After 12 Years, Ari and Nir Fight for a Future Together, File Green Card Petition Based on Their Marriage

Nir and Ari in 2008

I am an American citizen. I was born in this country and mostly raised in Israel. I think of myself as a hybrid, an IsrAmerican. My parents, family and friends live in Israel, but the US is my origin and New York City my life long inspiration, a place I have always considered home.
I spent many of my formative years in Israel. It’s where I went to grade school, high school, and eventually the army, where I fulfilled mandatory military service from the of age 18 to 21. The Israeli army, of all places, is where I became socially open about being gay. I was a very proactive gay rights enthusiast during my service, making a sincere effort to educate my commanders and colleagues of my views about what being gay is and what is is not. The Israeli Defense Force is comprised of almost all of the secular population and some of the religious population of Israel and it allows — as I was surprised to discover — a lot of room for individuality. At least after you finish basic training.

At their wedding, 2009

Soon after finishing my three years of service, I met Nir at a friend’s party held at a friend’s house. Nir, then still in the closet, saw the DJ stand that I had made for myself at the party and he was drawn to see what music I had brought to play. It wasn’t long before I started flirting with him and that night was my last as a single man. Two weeks later, on July 1st, 2000, we made it official to our friends, who needed no announcement. Neither of us had any idea where life would lead us at this point, but over the next eight years we would build a foundation of trust, honesty, comfort, safety, and unending love. As we were building this foundation, I confided in Nir that it was hard for me to imagine living in Israel for the long haul.

In 2008, after graduating from Tel Aviv University with a degree in opera performance and classical conducting, I met a voice teacher who was visiting Israel. He invited me to join the opera program he was managing in Brooklyn as a graduate student. I was unable to refuse. The program began three weeks later.

Nir and I successfully sustained a long distance relationship between August 2008 and August 2010. We each made trans-Atlantic trips two to three times a year, skyped and talked on the phone every day at length (which I personally think is the key to surviving long distance), and stretched out our vacation time from work just a bit more than our bosses wanted. After so many years together, it became clearer than ever that Nir was the person I wanted to grow old with and vice versa. On Nir’s second visit to New York, in the spring of 2009, I asked him to marry me and he said yes. We got married (the filling out papers part) in the Town Hall of Greenwich, Connecticut, and got actually married (the teary family and friends part) in the summer, in my mother’s back yard, in Israel.
After two years of maintaining our relationship over the ocean, we desperately needed to live together again. Nir was lucky enough to find a temporary position with the Israeli consulate in New York in the fall of 2010, which made it easy for him to move here, but the position did not become permanent. He applied for a change of status to a student visa which does not allow him to work.

New York is our home. It’s not easy living here on one paycheck, it sucks not being able to visit friends and family, but there has never before been a time in which we loved our lives as much as we do now.

We are in our mid 30s. Thoughts of starting a family are always on the horizon of our plans, just beyond reach. How can we think of creating a stable environment for a new person when our own stability has been on hold for years?

In Romania, 2005

And so we decided to fight — not wait — for the wheels of justice to turn. After the right to marry came to New York state, we petitioned for a marriage-based visa. On December 7, the momentous day that the Supreme Court made public its decision to take on the Windsor challenge to the so called Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), challenging the constitutionality of a marriage being recognized by New York state but not the federal government, Nir and I received a Notice of Decision in the mail. We were denied because, “Your spouse is not a person of the opposite sex. Therefore, under the DOMA your petition must be denied. We do not consider it necessary to determine whether your marriage is lawful under state law, or whether the beneficiary would be a ‘spouse’ under the INA absent the DOMA…”

We are appealing this decision in our fight for a better and more just future. We urge the Obama administration to put our case on hold, and make a final decision only when the Supreme Court has finished its work. Offensive denial letters like the one we received have no place in America in 2012. This should end now.

I’m not very good at complaining. My friends will vouch for this. I also know how lucky Nir and I are. We have a roof over our heads, food on our table, and friends and family that come to us when we don’t come to them. Most of all, we have each other both in essence of spirit and in physical presence – something many binational same sex couples are not fortunate enough to be able to say. I remain hopeful that “marriage inequality” will not uproot my sense of home and force me to test my optimism in exile. All this said, as long as my government doesn’t treat me as an equal citizen, I have no choice but to live with the constant option of leaving my home. This is something that no American should ever be forced to do.

 We joined The DOMA Project because we believe it is important to speak out. We encourage all who are reading this to become part of this effort. There is no reason to wait, there is no one else who will do this work. This is our time.

Binational Lesbian Couple in New Mexico Fight for the Right to be Together

I had been single for a while and began to feel that i wanted to “step out” again.  I called a colleague and asked her to include me in her socials so i could meet people.  Her response? “Go on the internet.  Lots of people are meeting each other that way these days.”  I was very skeptical at first but finally I decided to give it a try.

I found an international lesbian dating site called the “Pink Sofa” and joined up.  The second day I was on it I saw Deborah’s picture. “Yipes!” I said to myself.  Then I read her bio.  Then I said to myself “this woman is the woman for me!”

I messaged her saying: “All the interesting women are in Australia.”  She replied: “No, they aren’t.  Otherwise I wouldn’t be single, would I?”

JB

Thus began our conversations.  First by e-mail, then by the more immediate instant messaging, and finally, by means of a terrific innovation: video conferencing.  We bridged a nearly 10,000 mile gap with this technology, and we got along better and better. I invited Deborah to visit me in New Mexico, and I was so excited when she told me that she could make the trip that fall.  She arrived at the airport in Albuquerque on Oct. 13, 2007 at 8:30 p.m. (Yes, I remember it, exactly!) and she stayed with me for a month.  In many ways, we were peas in a pod.  We were both musicians – she in the popular mode, me a classical musician.  We had both been educated by the same order of nuns.  We were both feminists.  And the list went on. At the end of the month, it was clear this was a love match.  When she went home to Australia, we were both distraught.

In my naiveté, I thought she could simply come over here and be with me.  I had no idea that I could not fill out a form and make that happen.  I certainly didn’t know much about our immigration laws, but it never occurred to me that I would be treated any differently than any other American who had fallen in love with someone from another country.  You see, I had never felt actual discrimination as a gay person.  Sure, I ran into some narrow-minded people from time to time.  My attitude was – if you don’t like it – that’s your problem.  I had worked in jobs where what you could do was infinitely more important than who you were.  As I investigated our options for being together in this country, I came smack up against a bigotry and hatred I had managed to remain ignorant of all my life.  “You’ve got to be kidding!”  I thought.  But there was no kidding around going on here.  It was well neigh impossible for us to just “be together” here – in the land of the free.

Deborah had spent her youth writing and playing music.  She had not gone to college.  A student visa was the only possible visa for her.  I asked her if she would want to get a bachelor’s degree.  “Why not?” she said.

Our first year together was taken up traveling back and forth to Australia and dealing with being admitted to college here and applying for an F-1 visa.  It was very nerve-wracking and very expensive.  We should not have needed to do this, of course. I knew it. But all we wanted was to be able to be together. Of course, for many couples in our situation even a student visa would be completely impossible. We stretched every penny to make it work.

She began college in August, 2008.  Deborah is a very well, self-educated and traveled woman in her 50s.  It has been very challenging for her to be in classes with youngsters.  And many of her courses she hates and would never take if it weren’t for the need for this visa. Deborah has basically given up the middle years of her 50′s doing something she would otherwise never do so we can be together.  Still, she has been a trooper.  She is an A+ student and was awarded the only scholarship given to an international undergraduate at the University of New Mexico.

Having come face to face with the situation of gay people in this country, I applied as soon as I could for a residency visa in Australia.  In October of 2011, I was awarded permanent residency in Australia.  We knew we were playing for time in this country.  If that time runs out, we must move to Australia.  If I am forced to leave America, it will be only because of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. I am not going down without a fight. This is, after all, my country, too.

So, what has this been like?  Coming face to face with hatred and bigotry and living with  the effects of this anti-gay law every day? Living a life you would not otherwise choose?  It has been an emotional and financial disaster.  Financially, this situation uses up all “discretionary” funds that I earn.  I am glad to be able to pay for it, but it means less money for our future.  Emotionally?  Just imagine what it is like to live every day in a situation you would never choose wondering if and when it might end and how it will end.  Imagine giving up years in your 50s to jump through hoops put in front of you by ignorant, hateful, bigots who passed a law claiming to defend “marriage” while denying us the ability to be secure as as couple.  Imagine, pushing 70 years old, as I am, and looking at having to make a new life in another country.  This is not just cruel. It is an outrage. Every day that DOMA is allowed to deplete my savings and steal years from me that I will never get back, I am angry. Every day that the President affirms his support for my equality, but does nothing to help us avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars and trapping Deborah in school, I am angry. I know there is a lot I can do to change this situation and I am starting by sharing my story here.  I want to be able to sponsor the love of my life for a green card.

With everything against us, we just become more obdurate.  We will not be separated.  We plan to go to New York – my home town – at Christmas time and get married.  We will then file a green card petition and fight DOMA.  We are going to dig in our heels and fight for what is right. We know we have the power to make change happen.

On Their First Wedding Anniversary, Daniel and James Fight for a Green Card and Challenge DOMA

Daniel and James on their wedding day

My first name is Carlos, but most people know me by my middle name, Daniel. I was born in a small town in Minas Gerais state, Brazil. I’d always dreamed of living in a cosmopolitan place, so when I was 21, I moved to São Paulo, where I finished college and started working as a foreign-language instructor. After working as an educator for 15 years, I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time abroad. I arrived in New York in March 2007.

In Brazil, family ties are paramount. I was raised by very devoted, caring, and loving parents, who will soon be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and they instilled those values of love and devotion in me from an early age. When I was growing up, my parents taught me that those values are a gift I would one day share with my own family. Now that time has come.

James Oseland and I first met on a Sunday near Times Square in July 2007. I had been in the United States for four months then. I was here on a tourist visa, doing what tourists do, sightseeing around Manhattan. It was about 3 p.m., and I was getting ready to head back to the apartment where I was staying in New Jersey. James had just left the subway and was on his way to Koreatown, where his office is located. I didn’t know this until later, but he had recently become the editor-in-chief of Saveur, the award-winning culinary magazine. We struck up a conversation. He said he was going to the office to do some catching up. It was a hot and beautiful summer day. He was wearing a white T-shirt, black shorts, white socks, and sneakers. He was carrying a heavy black shoulder bag. He looked so handsome, so young and proud in that outfit, so confident, and so comfortable in his own skin that I simply could not take my eyes off of him. We talked a little more, and then exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers. We said good-bye, and as I watched him walk away, a thought came to my mind: I want to get to know this guy better.

He called me on the Thursday night following our first meeting. We set a date for Sunday, and he gave me his address. He was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at that time, so I took the L train, and suddenly there I was in front of his building, very nervous, but very excited at the same time. We spent the afternoon and the early evening together. We talked for hours. I felt like I could talk to him about anything. I met his two beloved cats, Pete and Sam. Pete was friendly, but very possessive of James. Sam was shy and reserved, but the sweetest cat I have ever seen. On that very first day at James’s apartment, I felt totally at home. It was hard to leave at the end of the evening.

We started seeing each other on weekends after that. We would go hiking in the Catskills, take long walks on the beach, jog on the Williamsburg Bridge, stroll around Central Park, or grab a bite at a restaurant. The first one we went to together was a small Taiwanese restaurant in Chinatown. We had walked over the bridge from his place and had a simple, delicious lunch there.

It all seemed a dream come true: meeting such a great guy, being in New York City, a place I’d quickly grown to love as much as São Paulo. I was having the time of my life. I was able to renew and extend my tourist visa until the end of 2008. By then, James, Sam, and Pete were already family to me, and I knew I would love them with all my heart until the day I die.

JD NYC CLERK OFFICE MARRIAGE625

With my visa about to expire, we started a pilgrimage from one immigration lawyer to another, asking for advice on how to handle this absurd situation in the best possible way. Each time we saw a lawyer, my heart would sink lower. They all said the same thing: under United States immigration law, you do not have a case. James, in spite of being an American citizen, could not sponsor me to live legally in America with him mostly due to DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions.

To avoid becoming an illegal resident, I would have to go back to São Paulo. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave this special man to whom I wanted to dedicate my life and love. Neither of us could picture ourselves living far away from each other, in different worlds, thousands of miles apart. So, I decided to overstay my visa. This meant I had to leave my job as an instructor, and I had to sublet the apartment I’d recently bought in São Paulo. I was giving up the chance to see my friends and family back home, and for who knows how long?

At first, I felt naked and empty, and on more than one occasion James brought up the idea of us moving to Brazil, where I’d be able to sponsor him to stay in the country legally as my spouse. The government there was still gearing up for passage of a same-sex marriage law, but at least we’d be able to file for a same-sex civil union, which would allow James to gain residency. All the paperwork would take no longer than a month. It would be so easy.

But I simply could not ask James to pack his bags. He had a promising career; he was excited about his job and his life. Who knows how things would have worked out professionally for him in South America? My decision to stay was about more than James’s career, though. We believed we should have the right, as a loving couple, to choose where we want to live, and where to build a family. We couldn’t accept the idea of just running away.

After my visa expired, I stopped traveling by plane, even inside the United States, and sometimes we even avoided car trips, fearful of getting stopped and being asked to present ID.  Meanwhile, James’s job was taking him all over the country and the world, sometimes for weeks on end; he even started appearing as a judge on a Bravo TV show called Top Chef Masters a few years ago, which means he sometimes goes away for longer than a few weeks. He always has to travel alone.

In 2010 James’s mother had a heart attack and had to undergo open-heart surgery. He took the first plane to California, where she lived. He stayed with her for three agonizing weeks before she died. He was devastated, and I couldn’t be there to comfort him in that critical moment of his life. We felt we could not risk that getting on a transcontinental flight might somehow lead to my deportation. A year or so later, my beloved grandmother passed away. I could not fly to Brazil to attend her funeral, knowing I would not be allowed to reenter the U.S. I was filled with sadness not to be able to mourn my grandmother’s death with my family.

Meanwhile, James and I went on with our lives. In November 2010, we moved to our own apartment in Manhattan. And on a bright, sunny day in December 2011, we got married. It was a small but beautiful ceremony at City Hall. Afterwards, James and I, along with a group of friends, had a magnificent dinner at that same little Taiwanese restaurant in Chinatown where the two of us had had our first meal out together four and a half years before.

James wrote about our wedding in Saveur and in the Huffington Post. It was the most memorable day of my life.

In 2012, we took the next step: James applied to sponsor me for a “green card” as his spouse. Due to DOMA, the application was denied. We immediately appealed that denial and we will continue to fight for the right to be together. We won’t back down until we win.

DJTSHIRTS625

Celebrating at the Chinese restaurant where they had their first meal out together four and half years before

Without a green card, I cannot get a social security number or a work permit. I cannot get a regular job and help my husband pay the mortgage on our apartment, or even help pay day-to-day expenses. I was forced to stay in the United States without legal status because of DOMA. Living with the threat of deportation hanging over my head is not easy for us, either. Sometimes it makes me very angry, and it depresses both of us, putting great strains our relationship, and on James’s already incredibly demanding work life. He is often stressed out, and I worry constantly about his physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s hard for us to make plans for the future. I want to go back to school and get a master’s degree; I want to get a job and have a fulfilling career; I want to take trips with James; I want to take him to visit my family. But DOMA has denied us all these aspects of normal life, and that saddens my soul. Sometimes I think we’re reaching the breaking point.

DOMA dictates that our family is not to be recognized, that our family is unworthy of the same rights that different-sex couples enjoy. And yet, James pays the same taxes as everybody else. It is simply not right. So, lately I’ve become obsessed with immigration law, civil rights, and marriage equality, reading every article on the subjects I can find. Sometimes it’s all I can think about. I keep asking myself: What purpose can possibly be served by a law that prohibits two people in love from living their lives freely and to the fullest?

I do know one thing for sure: I won’t rest until James and I are no longer treated as second-class citizens by the U.S. government. I won’t rest until I’m able to focus on building a future with my beloved husband without fear of deportation. I won’t rest until DOMA becomes history. No matter how long it takes, no matter how many tears, no matter how many sleepless nights, we will never give up fighting for our rights. And we will never give up fighting to preserve and nurture the love we feel for each other. At the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

Photos by Landon Nordeman

Time to Get Personal — Announcing the Launch of Our Series of Short Films, “Love Stories: Binational Couples on the Front Lines Against DOMA”

Photo by Kaliisa Conlon

When Lavi Soloway, co-founder of The DOMA Project, came to the United States in 1989 as a foreign student from Canada, he could never have imagined that one of his greatest challenges would also present him with a chance to bring about positive change in this country.

As one half of a binational couple and a newly-admitted lawyer with an expiring visa, he went looking for help with his own immigration status. What he found was common cause with activists and other lesbian and gay couples. This empowered him to join the broader LGBT movement for social justice and launch a national grass-roots campaign for immigration equality. Over time, strategies evolved, but he remained absolutely convinced that the greatest tool for achieving victory was the personal stories of binational couples struggling to be together in this country.

Los Angeles based filmmaker, Brynn Gelbard, first met her Irish-born partner, Lisa, eleven years ago in San Francisco. By then, Lisa had already won a green card in the lottery. Over the years, they came to know other couples who weren’t so lucky, which inspired Brynn to help.

Through her project, The DeVote Campaign, she has been creating videos of people from all walks of life discussing what inspired them to fight for LGBT equality. For so long, binational couples were afraid that if they publically took a stand, they risked being torn apart. As the Obama administration introduced new family-friendly deportation policies, binational couples seized the moment and began speaking out more forcefully than ever before about the hardships they endure. Increasingly, their target was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the law that denies recognition of their marriages for all purposes including immigration and thus remains the sole obstacle to attaining a green card and a secure future for their families. Brynn jumped at the chance to record their stories and publish them online as a tool for inciting dialogue and change.

When Lavi and Brynn met in 2011, their decision to collaborate was rooted in the mutual conviction that exposing a mass audience to the unimaginable, real-life implications of this unjust law——the excruciating choices, crippling uncertainty and gut-wrenching sacrifices——was essential to mobilizing widespread, public demand for action.

On a shoe-string budget, Lavi and Brynn have traveled from Boston to Miami Beach, from Charlotte to San Francisco, collecting hundreds of hours of video of married lesbian and gay couples who are fully engaged in the fight against DOMA. These are voices of spouses who are assuming their own equality, who do not need a court or a Congress to tell them that their marriages are deserving of the same respect and, most importantly, the same protection under the law.

Photo by Joanna Chau

The result is “Love Stories: Binational Couples on the Front Lines Against DOMA,” a series of short films featuring these brave couples. The first to be released introduces Daniel and Yohandel, two young men who met and fell in love in Miami and soon found themselves searching for a way to stay together in the U.S. Yohandel contends with the profound disconnect between the ideal of freedom that prompted his parents to leave Cuba and the experience of second-class citizenship that he struggles with as a gay American. As Daniel and Yohandel share their devotion to each other and their determination to overcome the inhumane consequences of DOMA, we are left asking ourselves how such a cruel law could exist in a country that promises “liberty and justice for all.”

 

 

VICTORY! Long Nightmare Ends for Married Lesbian Couple in Denver, ICE Stops DOMA Deportation

Sujey and Violeta on their wedding day in Iowa on November 15, 2010

November was a month of celebrations for Violeta and Sujey Pando, a married lesbian couple living in Denver who have been inseparable since their first date. The month began with the six anniversary of that first date.  Then, a week later, on November 10 they celebrated the second anniversary of their wedding, which had taken place in Iowa. As Violeta wrote in their original post when the joined The DOMA Project in August 2011:

“I love Sujey with all my heart. I knew when we started dating that I had found true love for the first time in my life. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were engaged for two years, our plans for our wedding were still taking place at the time Sujey was picked up by immigration. Even though we knew that the federal government doesn’t recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, we knew just as strongly that we wanted to marry and move forward with our lives together as a family. As an engagement promise, we got tattoos with each other’s names. We planned for two years to get married in one of the states where marriage was legal for a same-sex couples. Finally the day came. Sujey and I married November 15, 2010 in Iowa. It was the happiest day of our lives.”

Violeta is a American citizen, born and raised in Denver, where she studied Criminal Justice and works as a Correctional Case Manager. By the time that they met, Sujey had already been in the U.S. for more than 10 years. During their long two-year engagement while they planned and prepared for their wedding Sujey was picked up by Immigration & Customs Enforcement during a routine traffic stop and was placed into deportation proceedings.  Sujey had fled Mexico as a teenager where she had been abused and rejected by her family, and struggled to survive in the U.S.

Violeta and Sujey knew they faced an uphill battle to remain together in this country, but they were ready to challenge the system to do better. Violeta filed an application for relief based on the hardship deportation would cause to her as her spouse and demanded to be legally recognized as a spouse for immigration purposes.

When Violeta and Sujey bravely attended an Immigration Court proceeding in August 2011, only one other same-sex couple (also DOMA Project participants) had ever been successful at administratively closing deportation proceedings on the basis of their marriage. Furthermore, they were in the Denver District where Immigration & Customs Enforcement was known to be particularly unsympathetic to requests for discretion.  Still, with the media surrounding them and eager to tell their story, the couple pressed forward with word of a new deportation policy from the administration.  To their great relief, the presiding Immigration Judge determined that the case should be postponed, to a date in 2012 to determine the status of the law regarding their marriage-based application for relief. Later it was re-calendared to 2014, along with most of pending cases in Denver as that city was selected in December 2011 for pilot program to test the new prosecutorial discretion guidelines.

We filed a massive submission for Sujey requesting exercise of prosecutorial discretion for her as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.  We urged the government prosecutors to agree to stop the deportation proceedings. As the pilot program came and went, Violeta and Sujey were unsure what had become of their request. Meanwhile, an inter-departmental working group had been formed by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to review all cases nationwide.  The working group included one individual responsible for monitoring any LGBT-related cases.  For a year, Violeta and Sujey waited anxiously not knowing whether their request would be rejected. Their whole future would depend on whether the government decided to exercise discretion favorably in their case.  While they were waiting, Sujey became eligible for and obtained employment authorization, but still the deportation proceedings were not closed.  

Finally, at the end of November, their prayers were answered.  For the first time in more than 18 years after she first escaped horrific abuse in Mexico, Sujey Pando was officially allowed to remain.  With various applications for relief pending she continues to be eligible for employment authorization. Both women remain active in The DOMA Project and continue the fight to organize and empower others to raise awareness of the impact of DOMA on binational lesbian and gay couples.

© 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.