Through all the barriers to immigration, all the legal wrangling that comes with manmade international borders, one institution has seemed superior: marriage. Even at the height of the Cold War, a marriage could trump immigration complications. ''I do'' is practically the equivalent of being handed a passport by your spouse's homeland, if it differs from your own. It's long been a quaint nod to a notion that love is more important than politics -- heterosexual love, to be precise.
In the United States, where the federal government refuses to recognize same-sex relationships, there is no protection whatsoever. If an American woman and a Canadian woman fall in love, that American had better be ready to say good-bye to the U.S., because the U.S. is under no obligation to say ''welcome'' to her Canadian bride.
''I am more optimistic,'' says Julie A. Kruse of correcting that wrong. As the policy director of New York-based Immigration Equality, she has reason to be. Joining Immigration Equality in August, Kruse is the group's first dedicated D.C. staff member, working in office space rented since early October on Thomas Circle.
''This last election, the immigrant vote was very influential. The Obama administration has been supportive. He did not co-sponsor the bill in the Senate, but he was very clear in the campaign that he supports the goals of this legislation. We're very happy to work with him on it.''
The bill in question is the Uniting American Families Act, formerly the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, which has been kicked around Capitol Hill for nearly a decade since being introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is leading the effort in the Senate. The bill would direct the federal government to recognize partners as well as spouses for immigration purposes, allowing the theoretical American-Canadian couple to settle in the U.S., for example.
With Immigration Equality's expansion in D.C. planned prior to the 2008 election, Kruse - a Chicago native - says the Obama win may make her job easier, though she laughs off the notion that she might be able to pull any Windy City strings.
Beyond Washington, 2008 was already a pretty good year for Immigration Equality, says Rachel B. Tiven, the group's New York-based executive director. She can point to the 55 -- of 56 -- successfully completed asylum cases on which her organization worked in some part, as well as Immigration Equality's role, along with the Transgender Law Center, in drafting Immigration Law and the Transgender Client, a manual published by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
''This is the first LGBT publication that they have issued,'' says Tiven. ''We're really proud of that. It's a nice confluence of events that it's a transgender manual. It helps us reach lawyers who don't know they need our help. It's not only transgender immigration, but transgender Americans in love with immigrants. Transgender asylum is in the book. And transgender detainees.''
Back on Capitol Hill, Kruse is focusing on 2009 with optimism.
''I think it will be a great year, with a new Congress, a new administration,'' she says, pointing specifically to a floor speech made by Leahy the first day of the 111th Congress, Jan. 6, that included the necessity of the Uniting American Families Act.
''We must ... live up to the goal of family reunification in our immigration policy and join at least 19 other nations that provide immigration equality to same-sex partners of different nationalities,'' said Leahy, as reported in the Congressional Record.
''That was a wonderful start to the new Congress,'' says Kruse.
Nadler also released a statement to Metro Weekly praising Immigration Equality's help on the hill:
''I wholeheartedly welcome the opening of Immigration Equality's office in Washington, D.C. Immigration Equality has consistently done critical work as an advocate for LGBT rights and I'm proud of the work we've done together.
''This Congress, with the support and outreach of Immigration Equality and other advocacy groups, I intend to reintroduce the Uniting American Families Act, a crucial piece of civil-rights legislation which will finally allow bi-national, same-sex couples the same opportunities enjoyed by other couples to keep their families together. Working with my colleagues in Congress and with our new forward-thinking president, I am hopeful that we can finally pass this essential legislation.''
As Kruse, formerly of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, pushes the Immigration Equality agenda in Washington in an unprecedented way, she has more on her plate than protecting bi-national couples. She's also working on transgender people's immigration documents, asylum and ''immigration detention'' issues, and the HIV travel/immigration ban, which former President Bush repealed in July - sort of.
''The repeal gave permission to take it off, but didn't take if off automatically,'' Kruse says of the move toward no longer using HIV status as grounds to block immigration or travel visas to those wishing to come to the U.S., a fight Immigration Equality has been waging for years. ''Where it stands is there is still a regulatory ban under the Department of Health and Human Services. I hope [removing the ban] is on the top of their list. It's very easy for them to do. Families are still separated, still having their immigration denied. It needs to end now.''
For more about Immigration Equality, visit them online at www.immigrationequality.org.