Binational couples in Vt. await DOMA ruling

Monday April 15, 2013

MONTPELIER -- Stowe residents Jason Kirchick and Christian Pinillos are worried not only about their future working at a struggling ski lodge but also about their marriage.

Now that the lodge has fallen on hard times, the men's jobs are in jeopardy and with his job, so is Pinillos' immigration status. The Peru native is in the U.S. on a work visa, which he would lose if he's unemployed.

The pair, who married in Massachusetts in 2011, is among many Vermont same-sex couples and others around the country anxiously awaiting the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

If the couple were a man and a woman, Kirchick, a U.S. citizen, would be able to sponsor his spouse's application for legal immigration status. Because they're both men, they're blocked from that path by DOMA, which denies federal recognition to same-sex couples.

"If the laws such as DOMA were struck down, I could sponsor him as my spouse and get a green card for him," Kirchick said in an interview.

"This is a Supreme Court ruling that's going to impact the rest of our lives," Kirchick said. "If they don't strike it down and Christian is still in jeopardy of losing his position ... we're out of options, and that's really tough."

Pinillos said he would face two immediate problems if he were laid off: Trying to find a new job given current economic conditions is tough enough, but many employers are also reluctant to hire someone whose immigration status is uncertain.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has a legislative remedy in mind if the court doesn't strike down DOMA.

Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is lead sponsor of a bill that would allow U.S.-born partners in same-sex couples to sponsor their foreign-born partners for immigration visas.

With the Senate actively considering comprehensive immigration reform, Leahy said he may have an opportunity now to get something passed he's been pushing for years. "I think it should be part of the larger immigration package," he said of his bill, the Uniting American Families Act.

Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda also will be watching and waiting to see how the Supreme Court rules. The Dummerston couple -- Herbert is U.S.-born, Ueda is from Japan -- received a letter in December 2011 saying Ueda's visa had expired and she needed to leave the country by the end of the year.

Ueda defied that order. Later, she got a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services saying the government had "deferred action" in enforcing her deportation and would revisit the case in May 2014.

"I feel very positive. I'm optimistic," said Ueda, a 57-year-old graphic designer. While it's unclear exactly what impact a ruling that overturned DOMA might have, she said she is confident it would lead eventually to permanent residency, a big improvement from her uncertain status now.

Nancy Wasserman will be watching closely as well. The former Montpelier city councilor moved to Ottawa, Ontario, last year to be with her same-sex partner because U.S. federal laws, unlike those in Canada, meant she and her Canadian spouse had "no clear path" to live permanently as a couple in Vermont.

Asked if she and her spouse might have ended up living in Vermont if U.S. federal laws were as welcoming as Canada's, Wasserman said, "There would have been a discussion. ... I don't know the answer to that."

But they didn't have that choice. A change in U.S. laws would mean "my Social Security benefits could go to my partner if I die first," she said. "It would change the nature of what happens if you happen to fall in love with someone from another country."


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