Quite simply, Ben Anders feels like he is being exiled.
The Salt Lake City resident and Coast Guard veteran can’t marry his partner, Mattia Lumaca, who is originally from Italy, forcing Lumaca back to his native country after more than four years. Anders can’t live without the love of his life, so he’s leaving family and friends to go to a foreign country without being able to speak the language or any way of supporting himself.
“I hate it. If we were a straight couple, we’d get married and we’d have nothing to worry about,” Anders said. “I’m being forced out of the country I love, the country I fought for, because I am in love with a man.”
Anders, also known as Bunny with the Utah Cyber Sluts comedy drag troupe, met Lumaca while he was visiting the U.S. on a ski trip. The two hit it off immediately and Lumaca eventually moved to Utah on a student visa that would allow him to study, but not work. Lumaca already had an education and a very successful career.
“I always thought everything would work out. I couldn’t stand the idea of not being with him, so I came over,” Lumaca said.
In addition to attending class at Salt Lake Community College, Lumaca cares for Anders, who has severe heart problems. But because Lumaca cannot legally work, the money is running out and he can’t afford to go to school anymore. Since he is not registered for the spring semester he will lose his visa in January.
“I can’t be here illegally. That’s just not who I am. I can’t break the law. But I can’t afford to keep going to school without working and I’ve tried everything else. I am being forced out of the country and Ben is being forced out with me,” Lumaca said.
If Lumaca were to stay in the country illegally, Anders would be violating a new Utah law that prohibits the harboring of an undocumented immigrant and he could face prosecution for allowing his partner to live with him.
“I can’t imagine life without him. I’m terrified to leave my home. But I can’t live without him. He saved my life. I can’t be without him,” Anders said. “If we were straight, the problem would’ve been solved with the signing of the marriage papers. But because we’re gay, we’re treated differently… I just wish people could see that we love each other and deserve the same respect straight people have.”
While there are some temporary solutions for some couples, there are no permanent solutions for Anders and Lumaca, said Steve Ralls, the communications director at Immigration Equality.
“LGBT families are still not recognized as families for federal immigration purposes. LGBT Americans who have partners from abroad have no legal recourse for keeping their families together,” Ralls said.
The anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay marriage, is being challenged in the federal court, but the process could take years, Ralls said.
In the meantime, gay couples are trying to find solutions, some of them illegal.
Rhonda Morales and Juan Martinez (names have been changed) are much like other young, married couples in Salt Lake City. The pair have two Yorkshire terriers that occupy most of their time and they enjoy going out with friends and watching old movies, such as My Fair Lady, Gypsy, and A Chorus Line.
“It was actually his love for musicals and his impeccable taste in clothing that first tipped me off that Juan was gay,” Morales said. “He had just finished a Mormon mission, so he denied it, but I tried to nudge him out of the closet.”
Martinez is originally from Argentina and served a two-year mission for the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City.
“I loved it here so much I knew I had to stay here for the rest of my life. I love Argentina, but I couldn’t go back,” Martinez said. “I don’t have any close family in Argentina anymore. I didn’t want to go back to be alone.”
He returned to the U.S. two weeks after he finished his mission and began studying to be an accountant at the University of Utah. After he dropped out of school because he could no longer afford tuition, he was facing deportation.
“It was such a circus. I was applying for citizenship, green cards, whatever I could do to stay in the country. I was granted a temporary work visa, but it was going to expire and I would be faced with the same fight again. And that’s where Rhonda came in,” Martinez said.
The two began dating after one of Martinez’s former mission companions introduced them at a house party.
“It took about two dates for me to realize he was gay and it took about two more for him to admit it,” she said. “Seeing him so stressed about his situation, fighting to stay in the country just about broke my heart. I decided to do what I could to help.”
In June 2010, the weekend after Pride, without fanfare and without any family members or friends present, the two signed the documents to become a married couple and rented an apartment. Martinez applied for a resident alien card and after two years of marriage, in 2012, he can become a permanent resident.
“Technically, what we’re doing is fraud. It’s illegal and if we’re found out, we could both be in a lot of trouble,” Martinez said. “But marrying Rhonda was my last chance. Even if I found the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and we got married in Massachusetts, I could still be deported. The system is completely unfair.”
Being discovered is a constant worry for Martinez and Morales and staying abreast of all the policies and procedures, both on the federal and state levels, is an almost daily task.
In a recent reversal of procedure, the Obama administration announced deportations would be viewed on a case-by-case basis with a focus on deporting criminals. In 2010 more than 400,000 people were deported and even with the new policies, Homeland Security officials and other departments have discretion with who can be forced out of the country. There are more than 300,000 immigration cases that are pending and while the written policy is that people without a criminal past be low priority, the implementation of that policy is not always perfect.
“There is a real danger that gay couples and families are facing right now,” Ralls said. “This should be a very large concern for everyone with a heart, not just those involved in a bi-national relationship.”
Whether it’s discrimination from immigration officials or the inability to have marriage recognized by the federal government, gay couples face higher levels of difficulty, Ralls said.
For Alejandra Gonzalez, a 24-year-old Latina who identifies as bisexual, but tends to be more interested in women, the immigration policy affects her every day.
“I came here when I was three years old. My family is originally from Mexico, but I’ve never left the country since I got here. And if I am found out, they would send me to a country that is supposedly my home that I’ve never been to,” Gonzalez said.
Despite being more attracted to women, she’s chosen to date men because she sees a better future for herself with a man.
“I could get married to him and apply for citizenship,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve gone through every other possibility and tried everything else. I don’t know what else to do. But I worry that I would be marrying him for the citizenship and not because I love him.”
Whatever the situation may be, there’s inequality that is often ignored by elected officials, Ralls said.
Letting Congressional representatives and the Obama administration know that a more fair immigration policy is important is one of the first steps everyone can take, Ralls said. There are policies the Obama administration could enact without Congressional approval that would help bi-national couples, such as putting green card statuses on hold until a better marriage process is solidified.
“We need people to let our elected officials know that this is an issue that is affecting everyone,” Ralls said. “Call them. Email them. Facebook them. Do whatever it takes to make sure no more couple are broken up by the unjust policies.”
For more information about how to contact elected representatives, go to immigrationequalityactionfund.org.