Big firms join quest for same-sex couple immigration reform

December 10, 2012: 3:24 PM ET

Companies like Pfizer and Goldman Sachs have gotten behind a new bill that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for citizenship.

The Wilson-Eriksson family

The Wilson-Eriksson family (from left to right): Sofie, Maya, Angie, David

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

FORTUNE -- When Gordon Stewart met his partner Renato over a decade ago, he never imagined he'd have to leave his country of birth for his relationship. But since 2005, Stewart, a Pfizer vice president, has lived in London and commuted regularly to New York because same-sex partners of U.S. citizens can't immigrate to the U.S. the way that heterosexual spouses can.

Pfizer moved Stewart to London because the couple could live there together legally, after U.S. officials refused to renew Renato's student visa halfway through his planned four years at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. "It takes a significant commitment from both Pfizer and me to maintain this relationship," says Stewart. "If I didn't have this opportunity, I would've had to choose between my partner and my career."

Now, Pfizer (PFE) is one of a few dozen large employers, including Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs (GS), and Medtronic (MDT), that are pushing to change immigration law through the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would let U.S. citizens and permanent residents sponsor their same-sex partners for citizenship. The bill has attracted 143 co-sponsors in the House and 30 senators, and should benefit from the momentum on both immigration and LGBT rights coming out of last month's elections, argues Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a national nonprofit that advocates for equal immigration rights for LGBT people.

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"The timeline is really dramatically speeded up by the attention to immigration reform that came out of the election," as well as state ballot initiatives in favor of LGBT rights, Tiven says. "We're seeing an enormous amount of energy on the Hill and a lot of optimism."

Broad immigration reform is seen as a top priority for the White House and Congress starting in January, when newly elected lawmakers take office. In November's elections, Maryland and Maine residents voted to legalize gay marriage, but the federal Defense of Marriage Act supersedes state law when it comes to immigration. Minnesota voters defeated an anti-gay marriage measure, and voters in Wisconsin, New York, and Rhode Island elected openly gay national lawmakers.

The proposed immigration reform wouldn't touch the issue of gay marriage, making it easier to win support in Congress -- and from the employers who are losing talented executives to more LGBT-friendly countries like Argentina, Australia, Israel, Norway, South Africa, and the U.K.

"From a business perspective, current law results in a loss of talent for global companies," Tiven says. "Both immigration and LGBT equality are high priority and bottom-line issues for those companies."

A Williams Institute study claims that there are at least 40,000 families in the U.S. headed by same-sex couples where one partner isn't a green card holder. This estimate is likely lower than the actual number because of the difficulty in tallying both immigrants and LGBT people, says Tiven.

When children enter the equation

The issue becomes especially critical when it comes to same-sex couples raising children together. Ernst & Young partner Angie Wilson, 41, and her Sweden-born wife Sofie Eriksson, 40, felt fortunate that Eriksson found an employer willing to sponsor her for citizenship eight years ago. But post-September 11 policy changes slowed the process, so they decided to go ahead and start a family despite the risk that something -- a job loss, illness or bureaucratic snafu -- would separate them.

"It was stressful at times," says Wilson, whose daughter Maya is 5 and son David is 3. "If something happened with her position, we would have to uproot our entire lives and move to Canada or Sweden or something outside the United States."

The family faced more limited choices than a similar family headed by heterosexual parents. Eriksson had to notify the government every time she relocated, and couldn't travel at certain times. Moreover, during Eriksson's two pregnancies, she did not have the option to quit her accounting jobto stay home with her infants; her ability to stay in the U.S. legally was tied to her job until her green card finally came through last year.

"She would've wanted to stay home at different points in her career. It would've been nice to have the option," Wilson says. "When we moved to California and I took the position of partner, it would've been really nice if she hadn't had to work at that time, because she was pregnant with David, and Maya was little."

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At least 25,000 children live in families headed by bi-national same-sex parents, according to Ty Cobb, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign. "There's a big family dynamic of children involved that makes it extremely complicated," Cobb says.

A 2008 Feldman Group survey found that 54% of Americans support letting a foreign born same-sex partner of a U.S. citizen become a citizen as well. To critics who worry a change in the law could be abused, Cobb says LGBT couples would be subject to the same harsh penalties for fraud as under current law. "It's putting LGBT families on the same footing," he says.

Weighing tough choices

Like Pfizer's Gordon Stewart, Ernst & Young partner Adlai Goldberg lives overseas because his Indonesian partner Ewie Kusnadi can't legally immigrate to the U.S. They've been together for 13 years and in 2005 held a personal commitment ceremony for 130 friends and family on the beaches of Bali.

As their parents age, Goldberg, 47, and Kusnadi, 41, are increasingly aware of the limitations that U.S. immigration law places on their ability to live where they choose while also caring for and visiting family around the world. For instance, those who come to the U.S. on a student or tourist visa and stay longer than allowed can't leave the country and subsequently return, without significant obstacles.

"My partner is not interested in moving to the United States in any illegal status or on a temporary basis. It's important for him to be able to travel back to Indonesia to take care of his family," says Goldberg. "We don't know what we're going to do."

Five years ago, when Goldberg's grandmother's health began to fade, these dilemmas came into focus. If the law changed, he would move with Kusnadi back to Denver to help his parents care for her.

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The couple has moved for work four times, from Indonesia, to the Ukraine, Russia, and Switzerland. Goldberg says he can't understand why U.S. law still prevents companies from seamlessly moving LGBT employees in and out of the country.

"It's not about marriage, it's about needing to move and creating opportunity," he says. "I struggle, from an American perspective, why so many other countries in the world get it and the United States can't."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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