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