Norbert & Phil in West Africa: Why Marriage Matters

I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined this for myself. The cultures are just too different, the language barrier is just too high, the potential just isn’t there, I would have said. But if my time in the Peace Corps has proven anything to me, it’s that life is full of surprises.

I would like to make a formal introduction. Readers, I present to you: my boyfriend, Norbert. He was born and raised in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. When he was 18 years old, he won a scholarship to study fashion design in Paris. He has since worked successfully in the fashion industry throughout West Africa and in France. His most recent project: creating and organizing Ouagadougou’s first ever fashion week.

Norbert is fun, thoughtful, charming, and vivacious. He understands Western culture to at least the same degree that I understand African culture, probably even better. We are comfortable navigating either culture, but both of us still have much to learn. We communicate exclusively in French; Norbert doesn’t speak a word of English.

We met through friends of friends while I was working in Ouagadougou in August. At the time, I knew I was bound for Conakry, so the sparks that flew were somewhat dampened. We saw each other a few times before I left for Guinea, but we didn’t think we’d see each other again.

Then I finally arrived in Guinea, only to get stuck in the strife there. I had the option to take a temporary leave of absence from my Peace Corps service. But where would I go? I took a chance, went out on a limb. I asked Norbert if he could host me for a while, if I came back to Burkina Faso. He considered it, then said yes. So I flew back to Ouagadougou.

We spent day after day together, week after week. We ate together. We travelled together. We lived together. We learned about each other’s lives, and we fell in love with each other.

Agreeing that what we had was too valuable to throw away, we started to discuss our future. Although I didn’t know what the immediate future held for me and my Peace Corps service, I knew that when my service was finished, I wanted to live in New York City and study at Columbia University. The idea of living in America had never before crossed Norbert’s mind, but it was now enticing. If he could move to America and learn English, that would open up a whole new world for his fashion work. After some reflection, he agreed that he wanted to come to New York with me. It made sense for both of us. After my studies there, we could move anywhere in the world.

And then, for the first time ever, I started researching immigration. For a citizen of Côte d’Ivoire (or of any African country), getting just a temporary visa to come to the United States is very difficult. Citizens of developing countries have to overcome the presumption of immigration intent by demonstrating significant ties to their current residence, and this is completely up to the discretion of officers at US embassies. The other option is to try for an immigrant visa or “green card,” but that is virtually impossible without a close relative who is a U.S. citizen. Marrying an American is one of the very few reliable paths to permanent residency.

Earlier in my Peace Corps service, I had attended the marriage of a female Peace Corps volunteer to a Burkinabé man in Gaoua, Burkina Faso. Their plan was to move to America shortly after the marriage. At the time, I never imagined anything of the sort for myself, but I was very happy for them, that they could share their lives together in the place of their mutual choosing.

And now I thought that I could do a similar thing for myself. Of course I couldn’t marry Norbert anywhere in West Africa, but surely I could bring Norbert to Massachusetts, get married there, and that would be that. We are totally ready to make that commitment. But then I researched more, and was surprised at what I discovered.

Although lesbian and gay couples can legally marry in several American states, these marriages are not recognized in any way by the federal government. That’s because in 1996, the US passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This act set the national definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, no matter what other countries or American states decide for themselves on the issue. So same-sex couples who are legally married in Canada or South Africa or even Connecticut have no recognition of their marriage from the US federal government. That means they have no recognition of their relationship from US immigration law. But there must be some other options, right?

The fact of the matter is that although many countries in the world offer some legal avenue for same-sex couples to sponsor each other for immigration purposes, the US offers none. As far as the US government is concerned, my relationship with Norbert is nothing.

I had no idea.

I joined the Peace Corps for a lot of reasons, and pride for my country was an important one among them. I was excited about the cultural sharing, and to educate others about the land of the free and the home of the brave. Although I was deeply disappointed after learning about this bigoted immigration policy, I am still proud that I can raise my voice against it.

I could pick any single woman off the street and get her a fiancée visa to the US by simply declaring my intention to marry her. No matter who the woman is, the legal avenue is there. But because Norbert and I are both men, I have no legal standing to help Norbert immigrate to the US. That is wrong.

This is why marriage matters, to me. This is why it is so important that same-sex couples are able to marry in all 50 states, and why the federal government must stop discriminating against married lesbian and gay couples. It’s the right thing to do.

There is reason to believe that DOMA will reach the Supreme Court, where it may be struck down. But things like that are slow, and my Peace Corps service is finishing soon. Even if Congress passes the seemingly-more-politically-appetizing Uniting American Families Act, which would simply allow same-sex couples to sponsor their partners for immigration purposes, it won’t happen soon enough to alleviate our immediate concerns.

Norbert is currently paying me an extended visit in Guinea. We know he is incredibly lucky. He applied for a US tourist visa in Ouagadougou, and it was granted. He is now allowed to travel to the US for a short amount of time. What will we do when that time is up? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. It frustrates me that our relationship has no recognition from my country.

But if enough people learn about this issue and take a stand, I am confident that, one day, we can achieve marriage equality for all and keep all binational couples together. If you have never thought about this issue before today, please consider sharing this story with your friends. We need to speak up now.

(Cross-posted with permission from Phil Goes To Guinea.)

Stop The Deportations – The DOMA Project Welcomes Los Angeles Summer Intern, Justin Page

Born in Northern California, Justin Page is a Political Science undergraduate Honors student at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the nation. He is pursuing a minor in Chicano/Latino Studies with the intention of pursuing a career in immigration law. Justin has already begun working toward that goal by participating in the renowned and highly-competitive American Mock Trial Association tournaments, winning multiple Top-Attorney and Witness awards in his first regional competition.  Justin has served his university in Student Government, Residential Advising, Orientation Services, the Cultural Centers. Most recently he worked as an intern with the Office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Married Gay Binational Couple in Exile for Six Years After Fulbright Teacher from Nashville Falls in Love in Austria

Andy and Achim at their wedding in June 2006

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, I always dreamed of traveling and seeing the world. I finally got my chance in college and again after graduation. I applied for a job abroad as an English Teaching Assistant through the Fulbright Program. I was offered a position at an Austrian secondary school, and I was accepted. At the time, I assumed that I was heading off to Europe or a year, maybe two at most, before returning to the U.S. and moving to New York City.

Of course, life unfolds differently than we plan. In a small Austrian village nestled in the foothills of the Alps, I met Achim, the love of my life.

Sometimes, there are things in life that are just so clear that you don’t have to think about what is right, you just know it. My father still recalls the first time I talked on the phone with him after meeting Achim. “You could just hear the excitement in your voice… I knew Achim was someone very special and that you were happy.” And happy we were. Within two months, we were living together… and I’ll never forgot the moment when we told each other: this is it, this is our forever.

That day was January 1, 2005. It was precisely 98 days after we first met. We had celebrated the New Year gazing over the rooftops of Vienna, watching people waltz under the fireworks. Back then I have to admit that we were a little naïve. After all, binational couples fall in love, get married, and live together all the time. But while our friends and family in Austria and Tennessee treated us just like any other engaged couple, the U.S. government saw things differently.

While today Austria has a “civil unions” law back in 2005 they did not. I was well aware that the United States government did not recognize gay marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act meant that we were trapped between Nashville and Austria, our love was in a legal limbo. What I was not aware of, though, was how difficult it was to immigrate to the United States.  Achim and I were quickly educated. If you are not an highly qualified professional it is nearly impossible to immigrate into the U.S. without being married to a citizen. We consulted a lawyer in the U.S., who tried to be helpful and suggested that maybe Achim could get lucky in the Green Card Lottery… or perhaps my dad’s employer could offer him an internship or a job that would qualify Achim for an H1B visa.

None of these alternatives would help us achieve our goal. We didn’t want to live hoping for hoping for a temporary visa. We wanted to live our lives together WITHOUT a expiration date.  It became so clear to us that I should be able to sponsor Achim as my spouse, but because we were gay that avenue was foreclosed to us.

After months of worry, research and tears, we finally found a solution. As an EU citizen, Achim has the right to live in any EU country if he has work there.  So we surveyed our options. Back in 2004/2005, there was marriage equality in the Netherlands; but that was not particularly helpful, as neither of us spoke Dutch, which would, of course, make it extraordinarily difficult to find a job. Without a job we could not prove to the authorities that Achim had an income to support both of us should I be unable to work. Fortunately, a change in the German Civil Unions law at the end of 2005 made Germany an option. That meant that we “only” had to (1) move to a third country, away from both of our families, and (2) Achim had to find a job there. Somehow, we made it all happen. Looking back today, I’m amazed to think that we figured out we could move to Germany in February 2006, we moved there in the middle of May, and we got married in the presence of both our families in the middle of June.

Today, five years later, we have met lots of wonderful people here in Dortmund, Germany. Yet, not a single day goes by when we don’t miss our family in Nashville and in Austria. We are so lucky to have families that have supported us every step of the way. But in a way that makes the separation even more painful sometimes. In the meantime, Austria has changed it laws to recognize civil unions, so we could move back there and be close to Achim’s family. The USA, though remains closed to us. I would love to be able to move home and share my culture and where I come from with Achim for real—not just a two week visit—but it is hard to keep up hope that this dream will come true. I wish that Washington would realize that they are playing here with real people and real lives, that we are not political footballs.  American families have been torn apart because of a senseless law. Real “family values” politicians ought to be working as hard as they can to keep families together, not deport them, separate them, or force them into exile.

(Below, Andy and Achim featured in the Austrian daily newspaper, Der Standard.)

IPS: Activists Fight Deportations of Gay Couples

See full article here.

“After Erwin de Leon successfully defended his dissertation, he felt relief at being closer to earning his doctorate in public and urban policy. But the achievement also meant that time was running out to find a way to stay in the United States.

Despite the fact that de Leon, a Philippine international student, is married to a U.S. citizen, John Beddingfield, both live in uncertainty about the future of their family.

The hopes of de Leon and other activists were raised earlier this year when President Barack Obama declared that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. This section defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman”.

On Apr. 6, a coalition of member organizations of the American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security emphasizing family unity, for straight and gay couples, as a guiding principle of U.S. immigration law.

The co-founder of the campaign Stop the Deportations-The DOMA Project, Lavi Soloway, told IPS that “more than 65 members of Congress requested the White House to hold green card applications in abeyance and suspend the deportations.”

Soloway cited the hold placed on deportation proceedings for Argentine immigrant Monica Alcota, who is married to Cristina Ojeda, a U.S. citizen, by a New York immigration judge in March as a turning point in the debate.

Although de Leon and Beddingfield have been in a committed relationship for close to 13 years, they have yet to fully settle down and buy a house. “We really don’t know what is going to happen, we might have to move to Canada or another country in the following years,” de Leon told IPS.

To guarantee residency rights for gay couples, Democrats in both the House and Senate re-introduced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) on Apr.14. But Soloway said that with the House dominated by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, the “Congress is frozen.”

He said that the UAFA has gained more supporters during the 11 years it has been debated in Congress, but is still far from having a majority of votes. Thus, one possible solution for the project to move forward is its inclusion in a comprehensive immigration reform package.”

Binational Couple Asks: Is Our Love Less Than Yours?

Full article and photos by Karen Ocamb here.

Andrew Sullivan: Imagine the U.S. Deported Your Spouse

See post on The Daily Beast. Thanks, Andrew!

Marriage News Watch Interview: Lavi Soloway on Josh & Henry’s Win and Other Recent Developments

From Matt Baume at Marriage News Watch:

Everyone was stunned a few days ago when Attorney General Eric Holder intervened in gay couple’s deportation case. The government was about to deport Paul Wilson Dorman, but at the last minute Holder told Board of Immigration Appeals to take a closer look at the case.
That’s made the complicated rules about separating bi-national LGBTs even more complicated. So we’re going to talk to Lavi Soloway, the lawyer for another bi-national couple facing deportation. Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver had an deportation hearing just one day after Holder’s decision, but that decision changed everything. Lavi’s going to take us inside the court and tell us exactly what happened.

The Advocate: “Binational Couples Demanding Their Rights” is a Reason to Have Pride

Salon’s Green Greenwald: The Evils of DOMA

Read full post here. Glenn notes:

I genuinely can’t comprehend how any person could watch this video — and there are tens of thousands of couples in the same situation — and support this outcome; that includes — perhaps especially — “small government” conservatives incessantly insisting that the Federal Government should not be intervening in people’s lives and making decisions for them.

Josh & Henry on CNN: “We came very close to having our marriage destroyed”

From CNN.COM:

Last year, Velandia, a dancer from Venezuela, and Vandiver, a Princeton graduate student, were legally married in Connecticut. But under federal law—the Defense of Marriage Act—immigration authorities don’t recognize same-sex marriages and Velandia was denied legal residency in the United States. But Judge Alberto J. Riefkohl granted an adjournment in Newark’s Immigration Court, according to Advocate.com, mentioning “the possibility that the definition of marriage may be changed or amended.”

Were you able to celebrate the judge’s ruling?

JOSH: We breathed a huge sigh of relief. We came very close to having our marriage destroyed. The judge could have issued a deportation order on that day. If Henry had been deported, we would have been separated for a minimum of ten years.

I can’t describe how it feels to sit in a court room and face a judge who could deport your spouse. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe this was happening in America. The spouse of an American was about to be deported simply because we are a gay couple.

HENRY: I was able to breathe again. We had a special dinner that night with my mom and close friends, but we know that the storm just got quiet. There is much more to come and we need to be ready.

Why are heterosexual bi-national couples protected under immigration laws, but same-sex couples are not?

J: It is a very straightforward process for heterosexual bi-national couples to stay together.

The American citizen files an I-130 petition for alien relative with USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) for the foreign-born spouse. As long as the couple can show the marriage is real, the petition is approved within months and the spouse becomes eligible for a “green card.”

I filed exactly the same petition for Henry, my spouse. But it was denied. USCIS cited the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the sole reason for denying the petition.

Our immigration laws are designed to bring and keep families together. But DOMA, a federal law enacted in 1996, bars the federal government from recognizing the legal marriages of same-sex couples. This is despite the fact that five states and the District of Columbia permit gay and lesbian couples to marry, and these marriages have been going on for years, beginning in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004.

Because of DOMA, the government acts like our marriage doesn’t exist. It treats us like complete strangers. As a result, I’m denied my right to sponsor my spouse to be with me here in my country. If we were a heterosexual couple, Henry would already be a permanent resident. Because we’re gay, he’s about to be deported.

How many couples are in the same situation as both of you?

H: There are thousands of couples suffering the cruel impact of DOMA, tearing families apart based on an unrealistic law. It is even causing a huge impact on the younger generations, destroying their dream of loving who they want to love and staying with who they want to stay with.

Lots of young gay and lesbian couples have shared with us their despair and sadness of not being able to stay together with the person they love. They’ve gotten in touch with us through our Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/SaveOurMarriage), which now has over 10,000 supporters.

J: Immigration Equality reports that there are over 36,000 same-sex bi-national couples in the U.S. Henry and I have personally gotten to know hundreds of couples like us, couples here in the U.S.who are facing deportation. And we’ve gotten letters from couples who have been forced to go in exile abroad in order to stay together.

Rather than be separated from their spouse, the Americans gave up their home here and became refugees. It’s very brave what they’ve done to be together. But it causes huge hardship. No American should have to go into exile to stay with his or her spouse.

The real culprit here is DOMA. It denies federal recognition to all same-sex married couples. Based on the last census it is estimated that there are 150,000 same-sex married couples in the United States. Every single one of those couples is denied the rights that non-gay couples receive. It’s not right.

In your view, what is the difference between same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriage?

J: Henry and I both wanted to get married. That’s why we went to Connecticut, as New Jersey only has civil unions at this point.

We got married because we love each other and wanted to publically commit to being together for the rest of our lives. I’m from Colorado and he’s fromVenezuela. In both our cultures, marriage is the ceremony in which you commit to your spouse before family and friends. And that’s what we wanted, too.

Our marriage certificate is exactly the same as every other marriage certificate in the United States. We believe very strongly in full marriage equality. Our parents and grandparents got married, and we believe we should be able to express our commitment to each other the same way. It has tremendous cultural and legal significance and it is in keeping with how we feel about each other.

H: I think all human beings have the right to say ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife’ and not ‘my civil union partner’. We don’t want to be second-class citizens. My husband, an American born and raised, shouldn’t be put in that category. He is a person, a citizen, and he deserves the right to love and have his love for me treated equally under the law.

You’ve got to return to court in December. What will happen then?

H: We are hoping that between now and December that there will be change, that a wake-up call will happen in America. We need immediate action from Secretary Napolitano to stop the deportations of same-sex spouses. I’m still in deportation proceedings, so I’m still at risk of being taken away from my other half, but I am not alone. The government needs to act to protect all couples in this situation.

J: Henry’s deportation looms over of us every day. We’d rather be planning the rest of our life together, just like every other newlywed couple. Instead, we are fighting these legal battles to stay together and keep our love and marriage alive.

What happens in December ultimately depends on the Obama administration. We are urging the administration to immediately halt the deportations of spouses of gay and lesbian Americans. President Obama and Attorney General Holder have determined that DOMA is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

So why are the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys still actively prosecuting the deportations of our spouses?

Secretary Janet Napolitano, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, has the power to suspend these deportations.

Henry and I will be separated, and our marriage destroyed, long before DOMA is repealed by Congress or struck down by the Supreme Court. President Obama needs to instruct Napolitano immediately to protect couples like us from deportation and prevent the irreparable harm of being torn apart.

Based on what I read on your website (www.JoshandHenry.com) it seems that you were initially reluctant activists. What has being so public about all of this meant to you?

J: Neither of us wanted to be activists, that’s for sure. Henry is a professional dancer, and I’m studying to be a professor. But we had to fight for our love and our marriage.

As we heard from hundreds of couples like us, we realized that we had a duty to speak out for them too. It’s something we take very seriously. A lot of these couples can’t speak up, for fear of persecution, or they have been forced into exile and have no voice here at home.

We are trying our best to be their voice. Last summer we joined a group of bi-national couples like us who sought to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act in Immigration Court and helped launch StopTheDeportations to build a movement around this issue.

H: We both felt we needed to take a stand for our love even though we didn’t know what it meant to be activists. We have taken this as our mission to bring change and to inspire, to educate and to speak out about this issue. This issue has been in the closet for way too long, silently neglecting the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans for many years.

On Monday, The New York Times reported, in separate stories, that Rick Welts, the CEO and president of basketball team Phoenix Suns, and CNN anchor Don Lemon both revealed they are gay. The United States is still a very conservative country. Do you imagine a time when stories such as Welts’, Lemon’s and yours receive no media attention?

J: I definitely can imagine such a time. I grew up in rural Colorado, where no one said a word—at least not a good word—about the possibility that someone in our community, like me, could be gay. I bottled up everything inside and didn’t let it see the light of day. But times are changing, and it makes a huge difference every time a major figure is truthful about being gay.

Struggling against this discriminatory law, DOMA, I’ve realized that we can never take for granted that things will get better automatically. It takes action on our part, courage to be who we are and to accept others for who they are, to bring about change.

We have a ways to go before people in every corner of our country, and every walk of life—including professional athletics, entertainment, business and politics—can feel comfortable and safe openly being who they are.

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This is a pro-bono project of the law firm of Masliah & Soloway, PC. Posts on this website are offered for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. The law firm of Masliah & Soloway, PC has offices in New York and Los Angeles. Our practice is limited to U.S. Immigration & Nationality Law.