Our Green Card Interview: A Chance for One Lesbian Couple to Share Their Story and to Address Harm Caused By DOMA
A milestone is one of a series of numbered markers placed along a road at intervals of one mile that serve to reassure travellers that the proper path is being followed, or a single date during which a certain phase of the project is developed.
Thursday, May 24, 2012, was a milestone for us.
On the evening before, my wife, Andi and I boarded a train in our town near Peoria to travel north to Chicago: a quiet three-hour ride, past the corn fields, the wind farm, the small communities of rural Illinois, some familiar down to the layout of their streets and others only vaguely known. We watched the sunset through the Amtrak window, and our mutual nervousness was, for once, only the excitement on the eve of an important event and the anticipation of meeting fellow activist, Brad Mattan, and our lawyer, Lavi Soloway.
On the following morning, at eleven o’clock, we were scheduled to appear at the downtown office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for our green card interview. Andi and I would be given a chance to share our story with an officer who would be forced, at least for that moment, to treat us like all other married couples in order to evaluate whether our marital relationship was real. We looked forward to sharing the evidence that had accumulated over our twelve years together.
How much has changed in a year! On this date in 2011, I was in deportation proceedings and our trips to Chicago then were overshadowed and weighted down by crippling dread and anxiety over the unknown of our shared future. It was during that difficult time in our lives, in Spring of 2011, that Andi filed an I-130 “petition for alien relative” based on our marriage. At that point, we had absolutely nothing to lose by doing so. At that time, our overriding goal was to stop the government from deporting me back to Kazakhstan, a country I left when I was fifteen years old. Asserting our right to a green card, even if we standing up for that right on principle, was a symbolic gesture that we hoped would be taken into account by the Immigration Judge.
The act of filing the green card petition had kindled a small but steady hope. It gave us strength, stemming from self-empowerment. This was a chance to declare our marriage to the government. We dared to be treated equally by a system which for a decade has rendered our family, and many binational families like ours, invisible.
We hadn’t had a reply from USCIS all year, until this spring. And then, suddenly, a date for the interview was set.
We spent the past few weeks gathering the necessary files, documenting our life together as a married couple. Photocopies, photographs, forms: even though the date of our marriage was recent, our shared life has spanned more than a decade: shared lease, domestic partnership declaration from my workplace in 2006, our wills and power of attorney forms, financial records, and a copy of federal tax form from April: the one which we had to fill out as married in order to file Illinois taxes jointly and then discard, submitting federal tax form as single, under DOMA.
Though the green card interview was no longer a “necessity” due to my successful asylum application, winning asylum was not the same as being treated equally. I was forced to apply for asylum and put my fate in the hands of an asylum officer and then an immigration judge, only because of DOMA in the first place. With that back drop, Andi and I could not miss this incredible opportunity to force USCIS to meet with us. And so we would go to the interview as a married couple, to inform USCIS that we would not settle for being treated unequally.
This green card interview was a chance to address the harm DOMA brings within the immigration context, the injustice felt personally by so many families, whose stories I have seen, heard, and remember.
Despite the overwhelming likelihood of denial, we entered the small, sunlit office of a USCIS official with a clear purpose. The door of that room was not something I expected to open for us, just a year ago. But here we were now: together, Andi and I stood, raised our right hands, and swore to tell the truth.
“Are you familiar with the Defense of Marriage Act?” the officer asked us.
“Yes,” my wife answered. I nodded. Not a day passes when I am not reminded of DOMA in some way, be it small or overwhelming.
When it was my turn to answer, I stated my name.
My voice must’ve been too soft to hear. The interviewing official asked me to speak up, and so I did: I repeated my married name, louder. And on and on: where I was born and when, when did I come here? What name was I given at birth? When did we marry?
How can a single date convey a far more complicated fact? The celebration of our commitment to each other began much earlier than the date on our marriage license. Long before civil marriage was a legal possibility, we affirmed our commitment again and again, with every signature, every form, every milestone reached, and with every small step made toward the recognition of our family.
“April 2nd, 2011,” I stated the date of our marriage in Iowa, but in reality, we exchanged our wedding rings six years before. So I said that too.
The question that followed afterwards was not read off the form. It was just a question: When was it?
“June 15th, 2005.”
I think he wrote something down on the margin. Did he just make a note of that date as well?
An image came to mind, blurry as the inside of that Chicago courtroom seen through my tears, as I watched the immigration judge writing “Svetlana Apodaca,” my married name, down on the final order granting me asylum.
The last time Andi and I walked through the door at the USCIS office, was to attend my initial asylum interview. At that interview, the Asylum Officer dispassionately crossed out Andi’s name on my asylum application and asked me to acknowledge the removal of her from the record to proceed. Today, another government official sat across the table from us, with the sole purpose of taking the facts about our life together to build a record of them.
It felt so commonplace and so simple, this measured routine. Such a sense of normalcy was, in itself, extraordinary; and it was welcome, given how far we’ve come already.
We were asked if we had anything else to add, but what else could we say in conclusion that wasn’t already laid out on the table in front of him?
So then our attorney, Lavi Soloway, spoke with the interviewing official, discussing names and cases in terms which I grew to comprehend only last year by the sheer amount of research out of the desire to learn what we were up against, out of the need to know the names of people affected as we were by the Defense of Marriage Act.
Having Lavi by our side at the interview was a magical moment: unforgettable and inspiring.
It set the tone for the day: excitement, infectious and overwhelming, and the deeper joy of being able to share this milestone of the much larger battle with The DOMA Project team. Our day was a poignant reminder of how empowering and inspiring it is to find each other, our place, and our voice in this mutual struggle against DOMA, and to work together toward a goal every one of us shares.
As I finished writing this post, I learned that DOMA’s federal definition of marriage had been unanimously struck down by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the first time a federal appellate court had done so. This is yet another reminder why we must keep fighting to have all green card petitions held in abeyance during this fight for full equality. We have much work ahead of us, but every day, every doorway entered, every story told, and every record made, brings us one step closer to victory.