Same-Sex Couples and Immigration

It’s not entirely surprising, but Human Rights Watch points out in a new report that current immigration law discriminates rather seriously against gays and lesbians. There are at least 40,000 same-sex couples in the United States in which one partner is a citizen or permanent resident and the other a foreign national. But in those relationships, the U.S. citizen isn’t allowed to sponsor his or her partner for entry into the country in the way that virtually all heterosexual couples can:

For more than 50 years, family reunification has been a stated and central goal of U.S. immigration policy. Immigration law places a priority on allowing citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their spouses and close relatives for entry into the U.S. Although the system remains imperfect, riddled with delays that rising anti-immigrant sentiment only intensifies, U.S. citizens and their foreign heterosexual partners can easily claim spousal status and the immigration rights that it brings.

U.S. citizens with foreign lesbian or gay partners, however, find that their relationship is considered non-existent under federal law. … Based on interviews and surveys with dozens of binational same-sex couples across the United States and around the world, the report documents the pressures and ordeals that lack of legal recognition imposes on lesbian and gay families. Couples described abuse and harassment by immigration officials. Some partners told stories of being deported from the United States and separated from their partners. Many couples, forced to live in different countries or continents, endure financial as well as emotional strain in keeping their relationships together.

A number of transnational same-sex couples end up in exile in one the 19 countries that actually allow same-sex couples to immigrate. Interestingly—or depressingly; take your pick—the report notes that a good deal of immigration policy in the United States has been motivated by fears of sexuality for quite some time. Up until 1990, the U.S. barred foreign-born gays and lesbians from entering the country, a policy that started in the McCarthy era. It still imposes a ban on H.I.V.-positive individuals from entering the country—one of the only industrialized countries to do so—despite the fact that there’s not really a compelling public health reason to do so. And now this, which, sadly, isn’t likely to be corrected anytime soon.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.