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