Republican president on the horizon.

"I figure we should start staking out real estate in Canada if Bush is elected," Anne says.