Going to Our Green Card Interview: Married Lesbian Couple in San Jose, California Will Prove Their Marriage is “Real” and Fight for Legal “Recognition”
We should be thrilled! We are finally meeting with our local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Jose, California for our long-awaited, much anticipated, green card interview. This is a big moment for us, perhaps more so because, well let’s face it, green card interviews are, and should be, just a routine matter for a married couple like us. After all we’ve been through together since we committed to each other in 2006, we share everything in our lives, and we are as married as any couple. And, more than most, we have certainly fought for this marriage. More than 250,000 Americans sponsor their spouses for green cards and attend these interviews each year. It is our time.
While we should be excited, we are of very mixed emotions as we near the date of the interview. It isn’t much fun preparing to hear an immigration officer tell you that your marriage counts for nothing, that your marriage certificate is meaningless, that your love and commitment are irrelevant, and finally that your country doesn’t want your wife. We know that rejection here means that Karin loses her right to stay in the United States. We won’t go down without a fight!
When we received the official notice of the interview date (Friday, September 7, 2012), enclosed in the same envelope was a helpful list of suggested documents to bring to the interview. It’s a long list, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like a number, not a person. Birth certificate, check. Passport, check. Marriage license, check. Domestic partner papers, check. Bank statements, check. Three years of taxes with W-2s, check, and more. Yuck! And that’s for me – Karin has her own list of things to bring. We are also putting together a photo album showing the life that we have built and shared together since we committed to each other in 2006. We have added in a few press clippings to remind the officer that we have been involved in a very public advocacy effort to fight for the right just to have this interview in the first place!
I try to remain optimistic, knowing that working together with The DOMA Project and with many other binational couples, we have brought ourselves just a little closer to being treated equally, like real, living and breathing human beings. After writing Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law (Findhorn Press, 2011), I became more convinced than ever of the extraordinary power that we all have to tell our stories and make our voices heard. Not only can change only come about when we confront and engage the system that is shutting us out, if we remain passive, if we simply wait for change to come, it never will. With this in mind, I am hopeful. And Karin and I so appreciate all those who have shared their stories and joined this fight.
However, I have to admit that I can’t help but feel dehumanized by the oxymoronic task of proving that we are spouses in a real bona fide marital relationship to a government official whose marching orders are not to “recognize” our marriage. Certainly, this officer will recognize it immediately for exactly what it is: a marriage of two loving people, who want to spend the rest of their lives together, just like all other marriages. So there’s the weird reality of not “recognizing” what the eye can so clearly see. The United States government has a way of making me feel icky and I don’t like it. I don’t look forward to being told that my life and my wife don’t measure up, that we are legal strangers to each other in spite of our marriage and that we don’t get 100% of the rights that we should have, even though I pay 100% of the taxes and have 100% of the responsibilities all other American spouses have. It’s not fair and I resent it. And yet, I am looking forward to being in that room and telling my side of the story. This is the first step toward completing a process we hope will eventually result in Karin receiving a green card; and it is what we have been fighting for all these years.
One thing that surprised me was how sweet it was to see the photos Karin was assembling for the meeting. We were told to bring a few photos to show that we knew each other, were involved with each other, that sort of thing. Oh, and that we are married. I am usually not demonstrative, sentimental, that way, but the pictures were a great reminder of what is really at stake here! I have to admit, I teared up seeing pictures of us getting married and celebrating, and also seeing family and friends who shared our joy and are no longer with us. Bittersweet for sure.
I remember how I felt when we decided to marry. It was heady! We had been closely following the efforts of The DOMA Project which started filing green card petitions for gay couples in the summer of 2010. In March 2011, after the President announced that he was no longer defending DOMA, there were a few days filled with media reports about what turned out to be a short-lived “abeyance” that local USCIS offices in Baltimore and Washington, DC had implemented for DOMA-related green card marriage petitions. We took that as a positive development and decided to take the step of getting married. We found a B & B, the town clerk and a justice of the peace in Vermont, then got plane tickets and a rental car. We chose Vermont because the wait from license to marriage was only one day, so we could save money over getting married in the other states with a three-day wait. How romantic, eh? Plus after waiting for so many years to finally push the envelope and fight for that green card, we knew that we wanted to be a part of this battle to the end. Around that time we were interviewed by Thomas Roberts on MSNBC and we told him on national television that we had just run off and got married in Vermont. It was important for us to get the message across that we were not going to simply wait for equality to happen, we were going to make it happen.
We laugh now to think of our exploit – rushing to Vermont, eloping, when it looked like things were loosening up for same-sex binational couples. All we could think of then was to get married soon – after being told for years that getting married would cause problems for Karin every time she returned from the United Kingdom on a visitor visa. That all came rushing back to me when I saw us with that slice of cake. When you think of marriage, you can get caught up in money, trappings, things that don’t matter. For me, what matters is Karin. I know she thinks I am what matters. It’s not even about our rings, the paper, the ceremony. We have lived it for years and we know it just by looking in each others’ eyes. Yet getting married in a state where we had never been, with four people there that we had never met, and a stale slice of cake was perfect for us. We knew we were married, and had been. This just made it one step more legal, and soon our collective persistence, demanding full recognition of our marriages will bring an end to DOMA and the catastrophic impact it has had for so many gay and lesbian couples whose families have been torn apart and whose marriages have been destroyed.
Of course Karin and I have considered ourselves “married” all the time we have been together, even before ceremony and formal paperwork. We were married in our hearts when we had to be separated for months at a time while she dutifully obeyed the rules imposed on temporary visitors and returned to England after visiting me in California. She lead her life there while I worked, until one day it just was too much for us. After a nine-month separation, I took early retirement so that Karin and I could be together both in and out of America. It was sad to have my two wonderful retirement parties without her; it was very difficult to do that without my wife. Soon after we reunited in Canada and spent weeks traveling there before we successfully re-entered the U.S. in North Dakota in the summer of 2009.
Later that year and the following years when we were forced to be out of the country together, living as “love exiles,” we were married in our hearts. We didn’t have the kind of marriage that would satisfy Uncle Sam and so we had to follow those general guidelines for visitors: spending six months (if we were lucky) together in America, and six months in exile somewhere in the world. Of course it’s wonderful and exciting and amazing to spend months in another country. We had wonderful family visits and fascinating explorations of Scotland, England, France, Spain and Andorra. But we want to be home together. Like any other couple, we wanted to plan our own trips, to travel and see the world, and to return home when we wanted, but instead we were being forced into an artificial timetable by my own government. We were driven out of the U.S. for six months at a time, unable to return until we were sure Karin would be permitted to visit again. We will not live like this any more. In retirement, we yearn for tranquility and stability. We want to be left alone to enjoy our golden years together and take care of each other.
Karin continues to work on our photo album for the green card interview. I smile and laugh when I see that goofy picture of us sharing a slice of cake from a diner in Vermont that we took to the justice of the peace as our wedding cake. Plastic forks and a paper plate! No napkin… I cringe, but then grin, when I see myself wearing a flower headpiece and cutting a multi-tiered wedding cake for our tea party celebration September 29, 2007 for our domestic partnership. So far the pictures of us smashing cake into each others’ faces from the February 14, 2007 domestic partnership event our local LGBT Center held have not surfaced. I think I’m glad for that.
So Karin and I are legally both domestic partners and married spouses, but still we have to cope with the problems caused by Defense of Marriage Act. I try to hold onto my faith in America but it is harder to see the good when so much bad happens to people like us. Husbands fear being torn apart, wives too – and the families with children. It breaks my heart, bruises my soul.
Our immigration lawyer, Lavi Soloway—the architect of this brilliant strategy to confront DOMA and hold government agencies accountable for the harm they cause LGBT families—will attend the green card interview with us. We are so grateful for his counsel and support, his insistence that we empower ourselves, assume our own equality, and, of course, for his innovative legal strategies.
Congressman Mike Honda has been a wonderful ally – going to bat for us this summer by requesting that USCIS hold our case in abeyance before the interview on the grounds that DOMA would be soon resolved by the Supreme Court (USCIS has so far refused to do so). We are thankful for his staff’s dedication to this issue as we again make formal requests for our green card case to be put on hold, with a United States Supreme Court decision expected nine months from now, perhaps sooner.
We are grateful for the support, hard work and creative strategies developed and implemented by Stop the Deportations, Separation and Exiles: The DOMA Project. The law firm of Masliah & Soloway created this campaign to focus like a laser on the impact of DOMA on same-sex binational couples, and our interview is evidence of the incremental success they have achieved. We are lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Brynn Gelbard of the DeVote Campaign whose passion and energy for telling the stories of same-sex binational couples is boundless. We are so thankful for the broad community of binational couples and the organizations that help keep a focus on this issue, including Out4Immigration, Immigration Equality, Love Exiles Foundation and United by Love Portrait Project. Finally, Karin and I will never forget the support and encouragement of Elizabeth Gilbert, a strong ally and the reason I wrote the book that needed writing.