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Helping those whose love knows no bounds Local attorney navigates green card process for same-sex couples

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Above image credit: Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan in exile, 1985. Their decades long fight for marriage and immigration equality is the subject of the documentary "Limited Partnership." (Photo courtesy of Rachel Waters)
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3 minute read

When same-sex couples call immigration attorney Angela Williams, they often ask her if she’s OK working with a gay or lesbian couple.

“I always say, ‘Yes I am, and I’m sorry that you have to ask me that,’” Williams said.

Since the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down in 2013, Williams has helped around 20 same-sex binational couples successfully navigate the immigration process.

In fact, the first same-sex couple to have their Adjustment Status Interview in the state of Missouri were Williams’ clients.

Williams will be talking about the challenges facing same-sex binational couples this Saturday at a free screening of the new documentary “Limited Partnership.”

The film follows the love story of Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan, the first gay couple to have their green card application denied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the 1970s. In the denial letter the USCIS wrote, ”You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”

Before Saturday’s event, we talked with Williams about what challenges same-sex couples face when it comes to immigration, as well as her hopes for the future.

How is applying for a green card different for same-sex couples?

“Special things that I have found that are more of an issue with same-sex cases and less of issue with other cases are things dealing with family and relationships. One of the things they like to ask in the interview is, ‘Have you met each other’s families?’ That is generally seen as something that means that you have a legitimate relationship, (but) that is a tricky situation for many same-sex couples for religious, cultural or ‘my family does not like gay people’ reasons.

“In some cases, they have had to go to great lengths to hide who they are from their community and their family, and so how they prove that they have a legitimate relationship is difficult. I represented a couple who were Muslim, and that was very tricky because they couldn’t come out (to) their family.”

Tell me about the first same-sex immigration case you worked on.

“The Windsor Decision (which struck down DOMA) was June 26, and we filed (the green card application) on July 7 or 10, I think. And then the interview was in October, and it was approved the same day. I was really happy for them … For years, I had had to tell (same-sex couples) that I can’t help you, because of this stupid law … So, personally, it was extremely gratifying to finally be able to say to people, ‘Yes I can help you,’ and to know that now anybody that comes into my office, if I can’t help it’s for one of the other 10,000 reasons that I can’t help you in immigration, because there are a lot. I mean, the deck is so stacked against you in so many ways, they don’t need this one reason that is totally arbitrary and unfair.”

What are some of things that have surprised you in the two years you’ve been helping LGBT couples through this process?

I am surprised by the number of people that still don’t know that you can apply for your spouse. The Windsor Decision was in 2013, and, of course, I’m embedded in this, and it was like the biggest thing ever. But when you are living with a person who is undocumented, your whole life becomes an exercise in hiding who you are because not only in some cases do they have to hide their sexuality, but they also have to hide that fact that they are undocumented. So they are in two closets. Many times with undocumented people they are afraid to even approach an attorney even just to get information …. I encourage people to at least come, make an appointment and talk to an attorney. The worst that happens is that they say they can’t help you, and you’re in the same position that you were, but the best that happens is that they say, ‘Yes I can fix that.’”

What still needs to be done to help same-sex couples navigating immigration?

“Immigration takes a long time in some cases. So even though the Windsor Decision was in June of 2013, we’re just coming up on two years. We’re in a very early stages still of figuring out how well this is implemented for some of the overseas consulates …. If you’re applying (for a green card) for your fiancé, for example, who is from Yemen, where it’s punishable by death if you’re gay, I can think of some reasons why you should be allowed to not have to go to Yemen to have that application looked at. So I think that there may be some things that we see come out of this particularly because of the issues gay people face all over the world.”

What are you hopes for the future?

“Everybody is waiting for the marriage equality case that (the Supreme Court) just heard a few days ago. I will be very surprised if it comes down any other way other than pro-marriage equality, or a slightly watered-down version of it. I think the tide has turned in the United States and that there are firmly four justices on the side of marriage equality, three that are not, and then there’s Justice Kennedy, who in every other decision related to gay rights in the last 10 years has ended up on the side of gay rights.

“My hope for the future is that these cases stop being specialty cases and are just a case. That same-sex couples don’t have to find a LGBT-friendly lawyer, that they find a lawyer that is competent and can help them, and that they don’t have to ask me when they call, ‘We are a same-sex couple, is that okay with you?’ It just breaks my heart that they ask me that, but until then I’m happy to answer, ‘No it doesn’t bother me and I’m sorry you have to ask that.’”

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