"I hope one day that we will be able return to the United States, equal under the law."
On our first date at the VIP Diner in Jersey City, Emilio explained at some length the process of employment-based sponsorship. He explained to me that he was trying to obtain permanent resident status (a “green card”).The complexities of the laws were new to me. As an American I had no idea how difficult immigration was. As Emilio described the challenges he faced because of American immigration laws I could not have possibly imagined that I would be embarking on the bitter realization of my own second-class citizenship. In the not too distant future, my country’s government would spend a great deal of time, money and energy trying to rip my family apart.
After Emilio lost his work sponsorship we looked into other options. It was then that I learned that from the perspective of the American government, Emilio and I were effectively two strangers under the law. Even though over the years we owned a home together, shared our income and expenses and showed our commitment by entering into a New Jersey Domestic Partnership and a Civil Union, none of that mattered. During the six years of endless hearings with the Immigration Service and the Immigration Court in Newark, New Jersey I was never given the opportunity to do what every heterosexual American citizen can do quite simply for his or her non-citizen spouse: I was never able to sponsor Emilio for a green card. Simply because we were a gay couple our committed relationship denied recognition.
The frustration we felt at this time was overwhelming. Ironically, Newark is the city where my parents were born and where their immigrant ancestors came to start a new life in the 1800s. Now, generations later, in that same city, Emilio and I fought in vain to keep our family together. Emilio decided to apply for asylum because of his fear of persecution as a gay man from Venezuela. I was not even allowed in the room when Emilio testified in his asylum hearings. The government prosecutor’s position was that I was of no relation to Emilio and therefore both my presence and my proposed testimony were irrelevant to the case.
The cruelty seemed gratuitous at times. The stress and aggravation was driving us both crazy; it’s hard to live a normal life when every official letter in the mailbox or unexpected knock on the door arouses the fear that my own government is going to take my life partner and soul mate away from me. Even today, years later, I still feel residual anxiety when I receive a notice for a certified letter. The impact of those days have not yet receded. To add insult to the injury we were paying for this mental torture with our taxes and paying for our defense with paycheck after paycheck.
After years of hearings, however, we finally had reason to celebrate. We were joyful when the immigration judge ruled in our favor and granted Emilio asylum. This meant that Emilio could stay in the United States indefinitely and in a year he would be able to apply for a green card. Yet, in a cruel twist of fate, it turned out that our joy was premature. The government prosecutor appealed the immigration judge’s decision. With our energy and finances drained, we could not fight any longer.
For years we had hoped to be able to live a normal life together in the United States but the mental anguish and practical considerations of years of legal battles compelled us to abandon hope. We quite simply could not take it any more. We decided to abandon the case and applied for residency in Canada. The way I saw it, I was choosing my spouse over my country. I hated this choice, but I was forced to make it.
Anyone reading this who has ever done it will know that moving to another country is not an easy task. We had to leave everything familiar to us: our family, friends, neighbors, and especially our beloved home that we had so proudly worked on together every weekend. All, gone.
We have tried to remain optimistic. We started a new wonderful life together in Canada. We are fortunate to live in such a progressive city. We love living in Toronto and shortly after arriving here we got married at the top of the CN Tower. The symbol of our new home high in the sky. We are proudly and happily married and yet our marriage certificate does not allow me to sponsor Emilio for a green card back in the US. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), same-sex marriages performed in states and countries where the marriage is legal and recognized remain invalid at the federal level in the United States.
You would think once we moved to Canada in December 2007 that all our problems with the United States government would be over. But again, that would not be the case. United States law poured salt into our wounds by banning Emilio from re-entering the US for ten years, on the grounds that his departure in the midst of the government’s appeal counted as a "self-deportation".
The idea that we have been forced out for at least ten years or possibly forever, sickens me. We are unable to return to New Jersey for Christmas or Thanksgiving. We cannot visit my siblings or parents. It is all off-limits to us. I have more rights as a permanent resident in Canada than I ever had as a United States citizen. Emilio and I are now completing our applications for Canadian citizenship. This in a way caps our nearly decade long quest for equality. As Canadians we will not suffer the legal discrimination by the federal government that all gay Americans are forced to endure.
I hope one day that we will be able return to the United States, equal under the law.
Note: Tom & Emilio were featured in the film "Through Thick and Thin", one of the earliest documentaries exploring the inequality same-sex binational couples face because of DOMA and current US immigration law. This story also appears on the DOMA Project's website, and is reprinted here with permission from Tom & Emilio.
Are you a same-sex binational couple? Do you have families / friends affected by this issue? Please contact us at http://bit.ly/O4ICountMeIn if you are interested in sharing your story.