On Their 5th Anniversary as a Couple, Judy & Karin File for a Green Card Based on Their Marriage and Challenge DOMA

Our Life Is Not Our Own – A Binational Lesbian Couple in an American Marriage

Once upon a time, a few years ago, I met the woman of my dreams. You might think that is a lot to say – and it is – but I learned then that at an advanced age, 57, and online, a lesbian dating site, I could find the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Luckily, it turned out after a bit of time getting to know each other that she felt the same way too. What a relief for me that was since I had given up on dating and thought I would spend the rest of my life with my cats.

It isn’t easy to get together with someone when you are both Golden Girls. Karin was 65 at the time.  At this point in our lives, we came to the relationship with significant history: lives well lived, but still, on meandering and not by any means identical paths. We had lots of things we had done our own certain ways for decades, and with previous partners. With me, it was always women. But my wife had been married or partnered with men – and had children too, which I did not. No one would be too surprised to think our pasts and habits didn’t all match. The surprise really was that we could make a go of it, I guess.

I believed our future could take off if we were willing to compromise and stretch and share. I am stubborn and determined and I found out that Karin is too. And you could say that was something we had in common right from the start! In spite of that, we found that we enjoyed being together and we learned how to round the edges off our hard parts. We found that we really wanted to be together and we would work at it. That was of major importance, since life really threw us a big curve ball because of our binational situation.

I “dated” Karin mostly virtually at first. She had contacted me unknowingly on a lesbian dating site. When she clicked on my profile, she never realized I would know that she had. After a couple of days with no message, I wrote her and asked what she found interesting about me. She was surprised to hear from me and at first decided not to answer. But she later thought that would be rude, so she sent me a brief message.

She shared that I had written the profile she would have written – and I believed her. She said she liked my pictures, my smile. I was glad I had posted photographs. She was intrigued by what I shared I have done in life and the things that I still wanted to do. So one message lead to another, then another, then after a couple of weeks we talked on the phone. I guess we didn’t move fast, but it seemed fast at the time.

Karin invited me to a PFLAG dance as her date. She was visiting in Oregon and I live in California. I told her I didn’t dance. She said that was ok, she didn’t either. Her friends were concerned about her and made plans to protect her if I was a nut case. At home, my friends thought I was nuts for agreeing to fly to another state and go to a dance with someone I had met online. I probably would have told a friend the same thing, but something kept drawing me to Karin and vice versa.

So I went to the dance and we had a wonderful three-day weekend visit. We shuffled around the dance floor a bit, had fun visiting and went on the swings in the nearby park. I went home and the emails and phone calls continued. The message was clear – we missed each other. So Karin came to visit in California. She was glad to see me, but she didn’t feel comfortable in my house. She didn’t like the colors or the furniture. She met my friends and was okay, but on edge. It was a big deal and we had to be careful.

She went back to Oregon and we weren’t sure what would happen. Then the tide turned after she made arrangements to rent a house with a friend. She called me on the phone, distraught. She wanted to know why I had not invited her to stay with me in California. I was stunned, since she said she wanted to stay in Oregon. So, during winter snow with the main highway closed, she drove herself to me and we agreed to be together for a month to see how it went – regardless. That was our first commitment.

After the month, we agreed to be together three months. That went by. Then she had to leave. It was a blow to the heart. Because of her visa, she could only be in the United States to visit, and only if she is fortunate to be permitted a six month visit upon entry.

So she left. I waited. She came back and we agreed that we would continue to see if we could make it in relationship, but we still took it in stages. We decided to go on a trip, and went on a Hawaii cruise with Olivia, the lesbian travel group. On the trip, on the ship, in the dark, on the deck, with a volcano erupting in the background, we pledged commitment for a year – regardless. It was a huge step for both of us. We had inexpensive rings Karin had bought. We took them off and twisted them together and tossed them overboard. We took our orchid leis off and tossed them overboard, hugging and crying and agreeing that we would be a couple for a year.

At the time, we still didn’t really know what role the U.S. government was going to play in our relationship, but we moved forward together. We agreed on our mantra, Better Together, and spent the rest of the cruise in a happy glow.

After we got back to California, we felt that we had already had our honeymoon. When the local LGBT center had a domestic partnership event on Valentine’s Day, we joined in and celebrated a public commitment to each other in front of family and friends. We felt married, though we couldn’t be married in California at the time. And, we had been cautioned by those in the know that getting married would make it harder for Karin to visit me. The border folks would think she was going to overstay her visit. We really started feeling the harsh reality of a same-sex binational couple’s life. That reality never went away and as the months and years went by it only got harder for Karin to leave and for me to stay behind and work.

If you’re (still) wondering why we face this kind of a life, it’s because we are both women, lesbians, and not both U.S. citizens. Born in Germany in 1940, Karin is a UK national and has been for decades. She has also lived in Spain and France – and for a few years in Florida. I never imagined when I fell in love with her and committed to a life together that I would not be able to welcome her to my country and live happily ever after, as the fairy tale goes. I am an American citizen, born in 1948, and have lived in California for all but the first few weeks of my life.

Apr 23, 2011: Judy & Karin get married in Vermont and bring the fight for Immigration Equality to MSNBC. Click the image above to watch the interview.

To the government, we are legal strangers. In reality, we are domestic partners in California as of February 14, 2007 and legally married in Vermont, as of April 6, 2011. We decided to marry when things looked promising for same-sex binational couples based on news reports in March 2011 that seemed to hold out hope for access to the “green card” process; but things changed within two days.  The federal government clarified that it would be enforcing DOMA, despite the President’s welcome announcement that DOMA was unconstitutional and would no longer be defended by the administration in federal court challenges.   We went forward with our plans anyway.   By the time we got to Vermont and tied the knot, we had lost the hope of any immediate federal recognition of our marriage.  And the fight continues.

Seven years after meeting online, and five years after registering our domestic partnership on Valentine’s Day, our lives and fate are still determined by discriminatory U.S. immigration and one very strange federal “marriage non-recognition” law called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defines “marriage” for all federal purposes as only marriages between one man and one woman.  Although signed in 1996 before any lesbian or gay couples were allowed to marry, it strikes me as silly. How can you not “recognize” the loving, committed relationships of two married adults just because they happen to be gay or lesbian couples?

I love Karin. Karin loves me. But we can’t be together all the time. My own government refuses to give me the same right as all other Americans have, to sponsor my wife for a “green card.”  The Immigration and Nationalization Act lets an American citizen sponsor a spouse, parent or child for immigration. But not me. DOMA negates our status as spouses. Until DOMA is gone or an expansion of family-based immigration is passed into law that provides for partners of lesbian and gay Americans to be treated like spouses, we are trapped.  I have worked hard to raise awareness of DOMA’s impact on the lives of same-sex binational couples. I have encouraged everyone I know to help us support the pending legislation that would go a long way to help fix this problem (e.g. Uniting American Families Act, Reuniting Families Act or Respect for Marriage Act). But until Congress acts to repeal DOMA or pass LGBT-inclusive immigration reform, or the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, we remain legal strangers to each other. How would that make you feel?

We are legally married, but the country will not recognize that. Not fair. Not right. I don’t want the U.S. government in charge of my life, but it’s been that way since we committed to being together in America.

I have had to be separated from Karin for months at a time while I worked and she became a “love exile” time and time again. We hated that, so I finally took early retirement. Now we have less money to live on and our expenses are higher.  When she has to leave the country, now I am free to go with her. People think it’s great that we live in Europe for months at a time and see places they dream about, but that is not a way to live on an ongoing basis.

And being torn apart from family when there is serious illness has already been one of our big challenges. We were “love exiles” in Europe for months in 2009/2010 and then came back to California to face a serious family crisis. Karin’s visa expired in October 2010, and she was forced to leave once again. I stayed behind to help as I could with my dying brother-in-law and to help my sister. Karin was a “love exile” again while we all grieved a huge loss.  DOMA tore our family apart when we needed to be together most.  For all these reasons, Karin and I decided that we will not allow ourselves to be torn apart. I filed a green card petition for Karin and I will challenge my government to treat me equally.

 

 

Though individual stories differ, an estimated 36,000 families are dealing with this discrimination. I learned that after it became my issue. I learned more about how it plays out when I decided to write a book to educate and advocate and raise money for the groups who work on our issue. Since I was retired, I had time. I sure had the need and I had more than enough interest. By finding other couples and families with children to interview for Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, I quickly learned how desperate others have it and how much a resource like my book could help.

The book shares the terrible reality people face when they want to be together and can’t because of U.S. immigration and federal marriage law. I was devastated as I recorded details and crafted stories to share. I was moved to tears by the photos and by the hope and thanks that came my way from grateful men and women who needed a lifeline and bared their heartache to help create a solution for us all.

I keep hoping that those who read my book and the blog and web site that keep it updated will keep the momentum going so that we can get a permanent solution to this terrible situation. This book, a comprehensive look at the subject of same-sex couples, immigration reform, where it has been and seems to be going, as well as resources, web sites and other pertinent information, can make a difference. Reading and sharing my story and those of the other families helps us all.

A new project really puts a face on this issue – literally. David W. Ross has taken portraits of LGBT binational families and a site shares those images and resources about this issue. Brave people have shared their images and details to keep moving the issue toward solution. I am there with Karin. We believe that visibility is a key part of winning over the hearts and minds of so many people who are not aware of the crisis we face as LGBT binational couples.

It’s scary to risk for my wife and my life with her. But I can’t hide from the fight. I have taken a huge step, filing for a marriage-based “green card” so Karin and I can be together permanently and safely in the United States. So we can travel when we want and where we want and why we want. So we can see our family in all countries as we want, as long as we want. Just like everyone else. That’s all I want. That’s all we expect. Nothing special, but to be treated like everyone else.

We don’t want to be yo-yo people any more. And we don’t want to be “love exiles.” If we leave America, we want it to be OUR choice.

Brian & Anton Attend Green Card Interview in Philadelphia Today, Exactly One Year After Stopping a Valentine’s Day Deportation to Indonesia

Anton and Brian outside the USCIS Philadelphia District Office this morning.

It is truly amazing what can happen in one year. One year ago my Anton and I were fighting for a chance just to remain together in this country. We were deeply in love, and we knew we wanted to build a future together. We weren’t married at the time, but had already been talking about taking that step. Yet just a short year ago, the prospect of us even remaining together, let alone one day getting married seemed so remote, so impossible.

Two weeks before Valentine’s Day 2011, after work one night, I went to Anton’s place to have dinner together, as we were accustomed to doing most nights. After we ate, he said, in a serious tone of voice, that he needed to “talk to me.” We all know that’s never a good way to start a conversation! This was the first night I learned of extent of the challenge posed by Anton’s immigration status. It was the first time since we had begun dating that I gave any serious thought as to what it meant to our future. “Our future,” something we again had talked about, but I don’t think either of us really knew what that meant. This was still fairly early in our relationship, and this I can say, was the night that defined us as a couple.

Anton poured his heart out to me, explaining everything about his journey to get to the US – how he got here, where he lived, the people he met, how he had applied for and was repeatedly denied asylum due to extremely poor preparation and lack of representation. As he told me all of this, he was becoming teary-eyed, but obviously trying not to cry. I have to admit (and you won’t hear this often) that I was in the same boat, fighting back tears. Anton described years of appeals that kept hitting brick walls. He was truly afraid to return to Indonesia as a gay man and as a Chinese Christian. I could see that fear in his eyes. As Anton’s narrative came to a close he told me that there was one last Motion to Reopen still pending with the Board of Immigration Appeals, but that the Immigration & Customs Enforcement Office in Philadelphia had decided that it could wait no longer: Anton was required to board a plane on the evening of February 14, 2011 at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. That plane would take him to Jakarta, and away from me. He would be barred from returning to the United States for 10 years. He did nothing wrong. He came to this country in flight from persecution and he had spent nine years fighting for asylum with few resources. He was brave, determined but by most standards, relatively naive about the legal process. He just didn’t know how to prepare such a case and relied on others including paralegals and lawyers to advise him properly.

Anton and Brian at their "green card" interview today

As I sat their listening to him finish describing the situation, a sadness overwhelmed me. The same thought kept repeating in my mind: “I can’t lose this guy, this can’t be happening, what can we do to stop this from happening.” My mind was racing, but Anton’s conclusion was simple and direct: “Brian, I want to stay here to be with you.” This was also the first time we said “I love you” to each other. That was the moment we both decided, together, to fight every way we knew how – to do everything we could to stay together.

Immediately we jumped online to the always trustworthy Google. We started sending emails to every immigration and LGBT organization we could find. We received a few responses the next day, and one of those would serve as our guiding light. A wonderful grass roots organization called Out4Immigration referred us to Lavi Soloway, a long-time LGBT and immigration rights lawyer and activist, who, along with his law partner, had started a pro bono campaign the year before, called Stop The Deportations – The DOMA Project. Lavi immediately came to our aid and the next two weeks were a whirlwind advocacy effort to DHS, Senator Casey and our local Congressman. For two weeks we relentlessly wrote letters, circulated petitions, spoke to the media, and gave numerous interviews. It was a cliffhanger. With Valentine’s Day just a few days away, CNN came to interview us on a Sunday afternoon. We barely ate or slept during those two weeks, fighting for something we both wanted to hold on to dearly and committed ourselves to making happen against all odds.

The fateful day arrived. As couples all around us received flowers from their significant others and looked forward to a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, we watched the hours tick by. Anton’s flight to Jakarta would depart at 7:30 p.m. if nothing intervened to stop it. Around 4:30 we received a call from Lavi Soloway. ICE had faxed him a letter detailing their decision to allow Anton to stay in the United States, at least until the Board of Immigration Appeals decided his pending Motion to Reopen the original asylum case. We were elated beyond belief that we had more time. The immediate crisis would pass. We would celebrate Valentine’s Day with more gratitude, perhaps, than any other couple in Philadephia that day. For weeks, we had not expected to be together by the end of the day on February 14. We knew that this was only a temporary reprieve, but we believed it was a good sign. Our attorney fought to stop the deportation on the basis of our relationship, and argued that if it were not for the Defense of Marriage Act that we could marry and our marriage would be recognized for immigration purposes. Even though we weren’t married at the time, it was a strong argument. We received positive feedback when I urged my elected officials to advocate to the Department of Homeland Security to stop the deportation that would tear apart our relationship.

After Valentine’s Day, Anton was given another appointment to meet with ICE in Philadelphia where was placed under an Order of Supervision, which meant that every 30 to 90 days, he would need to make a scheduled visit with ICE to “check in,” to give them all his personal information and verify he had not committed any crimes.

The next few months we experienced the cliché “emotional roller coaster.” Just 9 days after the Valentine’s Day deportation was stopped, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that they had determined that “DOMA” was unconstitutional and they would no longer defend it in federal court. We were shocked and elated! This was what we had been saying for two weeks to everyone who would listen. The law that prevents the government from simply treating us like all other couples, preventing me from sponsoring Anton for a green card and re-opening his case on that basis, was cruel, unjust and, yes, unconstitutional. And now my President had announced to the world that this was his opinion, too. We were very hopeful.

Between check-ins at ICE, we were able to live our day to day lives, enjoying each other’s company and planning for the future, as uncertain as that future may be. As winter turned to spring, we moved in together and continued to talk about getting married. In late May or early June 2011, we received news that Anton’s Motion to Reopen proceedings had been denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals, and this news placed him back in the crosshairs of immediate deportation. This was a very scary time for both of us, and the notion that we might be separated soon brought us back to the conversation of getting married. We knew that it was what we wanted to do, that our relationship had evolved to that point. We felt the pressure of time, which in the worst circumstances would be limited.

Trying to plan something big and extravagant was out of the question for a lot of reasons. So we opted instead to take a trip to Washington, DC with a few of our closest friends to take this momentous step together. At this point, we didn’t know how much time we had left together, but we wanted to make the most out of it.

We had a small ceremony in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It was small, intimate, and it was one of the happiest moments in both our lives. To our surprise, three other binational couples in similar situations to our own showed up to support us. They were people we hadn’t ever met before, but felt so compelled to join in our celebration and to support our continued effort to stay together. Neither of us could believe the outpouring of support.

Due to various constraints, financial and otherwise, we decided to put off a larger celebration until we could plan one on a larger scale where all of our friends and family could attend. Our main focus was to be able to have this celebration while we were still able to be together. Once we were married, we would continue our advocacy, fighting for my right to have Anton stay permanently in the United States as my spouse.

The next business day, I filed an I-130 to sponsor Anton for a “green card” based on our marriage, understanding that because of DOMA it could not yet be approved. That summer was another one of those “whirlwind” times. The Obama Administration had given us more hope in this short time than we ever expected by coming out and essentially putting forth guidelines that seemed to be tailor written for our situation to prevent deportations of people like Anton who had strong ties to the community, family relationships, and good moral character.

I began attending all of Anton’s scheduled check-ins with ICE as we felt now we had legal grounds to do so. The ICE officers were well-aquainted with our advocacy work by now and they were welcoming and sympathetic, though still charged with the awful responsibility to execute outstanding removal orders. While each appointment was still a nerve-wracking experience, we were able to give each other strength to get through them. At the end of the summer, we submitted a formal request for “deferred action.” We were hopeful and optimistic that even this temporary form of relief would be afforded to us. After all, Anton’s case seemed to meet every criteria established under the ICE prosecutorial discretion memos, which by August 18 had been clarified to include LGBT families like ours. Despite putting together a persuasive 75-page submission with the help of our attorney, Lavi Soloway, we were denied “deferred action.” Needless to say, we were extremely disappointed. Our attorney filed a new Motion to Reopen proceedings with the Board of Immigration Appeals, and we waited.

The scheduled “supervision” check–ins continued. Coincidentally, the day before our last check in, we received a letter from USCIS notifying us that we had been scheduled for a “green card” interview on the basis of our marriage on February 13, 2012. The date jumped off the page at us. The day before Valentine’s Day? Really? We were amazed that a whole year after the cliffhanger of Anton’s deportation, we were still together and we had not given up hope. As a result the active execution of Anton’s “final order of removal” had been put on pause with repeated “supervision” appointments taking their place. But more importantly, we were still here to go to our marriage interview, to be treated like all other couples in the same situation. We looked forward to celebrating Valentine’s Day having accomplished this amazing milestone: meeting with USCIS to prove that our marriage was real. We prepared all the documentation necessary to prove that we lived together and had integrated our finances and our lives together as a married couple. We brought a stack of photos and letters from friends and family members.

And all this , almost one year exactly to the date from our biggest nightmare. We can’t help but look back over the last year with just a little bit of pride knowing how far we’d come. Yet this “victory” is yet another bittersweet one. We know going into this interview that because of DOMA my “alien relative” petition for Anton’s green card cannot be approved. Yet, we are hopeful something positive will come of it, and we are grateful for the fact that it was even granted.

One year ago today, we didn’t know if we would awake the next morning in two different countries. We consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to have been together this long and not had to endure the pain separation and/or exile that many like us have had to bear. One year later, we’ve come full circle, but we continue to fight for every month, every week and every day we have together. Our futures are still uncertain. We have talked about starting a family; however, that family will need both Anton and me at its core. We have agreed that until we can secure our future by achieving permanent resident status in the US for Anton, that we must put that on hold. We feel it would unfair to bring children into such an unstable environment. As much as we would love to have children, we both know that first we must lay a solid foundation. This is our commitment to one another, and one day we intend to see it fulfilled.

© The DOMA Project

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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.