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