American Dream Interrupted: 18 Years After Arriving in the US, Jaime Marries Walid, But Now Fears They May Become DOMA Refugees
I came to the United States as a teenager escaping political persecution. My family and I escaped Cuba in the middle of the night by boat. My brother had also escaped Cuba in a boat a year earlier. We knew the trip was not going to be easy. My parents were very scared of what could happen to his teenage kids, my twin sister and I, in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. But staying in Cuba was out of the question. Luckily, we made it to land in the United States. We made it to the “Land of Opportunities.” And once again the family rejoiced in us all being together.
This country welcomed us with open arms, and I embraced my newly acquired freedom. I learned the language and the traditions of my new homeland. I worked two jobs and went to school. I excelled in college, obtained a Masters Degree from an Ivy League school, and attended a top-ten law school. I became an American citizen with much pride because I had made it; I was the American Dream. Later I learned that the American Dream was just that: a dream. I learned that we are not all free in the Land of the Free. We are not all equal.
Eighteen years after arriving to the U.S., and ten years a citizen, I begin to prepare mentally and physically to go into exile once again. The country that once welcomed me, now forces me out. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), I am not free to sponsor my husband after his work visa expires. So I, an American Citizen, have to choose between the man I love and the country I love. Because of DOMA, I, an American Citizen, have to choose between being separated from my husband or being separated from my family.
My husband, Walid, and I met at a friend’s party. He was spinning records and was wearing the most colorful shoes I have ever seen, so I had to talk to him. We chatted briefly and exchanged emails. A week later, I met a friend for drinks at a Brooklyn bar, and Walid was there too. One of our common friends recalls thinking at the bar that night that Walid and I were going to be together for a long time, even though we hardly knew each other at the moment. He recalls how the world seemed to have disappeared around Walid and me. We talked to each other all night, ignoring everyone else, not dancing, and not taking our eyes away from the other for a second. That night we discovered our common love for music and literature. A brief reference to Ulysses turned into an hour-plus discussion of James Joyce. We talked Genet and Proust, punk and classical composers.
We started dating right away. At first, we tried to find every possible excuse to not become “too serious too soon.” But as we got to know each other better, and we discovered our many common passions, it became obvious that we were a perfect match. To me, the most exhilarating aspect of our early relationship was to discover that we were so similar and shared so many passions, but at the same time we were different enough as to allow plenty of opportunities to learn from each other. For example, we discovered we both love literature, but I prefer modern literature, while Walid prefers post-modern. So we started reading and discussing books that we gave to each other, and in that way we learned a great deal about the other. Similarly, we discovered that we share a passion for Art Deco design and architecture, mid-century Scandinavian furniture, pre-prohibition era cocktails, gardening, cats (each of us have one, same age, same breed), little-known music from the 80’s (we both collect vinyl records), and countless other things.
So, in spite of our “holding back,” our relationship evolved quickly, and we moved in together. The only one thing that could have gotten in between us at the time was whether our respective cats got along. And they liked each other at first sight (a sign?)! Now Walid and I, and the two cats, live in our quiet and beautiful apartment in Brooklyn with a beautiful backyard that we love gardening in the spring. Shortly after moving in together, however, the moment came for the big test: Walid was to meet my family.
My family and I were meeting in Orlando that summer for a family reunion, since we had not taken a vacation together in a few years, and Walid flew down to Florida with me to meet them. I swear that an hour had not gone by before my mother approached me to tell me how delightful a person, how sweet, and how funny Walid was. My twin sister also loved him at once. Now they talk almost as often as she and I talk. My brother found in Walid a match to his silly sense of humor; they alone laugh at each other’s jokes. And my father commented to my siblings that he had never seen me so happy. Walid passed the test. He is now a part of our family.
Later in the year, we spent Christmas with my family in Miami. Everyone was very happy that Walid came with me. I could not be happier, especially after Walid fell in love with Miami and agreed with me that we should move there. I told him that I would like to be closer to my parents, who are nearing 70 years of age. I want to be able to be there if they need me. I know that, in their old age, they want to see me more than a handful of times a year. I also want to see them often. And God forbid, in case of a medical emergency, I want to be there right away. Walid did not hesitate to agree. We decided that we would continue to develop our careers for three to five years in New York, and then move to Miami.
While discussing the possibility of moving to Miami, I confessed to Walid that he was a part in every dream I had for my future; I was ready to be with him for the rest of my life. In return, Walid confessed to me that he was also ready to be with me forever. I had equally become an essential part of his future.
Since then on, we dream together. We dream of an Art Deco house in Miami. It must have a large backyard for all the plants and eatables that we want to garden. We dream of getting a dog, one that loves cats, of course. And Walid laughs helplessly when I start numbering all the animals that I want to get—a pig, a goat, a cow.
The difference between dreaming and planning for the future is how likely it is that the plans will actually materialize if one works hard enough. If plans are too fantastic, they are dreams. The reason we dream and not plan about our beautiful Art Deco house with flowers and a dog is because DOMA makes it very unlikely, nearing the fantastic, that our dreams may come. We have discussed the possibility of opening an Art Deco-themed bar in Miami to serve the pre-prohibition era cocktails that we love, but DOMA has reduced this plan to a mere dream. Or perhaps opening a plant and flower shop, in that way my parents can get involved since they too love gardening, but this is also a near-impossible dream. But there are some dreams that DOMA cannot frustrate. And despite DOMA, one of our dreams came true the night that New York State legalized gay marriage. That very same night, Walid and I decided to go for it.
It was an easy decision to make since the love and commitment were already there, yet ever growing. We both agreed that the love and commitment had been there since that night at the Brooklyn bar. My family had already taken him in, so I knew I had their blessings. So we got married. And not because it was our own wedding, but the ceremony was one of the most honest and heartfelt ceremonies we have ever attended. When we read our vows to each other, the minister cried.
There were two common reactions among our friends and family when we told them we were getting married. First, they were not surprised at all: “I saw it coming, you guys are perfect together,” most of them said. But most importantly, everyone, no exception, was so genuinely happy that we could get married, that New York had finally embraced marriage equality. Unfortunately, the federal government does not recognize us as equals.
The tremendous happiness we felt at our wedding day is thus tainted with the fear and anxiety of our expected expatriation. Walid’s work visa is coming to an end. Once his visa expires, he must leave, and I am powerless to help him stay with me because my government refuses to recognize our love and commitment. While heterosexual people can sponsor their foreign spouses to stay in the U.S., homosexuals cannot. This is discrimination. While men are allowed to sponsor their foreign wives, women are not. This is discrimination. While women are allowed to sponsor their foreign husbands, men are not. This also is discrimination. Thus, the federal government is discriminating against me by not allowing me to sponsor my husband the same way that women could sponsor their husbands or men could sponsor their wives.
Despite this, we will not go down without a fight. We are exploring other means to help him remain in the country legally. We have also joined The DOMA Project, and we will challenge the immigration service to do the right thing by sharing our love story and our hopes and dreams for the future. I am filing a green card petition for my husband, and I will force my government to be accountable if it chooses to treat us like legal strangers by ignoring our marriage. But the chances of expatriation are becoming more realistic, especially since, last January, the Obama administration pledged to continue denying green card applications filed by gay spouses. But one thing is sure, if he must leave, I will leave with him. One thing his deportation will not do is put an end to our love and to the promise that we made to one another: Until Death Do Us Apart.
But if we must leave, we do not know where to go. We are not welcomed as a couple in Walid’s also homophobic country. Walid is from the Middle East, and like I, he also fled his country. He came to the United States as a student hoping to be sponsored by an employer upon graduation, so he would not have to return to the oppression, discrimination, and violence to which gays are submitted to in his home country. But the financial downturn of the latter years has made it virtually impossible for him to be sponsored by an employer.
In his country, we cannot live as a couple. There, two thirty-something year-old men living together is unheard of, unless they are committing the crime of homosexuality. In which case, the neighbors will take care of keeping their community clean and safe by calling the police on us. We cannot admit to be married to one another in his country, or we would be confessing to a crime. So we would have to lie to the government every time we are asked for marital status. We will have to lie to our employers in their forms. We will be trapped in a situation where we either commit the crime of fraud and risk persecution or admit to the crime of homosexuality and risk persecution. Another difficulty in moving back to his country is that I am not guaranteed an entrance visa. Yes, I can go on a tourist visa, but I cannot stay long. I cannot work. And obviously, I cannot ask for a more permanent entrance so I can be with my husband. Thus, his country is out of the question.
What saddens me the most about our potential expatriation is that our plans to move to Miami to be close to my aging parents are likely over. About the time we were thinking to move to Miami, we could be moving elsewhere, farther away from my parents and country. My siblings are also devastated about this, especially my twin sister. And I have not yet told my parents. I know the longer I wait, the worst it would be for my parents to deal with the separation. But I do not know how to bring it up; it breaks my heart. My father lost his mother in Cuba while he was exiled in Miami. He could not be next to her in her last moments or at her funeral. I pray the same does not happen to me with my parents.