Seven Years After Falling in Love in Croatia, Jon and Nedo Fight for their Marriage and the Right to be Together

Photo by Steven Rosen Photography

My name is Jon. In the photo above, I am the American guy on the right looking a bit choked up. I think it was taken just after the moment during our wedding when my husband Nedo stared into my eyes and told me that he was going to love me forever.

Let me go back in time and tell the story of how Nedo and I met. In April of 2005, I decided to take some time off from work and travel to Europe with the intent of finding a place I could live while I finished a college degree. I literally stumbled onto the Stradun in the charming medieval, walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. I fell in love with the country and its people, but one particular Croatian hunk ended up stealing my heart. Having been a pretty jaded guy living in San Francisco I had pretty much given up on my dream of finding a soul mate. Even typing that I still flinch a little bit because I know it just sounds so corny.

I remember sitting in a coffee bar on a warm September night near Pile Gate, an entrance to Old Town, as it is called, and seeing Nedo for the first time. He had come to the location because he had heard from one of the workers that there was a handsome American whom he should come check out. He was beautiful and I was enamored but we didn’t know at that moment that our paths were meant to cross again. The next time I saw him I was eating ice cream at another coffee shop. I was caught a little off guard and couldn’t understand why he was starting at me so I kind of hid a little bit behind an umbrella. We laugh about it today because he couldn’t believe I would try to hide from him. He was determined, as he proudly states today, to get to know me.

The next time I saw him was when I brought a friend from the U.S. into the store where Nedo worked. I didn’t realize the “hot Croatian guy” that I had telephoned my friend back home about worked at this store.  It felt like fate was dealing us our cards. I was so happy to see him again.  We got to talking and Nedo asked me for my cell phone number; he called me almost immediately after we left the store wanting to drop off a bracelet that he “fixed” for my friend. That, it turned out, was a pretext to get to know me better.

Since the day we first met, Nedo and I have not been apart with the exception of the seven months while we waited for him to come to the United States on his student visa. When I eventually ran out of money and I had to return home from Europe, I never expected that Nedo and I would find a way to maintain our relationship back in the U.S. It occurred to me while we were chatting online that if this man was going to give up his beautiful country, his wonderful friends, and move away from his family,  how could I not welcome him with open arms in my country?  To this day the effects of that decision on him to leave his family are deeply emotional and he can’t allow himself to communicate with them regularly because it is easier to disassociate then deal with the enormity of that decision.  Every time he talks to his family he ends up crying for the remainder of the night.  He misses his nieces and nephews terribly and it hurts him not to see them regularly.  The fact that he is separated from his mother is something he can’t even fully grasp without his eyes swelling with tears.  Due to his current legal status he cannot risk leaving the country for fear his visa will not be renewed, but this means he also must live with the knowledge that he may never see his parents again.  They are getting older and the more time that goes by without him being able to visit is another form of torment for us as a gay binational American family.  My husband experiences this pain often, and it causes me to resent my government for the pain our families suffer in the name of DOMA.

I had to borrow $18,000 from my sister to prove that I could sponsor Nedo for a student visa. I worked two jobs to pay for his tuition and our rent in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. We went through very tough financial times in the beginning of our relationship. The stress took a severe toll on my mental and physical health. Nedo was not used to relying on others to take care of him, and he also suffered from not being able to contribute financially to our household.

Eventually, we settled into a domestic routine. Nedo went to school full-time, but almost every day he cooked our meals and did laundry; he even folded and ironed the sheets! He meticulously planned every holiday and decorated at least three trees on Christmas. Nedo took care of me  as much as I took care of him, and he made our home and life together. Nedo has become an important part of my family.  He is “Uncle Nedo” to my nieces, a brother to my sisters, and a cousin to my cousins.  We celebrate every Thanksgiving at the home of my born-again Christian brother and his fourth wife.   Numerous members of our extended family members support us in our cause for Marriage Equality, recognizing that our fight to be together is not a gay or straight issue, but an issue of our common humanity as a family.  Virtually, everyone who has come into our lives knows and supports us in our struggle to stay together and cannot believe that there is a chance Nedo might be taken away from all of us.

Nedo has given me everything and has taught me the true meaning of partnership and unconditional love. He is the love of my life and he is a source of inspiration to all in our life.  It makes me tear up even just thinking of how much love he has shown for me and my family. There are ways that this man has supported me that do not lend themselves easily to words. He is faithfully and religiously by my side. I feel blessed to be able to share life, our friends and family together.  What we have in our lives together today is something we have both dreamed of all of our lives.  We would love to be able to think of our future and how we want to have a home in California and a summer residence in Croatia close to his family.  We dream of owning our own business to support ourselves but none of it can fully become a reality when living your life in constant fear of not knowing what the future holds.  We would love more then anything to buy a house and know that it will always be our home together. Such simple dreams often seem impossible for us as a gay binational couple.

I remember the day in 2008 when the Supreme Court of California ruled that gay couples could marry. It was the first time I realized that Nedo and I could marry. At that moment I was ambivalent. I had been told that Nedo may complicate his visa status if we were married because it could be interpreted as an indication of  intent to remain in the United States.  (I later realized that much of the concern around marriage and visa status stems from a lack of understanding of these issues.)  Importantly, though, something in my mind changed that day.  With respect to my relationship to Nedo, to our love, I felt like every other American. I felt worthy. I felt that we had the chance to feel equal. Finally, I was in love with a wonderful man who I would actually want to marry and now the most wonderful and surprising thing had happened: a court ruling had made it all possible.

Photograph by Steven Rosen Photography

As everyone reading this knows by now, our right to marry ended up being put to a vote and it was taken away by a slim majority of Californians. It felt like a punch in gut. I was so upset that I lost a lot of hope in my own country at that moment. I remember the opposing side of Prop 8 using Obama’s statement about marriage and feeling let down that the President didn’t aggressively speak out in opposition to the Proposition.  Nedo even met Nancy Pelosi at a book signing event in San Francisco and brought up the fact that I could not sponsor him for a green card because of DOMA. She said “I know; it’s a disgrace and we need to change that.” Nice words, but that’s all they were.  Over the next few years we became increasingly frustrated when the response from our elected officials essentially became, “what choice do we have but wait for change?”  We have started to realize that change is not something you wait for; it’s something you make happen.

I get upset when I think about the taxes I have paid over the years to my government only to be treated like a second-class citizen, while other people, like my brother, who is on his fourth marriage, get unlimited chances to pursue their happiness.  As an American citizen I cannot stand by and allow my love for Nedo to be treated as though it is less valuable than my brother’s marriages.

A dream came true for us last August, when a birthday trip to New York for Nedo ended up being so much more than just a visit to the Statue of Liberty! On July 24th, New York State’s marriage equality law went into effect, so about a week before our trip I asked Nedo if after six years together was he would marry me while we were in New York. Nedo and I had concerns about jeopardizing his visa status; however, we both decided our commitment was worth the risk especially since his visa expires in February 2013. We arranged for Reverend Annie Lawrence to conduct our ceremony and hired photographer Stephen Rosen to take pictures of our Bow Bridge wedding in Central Park. Its hard to put into words the feelings and emotions we both felt that day while saying our vows. What we have is special and the experience of being able to legally commit ourselves in a ceremony like all other loving couples was a once in a lifetime, joyful experience.

Nedo and I live in San Francisco today and we are very blessed. We have been through a lot together and have always been taken care of. We have a certain faith in our respective higher powers that our love is special and that we will be taken care of.

Each year we participate in the Diversity Visa Green Card Lottery and this last year was especially bitter for us as we are running out of time on Nedo’s visa. The Green Card Lottery is our final hope. Nedo is tired of being in school and cannot continue to study as his heart is not in it. He also misses his family terribly and wants to see them badly. Because his visa will be up in February of 2013 we are running out of options.

We can no longer put off conversations about what will happen to us next year. If Nedo stays after his visa ends, how will we manage without being able to maintain lawful status? He will be stuck and unable to see his family in Europe, and we will be forced to live in fear that he will be deported. If we find no other solution, he will be forced to leave the United States, bringing our relationship to an end. We have talked about long distance relationships and do not believe it is fair for either of us to put one another through that. But we can’t imagine being torn apart. Will we stay and fight or will our love and lives be broken apart?  This is devastating for us to think about this but this is our reality. Every day we inch closer to the expiration of his student visa without a solution. Living with this uncertainty and fear is like an ache in your heart that never goes away.

It’s been hard for me to write this story. I have spent all of my life in sales and promote things that have “value propositions” and am always discovering the needs of others and making recommendations. I am writing this story because I need help keeping the man I love with all my heart in this country.

Photograph by Steven Rosen Photography

Nedo has family and friends in Croatia. What he doesn’t have there is the life we have built together in the United States with our friends and family. We have worked very hard to put together an amazing home and a life for us as a couple. I want to take care of him and provide for him for the remainder of his life. I want for him to be legally recognized as my husband in the United States. I want for us to be able to go home to Croatia together and see his face when he hugs his mother. I want to see his mother for the first time with her knowing that I am Nedo’s husband. I want us to have the same rights and the same joys in life that every heterosexual couple takes for granted.

We will fight to have all of that. Getting married in 2011 was the first step in that direction.  Now we will fight for our marriage. We will not wait for change to happen. That is why we have joined The DOMA Project. We encourage other couples to fight for their love, to tell their stories and to hold our government accountable for DOMA.  Together we can stop this law from tearing us apart, destroying our families and our dreams, forcing us to live in exile or across the globe from those we love most. We have the power to end this now.

Cathy & Catriona: Colorado Lesbian Couple with Three Children Applies for Green Card to Keep Family Together

Cathy & Catriona on their wedding day in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Most mountain-climbing stories end when the summit is reached and the climbers are safely down the mountain.   Our story begins there.   Cathy and I met and fell in love while trekking and climbing in Nepal, and together we summited Island Peak, a  6189m peak in the Himalayas.  Little did we know that we would have summits of a different nature to overcome, the biggest and most challenging – keeping our family together.

Cathy is a beautiful, funny, intelligent, hard-working, adventurous woman, and a great mother and life partner.  As her wife, it is heartbreaking for me to watch her worn down and demoralized by the angst and worry that is imposed by the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that cruelly denies the existence of our family, and that so emphatically refuses to recognize her as the spouse and mother of U.S. citizens.  For us, DOMA is not just a technicality or an obstacle in an otherwise complicated maze of immigration laws and regulations.  It is not simply a chapter in the fight for equality for lesbian and gay couples.  It is unique because it denies the love we have for each other, our commitment to be partners in life, and to be mothers to our three beautiful, innocent children.  DOMA denies us the dignity and respect we deserve as human beings and as a family.  As a result of DOMA, we worry constantly about our future and the fact that Cathy may be forced to leave the United States.  We have gone to great lengths to try overcome the constraints imposed on us by DOMA, but we are running out of options.  I challenge the defenders of DOMA to define “family” and “loving and stable home” and justify excluding us from the protection that immigration law provides to all other married binational couples.  We will never give up the fight to keep our family intact.

This is our story.

For three weeks in October 2006, Cathy and I shared stories and challenges and enjoyed each other’s company while trekking and climbing in the Himalayas, and inside each of us we knew something else had changed but neither was able to acknowledge it to ourselves or each other.  We had grown up 4 miles apart in small towns outside of Dublin, Ireland, but we had just met through mutual friends.  Although an Irish native, the U.S. has been my home for over 30 years and I am a U.S. citizen.   As we parted in Kathmandu, Cathy for Dublin, Ireland, and me for Boulder, Colorado, I couldn’t understand why I was so upset.  I just knew that I wanted this woman in my life.   I leaped for joy inside when I saw an e-mail from Cathy in my inbox or a text message from her on my phone, and when she announced that she planned on a ski trip to Boulder over the New Year holiday I was overjoyed.   I was afraid to admit to myself that I was in love.

Pre-School Graduation

For over a week we skied and had fun in the mountains and in Boulder, my home for 15 years.   Both being adventurous women we shared our experiences, Cathy as an accomplished and global sailor and me as a marathon runner. We talked non-stop.  I had also shared with Cathy my desire to be a mother and told her that I had just begun the process of adoption.    The evening before she returned to Ireland, Cathy and I worked up the courage to tell each other how we felt, she confessed that she was in love with me!   I can’t describe the joy and sudden wholeness that overcame me in one second. This was it! I never quite understood until that very moment the concept of “just knowing” when you meet that special person, and knowing that this is who you want to share your life with.   I finally got it.

Leaving Cathy at the airport to return to Dublin was to be one of many times we would have to be strong for each other and trust that parting would not be for long.   For 9 months we met as often as possible, in Ireland and the U.S.,  and within no time at all we knew this was forever and we were meant to be together.  During this period we travelled together to Guatemala to meet our infant son.   We were both certain that we wanted to build a life and family together.   We both assumed that with her strong credentials and vast experience in a sought-after profession, Cathy would be able to continue on her career path here in the U.S.

The family celebrating the finalization of the adoption process.

Cathy left her nursing position in Ireland to come to Boulder in September 2007.  I had just returned from Guatemala with our 8-month-old son.   We were now delighted and proud parents of a beautiful baby boy, we were together, we were a family. We had no idea of what lay ahead and the amount of effort and expense it would take for us to stay together.  We had both climbed mountains around the world, but we never experienced living with such seemingly immovable constraints. We were about to find out just how soul-destroying and demoralizing it is to know that your commitment to your life partner is not recognized, and your family is not treated equally. Cathy and I had each challenged ourselves in various ways as single women, however this journey we were on as life partners was about to test us emotionally and become the greatest challenge either of us had encountered.

Hiking in Grand Lake, Colorado

Cathy got to work quickly on the effort to become a registered nurse in the United States.   From start to finish it took approximately 2 years because of the paperwork involved.   She had to travel in an out of the U.S. with different short term visas.  When she registered with the state of Colorado, we were hoping to find a hospital willing to petition for a work visa, however in the economic climate it was not to be.

Desperate, we looked for areas of the U.S. where I could keep my position and continue employment with my present employer.   We were fortunate to find a hospital in Texas that offered Cathy a position and petitioned for a visa.  However, while the visa was pending, Cathy had to leave us to go back to Ireland to await the visa approval.   It was a difficult time.  I missed Cathy, and our son now 2 years old, did not understand why he could only see and talk to his Mum on the computer.   His daily routine with Cathy came to abrupt end during this period, and he now had to go into daycare every day while I went to work.  He cried for her, and when he was sleeping I also cried for her.   Over 3,000 miles away Cathy was shedding plenty of tears too.

Not knowing when Cathy’s visa would be approved and desperate to reunite, we all travelled to Montreal, Canada to spend time together.   We were so elated to be with each other again as a family, even if it was just for a short time. Cathy had flown to Canada from Ireland and we had come up from Colorado. All this travel to a third country just so we could be a family for a few days. Looking back, it is hard to comprehend that we were forced to do this just to bring us together for a short time. And that short time went by too quickly, and it was followed by more heartache having to say goodbye again, followed by more uncertainty.

Hope at last, when news of Cathy’s visa arrived.  It was July 2009, three long months after she left.  A few weeks later she was back in the U. S.  We then had the arduous task of packing up the home we loved in Boulder, Colorado, saying goodbye to our friends, and moving to Texas so that Cathy could get back into the workforce and pick up her nursing career again.  She was over-qualified for the position,  but she was happy to be able to finally have some normalcy: to obtain a Social Security card and open her own bank account, and to have the satisfaction of being able to contribute financially to our household.   A driver’s license was still out of reach because the term of her visa was not long enough.   A Texas state identification was all she could get. She would not be able to drive for now. It was always two steps forward, one step back.

It was not what we had hoped for, but knew that being together as a family was our overriding dream and we were able to continue building our life together.

So we did just that, and made the most of everything.  Our family grew, we adopted two wonderful daughters from Haiti in 2010, then aged 7 and 5.  We were very busy with the children, and with the added income I could take leave without pay on Cathy’s work days so that we were both able to help the children settle into their new lives by being present and we would not need to place them in day care.   Our daughters settled very well and quickly bonded with their little brother.  With tremendous family and friend support and three fantastic children we were blessed with so much joy.

Cathy worked hard and enjoyed the job and opportunity in Texas.  She was promoted and the hospital wanted to continue her employment and petition for another visa.  This was terrific news. Our happiness was short-lived. Despite having been previously approved for a visa, the second work visa was denied in January of this year.  Our dreams of building a family together quickly gave way to a nightmare. Six years after we met, just as it was all coming together, we were terrified that again our family would be split up and Cathy would need to leave the U.S.   We were devastated.

Although we kept up a good front for the children, we were worried sick and struggling to find a solution that would keep Cathy in the U.S. legally and more importantly, keep our family together.    Cathy admitted to “sometimes screaming inside with distress”  at this unbelievable situation.  The children were unaware of the awful circumstances and like most parents we didn’t share our worries or the uncertainties that we faced.  We wanted to protect our children and not cause them to worry.  We put on a good face, and kept the struggles over Cathy’s visa to conversations when the children were not around.

We started to realize how serious the matter was. We felt we had to make plans, but what? We had uprooted ourselves from Boulder to move to Texas and start over so that Cathy could find work that would sponsor her for a visa. Now we did not know where to turn.  We could not fathom leaving the U.S.  We did not want to increase the instability for our children. We started to get legal advice. Appealing the denial was futile, it seemed. We were running out of time.

We decided to move back to our home in Colorado.   Cathy had contemplated going back to college but seeking a student visa came with it a high risk of denial.  She would have to leave the U.S. without any guarantee of getting back in.  We were scared.  For Cathy this experience felt like she had been stripped of any rights that the work visa provided, and for us as a family we were placed at the mercy of a government agency against which we felt powerless.   Cathy looked for someone to petition for another H-1B work visa but to no avail.

Cathy and I travelled to Council Bluffs, Iowa and married on the May 23, 2012. We chose Iowa because neither Texas (our home at the time) nor Colorado (where we have now returned), did not allow same-sex couples to marry.   It was a very special day that allowed us as a couple to declare publicly what we had already declared in private six years prior: our love and commitment to each other.  Shortly after, we joined The DOMA Project and I filed a green card petition for Cathy as my spouse.  We have joined the other families and couples who, like us, demand our marriages to be valued, respected and treated equally by the federal government for all purposes including immigration.

Now back in Colorado, we try and plan for our family’s future while the green card case proceeds takes its course.  The children are delighted to be here and excited about all our future adventures.  We are going to continue to work hard to achieve our American dream. All we want is the chance to enjoy the wonderful life we have built so far as a family.   After all is there anything more important to fight for?  As an American citizen I believe I have an obligation to myself and to my country to challenge the status quo. I cannot stand by as my wife is treated like she is nothing but a perfect stranger.

It’s exhausting being put in situations that you don’t want, you make the best of them while you can but you get to the point that you want to take your life back and plan it the way you dream it, just like everyone else.   Please if you are reading this write to your local government official and urge them to right this wrong.  Our Family, like many others out there, needs your help.

Because of DOMA we had to go to great lengths and expense to provide a modicum of stability for our children that every parent would want.  Because of DOMA we have not been able to live where we chose, or bring our children up where we chose, but we have had to chase a job and a visa that ultimately slipped through our hands.  Because of DOMA we have had to live like nomads to ensure that Cathy remained legal and was able to contribute to the family as is her desire.   Because of DOMA we cannot plan for the future with certainty.  Because of DOMA we now survive on one salary.  Because of DOMA Cathy cannot apply for a driver’s license.  Because of DOMA Cathy cannot advance her career in her chosen profession, nursing.  Because of DOMA we cannot travel as a family and allow our children the advantage of building nurturing relationships with loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.    But these are only some of the hurdles DOMA has created for us.   We have joined the rest of the families fighting DOMA because we recognize the need to fight for our common humanity and to add our voice to the numerous families who are at risk of being split up because of the Obama administration has failed to take any steps to protect us until such time as DOMA is repealed or struck down by the Supreme Court.  We urge the President to look at his daughters and his wife, and think for a moment what policy he would want enacted if his family was being torn apart.  We urge him to remember his parents, who were a binational couple who could avail themselves of the family unification provisions of our immigration law. There can be no excuse for inaction. No matter how much longer DOMA is with us, every minute that our families are torn apart by this unconstitutional law is a precious moment that we cannot get back.

Defeating DOMA and keeping our family together is a ‘summit’ we will continue to strive for.

Kids clowning around for the camera, Boulder Colorado, August 2011

LISTEN: NPR Interview with Judy Rickard and Lavi Soloway on the Front Lines of the Fight Against DOMA

“We were at a point in the summer of 2010, I really felt that if couples started to tell their stories and didn’t take “no” for an answer but insisted on holding the Immigration Service accountable, requiring the Immigration Service to actually put in writing that it was going to discriminate against them solely because they were gay, that we could begin a dialogue with the government and offer solutions, offer ways to stop families from being torn apart.  We were very successful in the deportation context, and there were several high profile cases involving lesbian and gay couples that would have been torn apart by deportation and the Obama administration stepped in and stopped that from happening. Now we are making the same arguments.  You believe this law is unconstitutional.  You believe also that you have to continue to enforce it so you cannot approve these cases at this time, but you have a third way: to treat each couple with dignity and respect  to treat them like every other couple and to withhold a final decision on their case if it cannot be approved and put it in writing that the only reason it is not being approved is the Defense of Marriage Act, and prepare for a post-DOMA universe where we are all equal under the law.

We are chipping away [at DOMA] because we are forcing an immigration office in San Jose, or an immigration office in Albany, New York to sit down with a gay couple and look at them eye-to-eye and talk to them about their finances, their cohabitation, and their life together and make a record that this is a real marriage. Today those cases cannot be approved, but we never had those interviews before and we are starting to have them.  We never had these conversations before and we are starting to have them. If we don’t step up, if we sit back and wait for something to happen, then I think we are making a mistake, we are treating our own civil rights like a spectator sport. I think you have to roll up your sleeves, and you have to get in there.” – Lavi Soloway

On July 12, Marilyn Pittman interviewed Judy Rickard (author of Torn Apart) and Lavi Soloway on her show, Out in the Bay. (Click on the image above to listen to the broadcast.)

The DOMA Project Welcomes Our Summer Intern, Ethan Gil


Stop the Deportations, Separations, and Exile – The DOMA Project is happy to welcome our new summer intern

Ethan Gil is a graduate of Duke University and is currently a rising second-year law student at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in Los Angeles.  Having immigrated to the United States from South Korea at the age of 6, Ethan draws inspiration from his personal experience, as well as his enduring advocacy for LGBT rights.

An undergraduate education in Political Theory jumpstarted Ethan’s interest in providing legal services to those underrepresented segments of the population who are most in need.  He hopes to direct his passionate idealism while working on The DOMA Project and contributing to the struggle for equality for the LGBT community.



Janice & Margie: Married Lesbian Couple in North Carolina Fights DOMA to Stay Together With Their Children

Janice and Margie are a married binational couple who have lived together in North Carolina since 2005. They are raising two children together. Here, Janice shares the story of her family fighting to be together as her visa runs out.

Most of us have fond memories of the time we first met the love of our lives. Our story is no exception. In pursuit of the one, I spent some time on online dating sites to no avail. One night, tiring of the pursuit, I decided if no one came online with whom I could talk, I would power down my laptop and watch TV. After a couple of hours, I was about to logoff and reach for the remote when a stranger typed “hi.” I thought about ignoring her as I couldn’t be bothered with another pointless exchange, but something inspired me to say “hello” back. By the time we finished chatting eight hours later, it was 6 a.m!

That was almost eight years ago. That chance online encounter has since evolved into a loving and committed relationship, despite that fact that we were 4,000 miles and five time zones apart. Through many nights of talking for hours on end, we came to know each other’s lives, and we shared our dreams and aspirations. The following March, I came to visit Margie in the United States and realized that I didn’t ever want to be without this woman. When it came time to return to Britain to my family, my job, and my apartment, we felt as though our hearts were being ripped out of our chests not knowing when we would see each other again.

Once I got home, Margie and I resumed our daily ritual of chatting for hours on end. One day, I mentioned casually that I had always wanted to go back to college. Margie suggested that I come to the U.S. to study here. After some research we realized that this would achieve two goals: I could pursue a new career and we could finally be together. In October, I made a short trip to see Margie and visit the college I would be attending. I was full of anticipation for my studies, but I was excited, too, because I would be experiencing this new chapter in my life alongside the woman I loved. I gave up my apartment in London, packed all my belongings and moved to the United States in December 2005 on a student visa.

Today, I hold an Associate’s Degree in Web Technologies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science; however, my proudest accomplishment is the life that Margie and I have built together. Margie’s children have become mine. They see me as their second mom, who loves and supports them. Her parents, New Yorkers who are in their late sixties and early seventies, treat me as if I was their daughter. Anyone who knows us can see that we are a typical family, caring for each other through thick and thin, celebrating holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.  But the story, for us, does not end there.  My student visa is about to expire and I have found no way to stay legally in the U.S. with Margie and our kids.  Because we are a lesbian couple, the regular avenues of immigration designed to keep families together are closed off to us.

Janice and Margie on their wedding day

Our savings have been depleted by the cost of my foreign student tuition fees, and my inability to work because of visa restrictions. We were forced to take on student loans so that I could complete my degrees. All the while, Margie has held down two jobs to keep us going, which is more stress and strain than she can bear at times though she never complains. For her, keeping us together is the only acceptable option. Whenever the topic comes up, she says with great conviction, “you are not going anywhere and that’s the end of it!”  but I know that she is as terrified as I am.

Now in our fifties, we are at a time in our lives when we should be able to save and plan for retirement. Instead, I am a middle-aged college graduate forced to maintain my status as student to keep my family together.  As a result, we are faced with a debt that will take 20 years for us to pay off, and I have no guarantee, as my visa expires, that there will be any way for me to stay in the U.S. alongside the woman I love, and our children.

We decided, as a family, to fight back.  On June 21, our extended family gathered with us in Clifton Park, New York where Margie and I were legally married, after almost 8 years together. We would have married sooner, but we feared that this would complicate my obtaining another student visa, if by some slim chance that were even necessary or possible in the future.  So we held off, though we felt married to each other in every way possible.

The brides with Margie’s parents

The day of our wedding was magical. We celebrated all that we have, before the people we love most in the world. We experienced the joy of newlyweds embarking on the next chapter of life together and of a lesbian couple finally able to participate in a rite that so many others take for granted. We fought back tears of happiness as we exchanged our vows and as our family watched on, fighting back their own tears that we were finally able to become the married couple we had long felt we already were in so many ways. It was a scorching hot day, but we didn’t care. We were now married, and that’s all that mattered. After the ceremony we took more photos, and my father-in-law and mother-in-law treated us all to a wonderful meal at an Italian restaurant. My father-in-law then surprised us by booking a room for us at a gorgeous hotel for our wedding night. We were very spoiled by our family that day. The whole week was full of celebration, and we realized just how much our marriage meant to our entire extended family. I don’t think my Margie’s mom has come down off of cloud nine yet!

In our home state of North Carolina, 61% of voters recently approved a hateful constitutional amendment to forbid us from marrying. We feel forced to hide who we are. There is no way to describe how it feels to deny your own existence, spinning yet another tale about how we are just friends who just live together. We are afraid that Margie would lose her job if her employer found out she was gay, because of course there is no protection against such discrimination. This is a matter of survival as her job supports the four of us, and has kept me in the country.

All we want is the same protection provided by the immigration law to other couples in our situation. Margie and I are married, I am her wife. We should be able to file a green card petition and that petition should be approved. Our love for each other and for our children is no different than that of any other married couple.

A happy family photo

Supreme Court Ruling on Arizona Law: A Win For Immigration Advocates, Decisive Blow to Anti-Immigrant Forces

A gay binational couple, together for three decades, marries across from the United States Supreme Court

Statement by Lavi Soloway, Stop The Deportations – The DOMA Project:

“Today’s 5-3 Supreme Court ruling struck down most of the notorious Arizona immigration enforcement law SB 1070 as an unconstitutional infringement on federal authority. This was a clear win for the Obama administration and for immigration advocates, and a decisive blow to anti-immigrant activists and politicians like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who argued that states could enforce federal immigration law.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy repeatedly affirmed the broad discretionary powers of the executive branch to enforce immigration law, including the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials not to pursue cases with good equities. This language supports the Obama administration’s June 15 decision to grant deferred action and halt the deportations of the children of undocumented immigrants, and provides further support for our campaign to stop all deportations of spouses and partner of lesbian and gay Americans.

As an advocate of immigration reform, I remain concerned that the Court did not strike down what is widely considered the most controversial “racial profiling” provision of the law, Section 2(B). That section requires Arizona police officers to verify immigration status when stopping, arresting, or detaining someone. All immigrant communities and activists, including LGBT advocates, are right to be concerned that this provision violates federal authority in immigration enforcement and would lead to racial profiling and targeting of vulnerable communities.

However, the Supreme Court today did not give §2(B) the proverbial “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” The Supreme Court narrowly allowed that provision to stand for now, but essentially warned the State of Arizona (and other states who are seeking to mimic Arizona’s attempt to usurp federal authority in this area) that this provision could be struck down in the future depending on how it will be applied in practice or how state courts interpret its scope. In fact, Justice Kennedy all but predicted that the “papers please” provision would be revisited by the Supreme Court if this state police power is used in a way that violates federal authority. It is disappointing that §2(B) was not struck down today, but I remain optimistic that it will not survive constitutional scrutiny when it is inevitably challenged in the future given the standard set forth today by the Supreme Court.”

Read the full decision of the Supreme Court in Arizona v. United States 11-182 (2012).

Victory! Board of Immigration Appeals Refuses to Affirm Denials of Green Card Petitions Filed by Four Gay Couples, Remands for Determination on Eligibility of Marriages

Tom Smeraldo and Emilio Ojeda, who live in “DOMA exile” in Canada were one of four DOMA Project couples to receive the unexpected ruling from the Board of Immigration Appeals

The DOMA Project has won an important, unprecedented victory in the fight for green cards for married gay and lesbian binational couples. In four separate rulings, the Board of Immigration Appeals has rejected the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ “DOMA denials” of green card petitions filed by four married, gay couples residing in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Canada. In all cases, the BIA ordered the USCIS to complete full fact-finding to determine whether the marriages are legally valid and whether, notwithstanding DOMA Section 3, the spouse would qualify for a green card under the Immigration & Nationality Act.  In one case, the ruling re-opened removal proceedings for the spouse of a gay American who had an outstanding deportation order.  The Board of Immigration Appeals has never before re-opened removal proceedings or remanded green card petitions back to USCIS after denials based solely on DOMA Section 3.

Masliah & Soloway, the law firm that launched Stop The Deportations – The DOMA Project, represents all four couples.

“We are elated that the Department of Justice has ordered USCIS to treat the marriages of each gay binational couple with respect by requiring that a complete record of eligibility be created,” said attorney Lavi Soloway in reaction to the rulings.

We will follow up with a complete report next week on this site.

The BIA rulings were reported today by Chris Geidner at MetroWeekly here.

Read more about two of the couples involved: Mark Himes and Frederic Deloizy of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Tom Smeraldo and Emilio Ojeda, formerly of New Jersey now living in exile in Toronto, Canada.

The DOMA Project Reacts to Policy Granting Deferred Action and Employment Authorization to Dream Act Immigrants

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano released a three-page memorandum directing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to offer “deferred action” to certain young persons who were brought to the United States as children.  The President followed the release of the DHS memo with a speech in the Rose Garden announcing the long-awaited policy which, in some respects, closely tracks the legislation known as the DREAM Act and responds directly to years of protests and a massive grass roots organizing efforts by student activists known as “Dreamers.”  Perhaps most importantly, today’s events demonstrated that the President will use his broad authority to solve problems that Congress is unwilling to address, especially when communities organize and advocate effectively for executive branch action. Today’s move falls squarely within the framework of President Obama’s mantra, We Can’t Wait, but it also confirms the President’s repeated promise to take action when his feet are held to the fire. At today’s White House Pride Reception, the President repeated that theme: “Now, I’ve said before that I would never counsel patience; that it wasn’t right to tell you to be patient any more than it was right for others to tell women to be patient a century ago, or African Americans to be patient a half century ago. After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality.”

Statement by Lavi Soloway, co-founder, Stop The Deportations – The DOMA Project:

“President Obama used the discretionary power of the executive branch to achieve greater fairness in the enforcement of our immigration laws, consistent with his promise to prioritize keeping families together. This new policy provides temporary lawful status and employment authorization to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, including many LGBT “Dream Act” students, and strengthens our communities and our country. While we celebrate this important step forward, we are reminded every day that there is much more work to be done to ensure that our immigration policy protects all American families.

We urge the administration to implement interim solutions that protect gay and lesbian binational couples who are excluded from the existing “green card” process available to all other married couples because of the Defense of Marriage Act. Every day these couples worry that they will be torn apart or forced into exile in order to stay together. This administration has said that denying green cards to the spouses of gay and lesbian Americans is a violation of the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution, but has not taken the steps necessary to mitigate the discriminatory impact of DOMA in this area. Instead, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to deny green card petitions filed by lesbian and gay Americans for their spouses.

Given that six federal court rulings have found DOMA to be unconstitutional, the administration now should put into effect the following policy to stop the deportations, separations and exile of gay and lesbian binational couples:

(1) order an immediate moratorium on deportations of the partners and spouses of gay and lesbian Americans who, but for DOMA, would be eligible for permanent resident status;
(2) provide temporary humanitarian parole to the partners, spouses and children of gay and lesbian Americans who are stuck outside the United States, so that these families can be reunited; and
(3) put on hold all “green card” petitions filed by gay and lesbian Americans for their spouses, thereby giving those spouses lawful status and employment authorization until DOMA has been struck down by the Supreme Court or repealed by Congress;

These steps would not achieve full equality, but they would keep these LGBT families together until DOMA has been defeated.”

Daniel and Yohandel To Celebrate Their Anniversary By Filing For A Green Card and Fighting For Full Equality

This is a story about true love at first sight, a story about immigration rights, justice and of the hope that comes from fighting for freedom and full equality.

Daniel and I met last summer while he was vacationing in Miami from Monterrey, Mexico. I am a Cuban-born American citizen, who arrived in this country at the age of six.

Our magical journey started the moment Daniel walked into a local bar in Miami Beach on a quiet Tuesday night. My eyes locked with his and we couldn’t help but stare at each other. It was love at first sight. A few weeks earlier, New York’s legislature had passed its gay marriage law, and Daniel was proudly wearing an “I Love NY” t-shirt with a rainbow colored heart. The t-shirt was my ticket to walk up to Daniel and launch into some small talk. Hours later we found ourselves still engaged in conversation. I was excited to have met someone new, but I also felt the anxiety of knowing that we would probably not see each other ever again as he was returning to Mexico in a few days. My brain told me that there was no point in pursuing this further. Fortunately for me, my heart convinced me to ask Daniel out on a date, so I invited him to dinner. With butterflies in my stomach I barely slept a wink thinking about the strong connection I felt for Daniel. The next day we dined at my favorite Italian restaurant. The night was perfect, we talked about our families, values, and plans for the future. We spoke until the wee hours of the morning and by the crack of dawn we knew that our lives were going to be linked together forever. Little did we know then that a year later we would be married and fighting for our right to be together.

From that day, on we began a long distance relationship, speaking to each other every minute that we could steal away from our otherwise busy days. We stayed in touch this way, speaking every day for weeks until we both realized that we needed to see each other again. One day we came up with the idea of going on a cruise. So a few weeks after our first date, we reunited on a cruise of the Caribbean.

Our time on the cruise was spent talking about every subject under the sun, we talked about all the places we would like to visit: wine-tasting tours in Bordeaux, taking a walking tour in the north of Spain, getting to know Daniel’s home country of Mexico, and exploring the national parks of the U.S. It became apparent that we envisioned doing this together.

Shortly after our trip, we decided Daniel should return to Miami so that we could brainstorm together about our options. Since Daniel was a Mexican citizen he would need a visa that permitted him to come to the United States and work, and we soon learned that was no easy matter. Daniel came back in November to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. I remember thanking God that night for having found the love of my life and my soul mate. This time around Daniel stayed for more than one month. At that point we were probably still a little naïve: we expected Daniel would get a job and apply for a work visa so that we could finally be together once and for all.

Despite his Bachelor Degree in International Relations and Commerce, his extensive work experience, and the business network he had developed, getting a company to petition for a work visa proved to be very difficult. We were shocked and upset that we could not find any legal means that would help us be together. Of course, an opposite sex couple in our situation would have had other options. A young couple falling in love could be brought together by a fiancé visa, something an American citizen can file for a girlfriend or boyfriend to bring that person to the United States so that they can marry and file for a green card. As a gay couple that path was not open to us. Even if we were married, our marriage would not be recognized by the federal government because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

This year, we rang in the new year together and promised each other that we would never be apart again no matter what. As I woke up on New Year’s Day, Daniel surprised me with a beautiful silver ring. He looked at me and promised to spend the rest of his life with me. We began to prepare our wedding and asked our families for their support. Although at first the idea of our marriage shocked our families, they soon came around; they now understand the importance of our union and what being married would mean to us.

Professor (Reverend) Ed Ingebretsen Officiates at the Marriage of Yohandel and Daniel

Living in Florida, a state that has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, we had to search for a state where we could marry. After weighing our options, we decided that getting married in our nation’s capital was the best choice. During this time, we learned about The DOMA Project and the work that its team was doing with gay binational couples like us. This reinforced our strong belief that we must follow the most ethical path: fighting for our rights. As an American citizen I felt so frustrated, powerless and discriminated against because I am deprived of the same rights that all other Americans enjoy, simply because I am gay. And what is the right that I most cherish? What is the right that my own government denies me? The right to be with the person I love. Having fled my native country of Cuba, where civil rights were taken away by the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, it is hard for me to accept that I am in the position of fighting for my own rights here in America.

This spring Daniel and I were back in an airport again, but this time we were euphoric; we were not going to be separated. We were going to be married. We flew from Miami to Washington, DC and had our wedding on the National Mall in front of the United States Congress. We timed our wedding so that we could be sure to marry before Daniel’s visa expired. We knew that we may not get another chance. If Daniel returned to Mexico, after having made so many lengthy visits to the United States in the preceding year, there was a very strong possibility that he would not be allowed to enter the country again. Being apart again was not an option anymore. We weren’t willing to hide, or to lie about our love or to compromise our principles. Our families, our friends and all the important people in our lives supported us. We believe that our love is equally worthy of support and celebration, regardless of what one hateful law might claim. We have decided to take a stand for equality, and hoping that our government and the laws of this country will soon catch up with us.

Standing in front of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on the National Mall with the dome of Capitol Hill behind us, Daniel and I exchanged vows. Although our families could not join us on our wedding day, our hearts were filled with a sense of joy that we will never forget. It became clear at that moment that we were not only coming together in union as a couple but also marking an important time in American history. Before the ceremony, I looked up at the monument of Ulysses S. Grant and recalled his fight for civil rights.  On our wedding day we joined the great American fight for civil liberty. We knew that the road to equality was going to be a long one and we knew that what lay ahead would be very challenging but we took comfort in knowing that we were not alone in this struggle for equality and that our voices would be heard.

Just Married

Sadly, it only took a few weeks into our marriage to see firsthand the damaging consequences of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” the law that denies the existence of our marriage, but defends no one. In the midst of the excitement of being newlyweds, we received news that Daniel’s grandfather had suddenly passed away. I will never forget holding Daniel’s hand as he spoke to his grandmother and apologized for not being able to be by her side to console her. I remember the guilt in his voice as he spoke to his father and mother. My heart was broken for my husband and there was nothing I could do to make it better. He could not be in Mexico with his family only because the U.S. government refused to recognize him as my husband. How can we explain to his family in Monterrey that he cannot be there because of the “Defense of Marriage Act”? My desperation then turned to anger when I thought about how a heterosexual couple would not even have to worry about that kind of a nightmarish scenario. Though we thought we were prepared for the struggles awaiting us as a binational couple, nothing can ever prepare you when you are faced with such tragedies.

Moving forward, we continue to experience daily reminders that we are second class citizens. Because our marriage is not recognized by the federal government I can’t sponsor Daniel and he cannot obtain a work permit, a driver’s license or even medical insurance. Because of DOMA we cannot plan the future that so many married couples get to create for themselves.

At this point in time, our future is a dream that we have to fight for. Our love should not be seen as any less than my heterosexual friends’ love or than my parents’ love for each other. Our love is just as true and just as important as the love between our President and his wife. Celebrities can marry and then be divorced within weeks and no one blinks an eye. Yet because we are simply gay we are told that our love is not equal, that our love is not real, that our love is not worthy of protection.

We hope that by sharing our story, other gay and lesbian couples in the broader LGBT community will relate and feel empowered to stand united to make America better not only for us, but for generations that will follow. We hope that our children and grandchildren can live in a world free of discrimination where love is equal and not illegal — where human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote.

This summer we joined The DOMA Project to be a part of a campaign to stop deportations, separations, and exile of gay and lesbian binational couples like us. We also made the decision to file for a green card on the basis of our marriage. We will join the many other couples who have formed a national advocacy campaign for “abeyance” to ask the Obama administration to put our green card case on hold, and not to deny it. We need our case to be put on hold so that Daniel can stay and work in the United States legally. We will not allow the Obama administration to simply point to the fact that DOMA is the law of the land. We will demand to be treated as the equal persons that we are. We will demand that our love be respected and honored, just as we cherish it.

VIDEO: For Thousands of Binational Couples Like Jackie & Gloria, The Fight Continues For The Right to Be Together

Every day in this country, thousands of legally married lesbian and gay couples, like Jackie and Gloria, fight for something most of us take for granted — the simple right to be together.

On February 22, 2012, San Francisco Judge Jeffrey S. White became the second Federal District Court judge in America to rule that DOMA was unconstitutional.  The first such ruling came from Boston Judge Joseph Tauro in July 2010.  At the time of his ruling, Judge Tauro was a 79-year old Republican appointee, President Richard Nixon’s longest-serving appointee to the federal bench. Tauro wrote two opinions that summer issued on the same day, each striking down DOMA as unconstitutional.  Nearly two years passed before the appeals of Judge Tauro’s decisions would be heard and decided by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  As we all know now, last week a three-judge panel of that august appellate court ruled unanimously that DOMA was unconstitutional. The opinion itself was authored by Justice Boudin, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.

Two more Federal District Courts have also found DOMA to be unconstitutional in just the past two weeks. Yesterday, in New York’s Federal District Court for the Southern District, Clinton appointee, Judge Barbara S. Jones, declared DOMA to be unconstitutional in a case involving the now-famous LGBT rights activist, plaintiff, and widow, Edie Windsor.  Last month, Oakland, California Judge Claudia Wilken  also found DOMA to be unconstitutional in a similar case.  In all there have been five rulings by four federal judges declaring DOMA Section 3 to be unconstitutional, and the unanimous federal appellate court ruling by the First Circuit in the “Gill” case, also striking down DOMA Section 3 as a violation of the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.

What does this mean for married lesbian and gay binational couples? The argument that the Obama administration should develop and insitute interim remedies immediately could hardly be stronger, as the fate of DOMA is now more wobbly than ever.  And yet the administration has done little to protect our families, instead citing DOMA as a reason for inaction.  We must keep up the pressure on the Obama administration to demand an “abeyance” policy. Green card petitions filed by gay and lesbian couples must not be denied. We cannot accept “DOMA denials” by an administration which has aggressively argued that DOMA violates the U.S. Constitution. No immigration reform or LGBT rights organization is currently engaged in a national “abeyance” campaign that would provide immediate relief for tends of thousands of lesbian and gay couples. The DOMA Project, by contrast, was conceived with exactly this advocacy in mind. To win full equality we must continue to achieve incremental gains. An abeyance policy, pending the final judicial resoultion of DOMA, is the appropriate next step. We must keep the focus on the harm caused every day to binational couples and our families, and we must be relentless. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for change to happen.

The fight is not over for binational couples, but there is some considerable wind at our backs. Make no mistake: the Supreme Court will still have the last word on whether the Defense of Marriage Act, i.e. whether the federal government’s refusal to recognize equally the legal marriages of same-sex couples, violates the U.S. constitution.  And there is no way to know for certain what the outcome will be or when that decision will come. It may be one year or it may be several years. Gay and lesbian Americans have put their lives on hold, spent their savings and sacrificed years of their lives, deprived of stability because they cannot access the green card process. That is not an acceptable status quo and we should not allow it to be our reality one day longer.

Americans have been forced to live in exile with their same-sex partners or spouses, simply because they are gay.  Their struggle continues on a daily basis.  Every day lesbian and gay binational couples are separated by thousands of miles and unable to be together; LGBT families are torn apart, with parents kept apart from their children by this unfair law, and there is something that this administration can do to prevent it. It must end now.
This administration has the power to accept all green card petitions filed by same-sex couples and put those cases on hold, thus providing legal status and employment authorization to every couple.  Gay and lesbian Americans should expect no less from this administration which has said repeatedly that DOMA is unconstitutional. If that is true, then the President should order an immediate moratorium on deportations of spouses of gay and lesbian American citizens.  The President should do what he has done before in other immigration law contexts when such dynamic change is afoot and a law is in a state of flux. President Obama should put on hold all green card cases filed by lesbian and gay Americans for their foreign spouses until the final judicial resolution of DOMA has been determined by the Supreme Court.

Abeyance is the only humane policy to keep thousands of LGBT families, as many as 25% of whom are raising children, together.

Watch: The Fight Continues for Jackie and Gloria

VIDEO: Every day in this country, thousands of legally married lesbian and gay couples, like Jackie and Gloria, fight for something most of us take for granted — the simple right to be together.

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government refuses to  recognize, respect or honor their marriages for all legal purposes including immigration.

On April 4, Jackie and Gloria traveled to Boston to witness history. Sitting in a courtroom audience, they listened as judges and attorneys debated whether the Constitution guarantees their right to be treated equally as a married couple.

Less than 60 days later, the First Circuit Court of Appeals became the first appellate court in the United States to strike down DOMA, an important milestone on the road to full equality.

Yet, for Jackie and Gloria, nothing has changed, and they don’t have the luxury of waiting until the ultimate fate of DOMA is decided.

Looking at these two young women — so full of love for each other and wanting nothing more than to build a future together — we cannot allow this cruel and discriminatory law to tear them apart.

(Video by The DeVote Campaign in collaboration with Stop The Deportations – 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.