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Multi-National Gay Couples in Maine Pin Hopes on Immigration Reform
02/26/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields

Falling in love with someone from another country can present a whole host of challenges: long distance, visa issues - and sometimes, a decision over which person is going to move abroad. U.S. citizens who marry a foreign citizen can sponsor their husband or wife for a green card. But Americans in same-sex relationships don't have that option. And as Samantha Fields reports, some lawmakers - including Maine Sen. Susan Collins - think it's time for that to change.

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When Rene Bernard crosses the Canadian border to visit his partner, David Cohan, in the U.S., he always makes sure to have a dossier of papers on hand: things like recent utility bills, and proof that he owns both a home in Alberta and a successful business.

He hasn't had to show them yet, but it's something that Cohan says immigration officials recommended, "so that he can prove to them that he has no intention of abandoning his home and his life and his business in Canada to stay in the U.S."

Bernard doesn't have any intention of staying in the U.S. illegally. But he would move here permanently if he could - if he and Cohan could get married, and Cohan could sponsor him for a green card. The couple has been doing long distance ever since they met, two years ago, shuttling back and forth regularly between their homes in Alberta, Canada, Peaks Island, Maine and Palm Springs, California.

Bernard is only allowed to be in the U.S. 182 days out of the last 365, so they keep meticulous count. But they're at the point where they'd like to move in together. And though they could get legally married in Canada, which would allow Cohan to move there, they would rather live in the United States.

"We like the life that we have here," Cohan says. "And where he lives in Canada is a very small rural town, and he's kind of done with living in a small, rural place."

So for now, they're holding out, and keeping a close eye on two developments here in the U.S.: the legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this spring, and the current push for immigration reform.

"In Washington, we are talking a lot about doing comprehensive immigration reform, and I believe this should be part of the discussion," says Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Collins has introduced legislation, along with Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration benefits.

President Obama says he supports the idea. But Collins acknowledges that there has been significant opposition to such proposals in the past. And she thinks the bill may be unlikely to pass on its own. She says it's more likely that a law affecting same-sex couples will be part of wider immigration reform.

"I think as more and more people meet individuals that are being forced to choose between the people they love and the country they love, it puts a human face on it," Collins says.

Two of the people that have put a human face on this issue for Collins are Connie Scanlon and Lia de Bruyn. Scanlon is originally from Maine, but she's been living in the Netherlands with de Bruyn, her partner, since the 1970s.

After they mostly retired several years ago, they decided they wanted to move back to Maine permanently, partly to be near Scanlon's family, and partly because they love the state. They bought a home in Lee, and moved their things here. But it turned out the 10-year visa de Bruyn got only allowed her to be in the U.S. six months out of any given year. And recently, she was stopped at the border.

"What's a strange feeling is, there's a country in the world I am not welcome," she says. "And that feels very strange, it feels like you're a criminal."

The couple is back in the Netherlands for now. They are optimistic that something will change soon that will allow them to come back to Maine, whether as a result of a Supreme Court decision, or of legislative action on immigration reform. If not, Scanlon says they'll have to sell their home in Lee, and remain in the Netherlands -- something they don't want to do.

David Cohan and Rene Bernard are also in a holding pattern, waiting on action from Washington. In the meantime, Bernard errs on the side of caution when he's coming and going, telling U.S. immigration officers that he's visiting a friend.

"I'm never sure of how accepting the immigration officers would be of same-sex couples, and if I would be discriminated against," he says. "So I don't really disclose that I'm going to see my partner, we've been together for two years, he has a home there, I stay with him."

The couple has set a November deadline. By then, they've decided, it's time to be done with long distance, and begin building their lives together in the same country - whether here or in Canada.


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