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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Rita Boyadjian wishes she were in a better mood to celebrate the weddings of fellow gay friends after California began legally marrying same-sex couples last month.
But her partner of six years is a German woman whose U.S. student visa runs out soon. Even if they were to legally marry in California, Margot (not her real name) could not stay in the United States because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage for immigration purposes.
This month the well-to-do couple and their nine-month-old baby will move to Germany so they can stay together.
"It's a little bittersweet, I have to be honest," said Boyadjian, 38, a first-generation American who owns a Hollywood entertainment marketing company.
"I am very happy for my friends and I do know a lot of people who are getting married this summer ... but I am sad that while the celebrations are going on, I have to leave."
Gay rights activists estimate that 40,000 binational gay and lesbian couples in the United States are caught in the same legal limbo. A solution, they say, is years away.
When California's Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay marriage in May, becoming the second state after Massachusetts to allow same-sex nuptials, Boyadjian said she was inundated with congratulatory calls from friends believing the couple's problems were solved.
But the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services confirms that nothing changes with the California court's ruling.
"The couples are married under state laws in California. The federal government does not recognize these marriages for immigration purposes," USCIS spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan told Reuters.
Binational couples could make matters worse if they wed since getting married signals intent to stay in the United States.
"We cannot get married in California without jeopardizing Margot's future visa applications," said Boyadjian.
Indeed, legal experts are telling these couples not to rush to the altar in California, which, unlike Massachusetts, will marry non-resident gays and lesbians.
Rachel Tiven, executive director for advocacy group Immigration Equality, is pinning hopes on passage of the Uniting American Families Act in the U.S. Congress "in the next few years." That act would let U.S. citizens in binational same-sex relationships sponsor their foreign-born partners for immigration.
Tiven said gay and lesbian couples have learned to live with their lack of rights because their relationships make it all worth it. But the immigration inequality "can cost you the relationship itself," she said.
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he has seen many gay and lesbian couples like Boyadjian and Margot leave the country to stay together.
"We have a gay brain drain," said Minter.
At least 19 nations worldwide provide some form of immigration benefits to the same-sex partners of citizens and permanent residents, while the U.S. still refuses. They include Canada as well as about a dozen European countries.
Thom Vernon, a California arts educator with two graduate degrees, had to move to Canada to save his relationship with his partner, who is from Zimbabwe. They have since married.
"I am an American citizen, for God's sake," said Vernon from his home in Toronto. "The fact that I can't bring in my partner of nine years is incredibly unfair and unjust."
As a highly educated professional, Vernon has an advantage in seeking residency in another country like Canada, but binational couples of lesser means don't have that option.
One such couple is formed by Dora, a Mexican national who has not been able to secure permanent residency in the United States, and Patty, who was born in Mexico but recently became a U.S. citizen. The lesbian couple resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, plans to marry and asked that their last names not be used due to immigration concerns.
"We do live with the fear of deportation," said Dora, who is now here legally and has a job driving a garbage truck. "We don't know what would happen. It is not like Patty could go to Mexico because she has her daughters here."
Minter can't predict when these gay and lesbian couples will be able to breathe easy, but says he is encouraged by the growing public support for gay rights in the last four years.
"We are seeing the fear dissipate and I think that will eventually spill over to the immigration context," Minter said. "Real families are being torn apart and once it clicks in, that is 90 percent of the battle."
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Martha Sanchez in Los Angeles; Editing by Eric Walsh