For countless millions of people in America and around the globe, Lady Liberty and her torch light the way to freedom and equality. For gay and lesbian bi-national couples, the famed statue, with a cold and stern face, seems more like a heartless sentry guarding the nation’s borders and ripping lives apart.

Ryan Wilson, a Columbia resident and a sexual health coordinator at the University of South Carolina, first met his partner, Shehan Welihindha, at the 2008 National Lesbian and Gay Task Force Creating Change conference in Denver.

“We met in the very first session on the very first day,” Wilson told Q-Notes. “We ended up sitting at the same table because we were from the same region. Shehan was working at the University of Arkansas.”

They’ve been in a committed, mostly long-distance relationship ever since.

Both Wilson, 25, and Welihindha, 27, have earned masters degrees in higher education and made their careers in the world of academia. Wilson grew up in Baltimore and moved to South Carolina to attend college. Born in Sri Lanka, Welihindha attended middle school and high school in Dubai and came to the U.S. for college.

Their divergent life stories have created a tense and uncertain future for the couple. Faced with deportation after his graduation, Welihindha has been forced to go back to school, this time earning an MBA.

Wilson, a natural-born U.S. citizen, said it is hard knowing his partner is faced with obstacles he’s never had to experience.

“If it weren’t for immigration, I wouldn’t be here,” Wilson said. His great-grandmother fled World War I Germany to come to the U.S. “My family is an immigrant family; both sides aren’t native to America.”

Wilson can’t help but feel as though his government has betrayed him and his loved one.

“It is hard for me to see what Shehan is going through. There’s this promise of America being a better place to come to and all that it offers,” Wilson said. “We say all that, but when you actually get here we say get out, especially if you are gay. Then, we really don’t care.”

Ryan Wilson and Shehan Welihindha face an uncertain future together, if Shehan is forced to leave the country.
Ryan Wilson and Shehan Welihindha face an uncertain future together, if Shehan is forced to leave the country.

Welihindha’s brother and sister also came to America for college. Both married and received their green cards. His brother is now a U.S. citizen.

“I’m really happy for my siblings,” Welihindha said. “I’m glad they were able to meet someone they love and want to spend the rest of their lives with. But, I feel it is a little unfair — I definitely feel discriminated against. I can have a relationship with Ryan and we’ve been together for going on two years now, but I can’t have a relationship that is recognized by South Carolina, North Carolina or the federal government.”

There’s no argument that discrimination against same-sex couples in current immigration law most affects his life, but Welihindha thinks there are much bigger problems with the system.

“I think that sometimes there is a hint of hypocrisy in the way things are presented,” he said. “You’ve got a view of America as a nation of immigrants and everyone here except Native Americans are immigrants. That is what has made America, but we also have an immigration system in place where all these systems don’t work with each other. There is an injustice here and it is one of the reasons why we need comprehensive immigration reform.”

Tony Snell, a businessman who also makes his home in Columbia, and his Asian-born partner will soon find themselves facing a similar situation.

Tony’s partner — who has requested to remain anonymous — is a research assistant and student. As of now, he’s living, working and studying legally in the U.S. under a student visa.

The Uniting American Families Act

U.S. Senate: S. 424
U.S. House: H.R. 1024

Carolinas Sponsors:
Brad Miller (NC-13)
David Price (NC-4)

What is the Uniting American Families Act?
The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA, and formerly known as the Permanent Partners Immigration Act or “PPIA”) is a stand-alone bill addressing the rights of LGBT American citizens to sponsor their same-sex partner for immigration benefits to the U.S., similar to policies and laws allowing heterosexual couples the same privilege through marriage.

What other bills address this issue?
A House bill entitled the Reuniting Families Act addresses this issue as one of seven important immigration issues. A bill with a broader scope, a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) also addresses the issue.

How is a permanent relationship defined?
According to the UAFA, a person in a permanent partnership must be able to show (a) they are in a relationship with another adult in which both parties intend a life-long commitment; (b) financial interdependence; (c) exclusivity; (d) an inability to marry in a manner that is recognized by the U.S. government under the Immigration and Nationality Act; and (e) the absence of a close blood relationship.

Is a permanent partnership equivalent to marriage?
No. A permanent partnership is not equivalent to marriage. The UAFA does not seek to add same-sex couples to the category of spouse. The Act would create a new category of relationship.

What about fraud?
Fraud will not of any higher likelihood with the addition of a new relationship category. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is charged with enforcing U.S. immigration laws and will be able to apply the same standards it applies to marriage when determining whether a permanent partnership is genuine. Applicants for permanent partnerships would face the same rigorous interview process as a married couple seeking similar benefits.

— Compiled by Q-Notes staff as adapted from UAFA FAQs by Immigration Equality.

“He still has school for a year and a half,” Snell said. “But, you never know with the economy the way it is. There is volatility there. There are no guarantees.”

This uncertain and volatile future makes creating and maintaining a relationship harder than it should be, Snell said. “There are no guarantees with a relationship and it is even more difficult to have a relationship when you know it could be a possible roller-coaster ride.”

Snell regrets he and his lover aren’t given the same opportunities once afforded to his parents. His father, an American citizen, met his Spanish mother 50 years ago.

“They met and married in Spain and came back to the U.S. to raise a family,” he said. “I’m only asking for the same thing; just something as simple as that. How does that harm anybody or change anything here? It only impacts us and our lives.”

Snell is passionate about the basic unfairness exhibited by the nation’s immigration law and policy.

“It is almost as if your country is turning its back on you,” he said. “You want to be patriotic and want to love your country, but the country turns its back on you…You aren’t the one turning away from your country, but your country is pushing you out and pushing you away from the one you love and care for. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The reality of the immigration debate is hitting home for Wilson and Welihindha right now. Just one day before he was to embark on a plane flight to Dubai, where he’d eventually be forced to return to Sri Lanka, Welihindha received another student visa. But, the stability won’t last — in as little as a year’s time, and no more than two, his student visa will expire.

The couple has several options — none of them too appealing. They could travel to Welihindha’s native Sri Lanka, a land and society he left at age 11, and in which Wilson would be completely lost. Or, they could move apart, with a 12-hour time difference fuel a possible slow death to their relationship.

The most unappealing and dangerous option is to move to Dubai — where Welihindha spent his teenage years and where his parents still live. In a nation where homosexuality is still punished by
imprisonment, deportation or death, a move to Dubai is far from practical.

Their final, and perhaps most realistic, option is migration to Canada. America’s northern neighbor recognizes marriage for same-sex couples, as well as immigration rights and privileges.

Of course, their lives and choices would be much easier if U.S. law recognized permanent partnerships between same-sex couples.

Immigration Equality, a national organization working to secure rights and benefits for LGBT immigrants, hopes to have the issue addressed soon. They’re pouring their resources into supporting three separate bills — Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) comprehensive immigration reform bill, the stand-alone Uniting American Families Act and the seven-point Reuniting American Families Act.

Steve Ralls, Immigration Equality’s communications director, said rights and recognition for same-sex bi-national couples is on the top of his group’s agenda, as Schumer’s comprehensive reform bill is being fast-tracked along the legislative calendar.

“The next few weeks will be critical in our work to include gay and lesbian couples in comprehensive immigration reform,” Ralls told Q-Notes.

Schumer’s large multi-issue bill will address immigration reform “from the top to the bottom,” Ralls said.

Ralls expects South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will be among leading GOP lawmakers working on the legislation. Immigration Equality is working with constituents and reaching out to legislators.

“What is most critical is bringing along some of the GOP lawmakers…to ensure they are not opposed to our inclusion,” Ralls said. “Immigration reform is a sticky issue in general, and it will need Republican support to pass. The political reality is that it will not pass along partisan lines.”

Both Wilson and Snell say they’ll work to get their representatives on board with the immigration reform. Snell hasn’t met with any of his elected officials yet, but Wilson has already written letters to both his senators and all of the Palmetto State’s U.S. House members.

“I sent them a photo of us as a couple, wrote about the UAFA and its sister bills,” Wilson said. “I was pleading for their support.”

Activists are hopeful that LGBT couples will be included in forthcoming immigration reform. Four reform bills are currently circulating in the House and Senate — three of them include relief for gay couples. That’s incredible chances for change.

Ralls said President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders have come out in support of the inclusive reforms.

“The White House has been steadfast in its support from the campaign trail through today of including us in any immigration reform effort,” Ralls said, noting many of the key players in the immigration debate have been LGBT-supportive in the past.

But, if meaningful reform doesn’t happen within the next year or two, the debate really won’t mean much to Welihindha and Wilson, and Snell and his partner. For these two couples, and thousands across the country, time is running out.

Welihindha said it is past time for America to live up to its global reputation. “Most of the world has this one view of America — that it is the land of the free — but when you actually get here, sometimes that only applies to certain people. It doesn’t apply to everyone.”

Family Impact

The denial of equal immigration rights to partners of gay and lesbian Americans is felt around the globe.

Jill Story, an elder in the Metropolitan Community Church, was once forced to return to England when her visa wasn’t renewed. If she had been allowed to marry her partner, Story could have stayed in the U.S. and continued her work with the denomination.

In September 2008, the Triangle’s Independent Weekly published a piece by Merrill Wolf, profiling area bi-national couples affected by the disparate immigration laws and policies.

Tamara Fetters and her partner Noreen Fagan, a citizen of the African country Zambia, were forced to move from Carrboro to Ottawa. The soccer moms’ move to Canada uprooted their family from their jobs, schools and community.

The same happened to Glen Tig and his Thai partner Chitpol Siddhivarn. Both men moved to Canada and have since gained citizenship there.

Numbers from the 2000 census suggest that many bi-national, same-sex coupes are raising children. It is estimated that almost half or more of the 36,000-plus bi-national same-sex households in the nation include children.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

19 replies on “Liberty’s empty promise”

  1. Thank you Matt, and all at Q-Notes for this article. We need The Uniting American Families Act and The Reuniting Families Act included in comprehensive immigration reform, so that families will no longer be ripped apart.

    If you’re reading this and you’re from the Carolinas, PLEASE call your Senators and Representative and tell them you want them to support truly comprehensive immigration reform that included ALL families – including LGBT families. Call them today!

  2. My partner of 14 years and I had to move to his native country of France 3 years ago when his employer closed the business which sponsored his US work visa. We had no other choice or options other than separating. As an American who does not speak French, it has been impossible to find a job so we barely get by on one income. Having to leave your family, friends, career, and your home just to stay together is wrong and very cruel. This move has destroyed a wonderful life we spent years building, our life is on hold permanently. Please write your congressman and senators and ask them to co-sponsor UAFA and ask them to include gay couples in comprehensive immigration reform.

  3. Thanks for the article! My partner and I face the same issue. I have had to take early retirement from my university job of 27 years so we can be together. We will be leaving the country in October to live in Europe together for six months and then return to our U.S. home and HOPE my partner will be allowed in for six months…

  4. I’m happy to see that the word is finally getting out about the injustices in our immigration system. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Portugal and became proud, hard-working, U.S. citizens who contributed to the common good all their lives. My partner and I have known each other 10 years but for the last 5 we have been apart because he was forced to return to his country even though he is well-qualified to work here and contribute to society here. We hope for the passage of the UAFA bill and an immigration policy that recognizes all families.

  5. Excellent article! The failure of US Immigration Law to provide for permanent partners of same-gender couples is a disgrace and should be remedied immediately. The UAFA bill languishes in congress because of indifference and fear on the elected members. The are so afraid of expending political capital that they prefer allowing this shameful situations to continue. Senators such as Diane Feinstein, a staunch Democrat from California and a powerful leader in the senate has refused thus far to sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill claims concerns of potential for fraud, should the bill become law. Can it be that other countries such as Brazil have been able to figure out to write, enact and put into action this kind of law effectively but the United States cannot? Or could it be a lame excuse? Congratulations to Q-Notes for running such an important, informative and timely article. And my best wishes to Ryan and Shehan and the tens of thousands of other couples caught in the no-man’s land caused by this inequity in US law.

  6. Great article! Thanks for publishing this, and including details on UAFA. The immigration discrimination affects not only immigration, but also travel. My partner is currently unable to get a tourist visa. Although we have been together 3.5 years and are family, the US does not recognize us as family, and considers him to have no family here. He is not interested in studying or working here. I want him to visit the US and meet my friends and family. Is that so much to ask? Please help us pass UAFA!

  7. Excellent article – thank you for it. However, I would like to add an important idea about our numbers.

    The 36,000 2000 census-based number is outdated & was always an undercount. Only certain couples living in the States self-reported; excluded were those exiled, separated, fearing deportation, or together temporarily. A more realistic figure of almost 100,000 was recently estimated based on the exact same assumptions, percentages, and original sources that were used in the 2000 study with additional assumptions applied for those excluded exiles, separated, fearing deportation, etc. and it can be seen at the following blog:

    Most LGBTs are unaware of our plight yet any LGBT could conceivable join our ranks. Upheaval & chaos awaits LGBTs who find love with foreign nationals. This reality should be felt as the insult it is to all LGBTs who don’t realize their freedom to love is circumscribed by law. Use of the 36,000 figure should include an advisory: it was an undercount a decade ago, it is even less reliable now. It does not accurately reflect bi-national couples in the population nor does it honestly reflect the extent of the potential for harm to conceivable…anyone. It happened to me and my partner and neither one of us could have imagined ourselves in this situation yet it now defines our lives and hold our future hostage.

    If you are reading this, please go to and find your elected officials (your Representative in the House and your two Senators) and write to them urging them to co-sign the UAFA (HR 1024/S 424) to add the “permanent partners” language to the U.S. immigration law so that LGBT Americans can sponsor their partners and same sex bi-national couples can live together here in the U.S. This is no more than the equality that 19 other countries extend to their LGBT citizens.

    Thank you!

  8. Fantastic journalism!- I’ve lived in the UK for seven years and am longing to come back with my partner (to be with large family) and finally move on with our lives (instead of incessantly waiting)! In all that time, I was able to finish two graduate degrees. We need equality!

  9. Thank you for covering this important issue. I am also in a bi-national relationship and need UAFA, RAF and CIR (comprehensive immigration reform) to pass, and soon. I ask everyone that reads this to take five minutes and contact your local representative and senator and ask for their support of these measures. My partner and I cannot spend our lives “together” hoping for (at max) six months at a time. Unless immigration reform happens, I will close my business, destroy the life and livelihood I have spent years creating and (hopefully) relocate to Canada with my partner, where we can be together and begin to start all over. I am 51 years old. Is it too much to ask that people that love one another can be together — LEGALLY? Please support UAFA, RAF and CIR. We need everyone’s help if these measures are to pass…

  10. I am in the same situation as others who have left comments. I am in the U.S. My partner is in Slovakia. We have been together for four years and want to make a life together here, in the U.S.

    Our great irony is that I am from Massachusetts, a state that would allow us to legally marry. However, as current immigration law wouldn’t recognize our marriage for immigration purposes, my partner would still have to apply for a student visa (as she does not hold a college degree, she is not even eligible for a work visa). BUT, when the embassy in Slovakia, reviewing her visa application, saw that she was married to a U.S. citizen, they would assume “intent to remain in the U.S.” and she would most likely be denied the visa. Thus, getting married could HURT our chances of being tgoether in the U.S.

    Let’s pass UAFA!

  11. Like others, I’m in this situation. I met my wife on the internet in a discussion board almost 6 years ago. We were married in Canada just over 5 years ago. Unfortunately, she is British, and I’m American. We tried everything we knew of to get her immigrated to the US, all to no avail. We finally gave up and I moved to the UK 4 years ago. I left friends, family and my career behind to start over.

    It has been one of the most difficult things in the world. My oldest daughter had my first grandchild in January, and that makes it even harder to live so far away. But I won’t move back until I can bring my wife with me.

    We fret every time we visit the US that my wife won’t be allowed in the country. It’s a stressful situation, and one that could be remedied if UAFA were to pass.

  12. Thank you for posting this story. It is very important to educate people about the difficulties gay and lesbian go through because of the unfair archaic immigration laws. It is imperative that those laws are changed, since many people are being affected and suffering because of this discrimination.

    Please spread the word and help pass UAFA!
    Thank you!

  13. Thanks so much for a great article. This affects tens of thousands of us. We need everyone to learn about the unfairness and blatant discrimination against gay and lesbian couples that the immigration laws currently present. UAFA is such a simple fix to end this discrimination. If the average American knew of this injustice, I know they would support UAFA. I know how few people understand what goes on in immigration. I know when I first met my foreign born partner, I had no idea of this unfairness. She explained it to me and I said that it cannot be right — not in America, not in my ‘free country’ — there had to be a way. I was so wrong — it does happen here! I felt so badly that I, a well informed individual (I thought), had no idea that this could happen in this country in 2009… know I know and now I fight. Please join me in this fight, we need everyones support to get this simple bill passed! Thanks for bringing this issue to the people!

  14. Thank you so much for posting this article, Bi-national couples are most often forgotten about when it comes to gay rights. The more articles like this, THE BETTER!

  15. It’s wonderful to see this issue get the attention it deserves. I’m 29 and have been in a same-sex binational relationship for 4 years. My girlfriend in South America has been denied a tourist visa and student visa to come to the USA. She has never even met my family. It’s so frustrating and causes so much unnecessary turmoil in our relationship. I hope that one day ALL Americans will be allowed to sponsor their foreign mate for immigration purposes. Sadly, I’m currently forced to choose between the country I know as home and the person I love becase of this. If you believe this is blatant discrimination, please help pass UAFA.

  16. Dear Mr. Comer,
    Thank you for covering this story.
    However, I am perturbed by this sentence:
    “Snell regrets he and his lover aren’t given the same opportunities once afforded to his parents.”

    Lovers aren’t offered immigration rights, only permanent partners are. Please remember this when discussing the Uniting American Families Act and immigration law.

    Many thanks are also due to Reps Price and Miller.
    But how about Senators Hagan (202) 224-6342
    Burr (202) 224-3154?

    Please contact them!

  17. Thanks for this great article. As an American who after many years of love has brought her foreign national spouse to the U.S., this issue is deeply important to me.
    Once upon a time I would not have been able to marry my husband in the U.S. due to anti-miscegenation laws. Today, I have not only married him, but in doing so we have been granted the right to make a life together in the U.S., a right that EVERY loving couple should have. There is no other way to look at it, equal right for ALL.
    Talk to your friends about it, call your senators and pass UAFA!

  18. I just saw my boyfriend off to Brazil after spending a month with him in the US. It was very emotional and I cried for days afterward. He is so full of life, so full of love that I am half a man without him. He wishes to come and live with me here, as he says that in Brazil it is a very difficult life. However, Brazil, in acknowledging its gay citizens’ dignity, has passed laws allowing their foreign partners to immigrate. Why has the US, the leader of racial civil rights, lagged so far behind in this? Why are we so rich in wealth and so poor in heart and justice? Are our leaders so scared that the legacy of Anita Bryant is still with them? Or just indifferent? Please call who you can to support this and attend the Immigration Equality march. We need to stop saying the US is #1 and actually show it!

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