Forced Apart by DOMA, Kevin and Francis are Engaged to be Married and Fighting to be Together
My name is Kevin and I am currently engaged to Francis. We are a gay binational couple who, like so many others, must endure being separated as a result of discriminatory marriage laws in the United States. While the United States gradually joins more than a dozen other countries where same-sex couples have the right to marry, it still lags in one important respect. Over 50 million Americans now live in states in which same-sex couples can marry, but when they do, all those loving newlyweds are still unequal in the eyes of the federal government which treats them as though they are not married. While individual states have the power to marry gays and lesbians, the federal government refuses to recognize those marriages because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And that is where the story begins for thousands of lesbian and gay Americans like me, who are separated from partners or spouses abroad. DOMA is tearing us apart.
We are fighting so that our marriage will count for all federal benefits, including those related to immigration. We accept no less. Our love is strong and it is worthy of respect and value. In sharing our story, I want to make clear that Francis and I will never give up on our dream to be together for the rest of our lives. We will also not passively wait for “change to happen,” a false construct if there ever was one. Change happens when you and I act together. If we wait, change does not come, at least not on our terms. If everyone before us had waited, we would still be decades behind the progress and privilege we enjoy today. Like past struggles for equality, our story is one of many frustrations, but also of hope for life together, a hope that should never be denied to any loving couple.
Our problems start because I am a gay American, and Francis is from The Philippines. In 2011 we knew that we were both ready to join our lives together. As a result, about a year ago he and I began researching the U.S. visa process. We quickly discovered that a fiancé visa was out of the question since this option is solely reserved for opposite sex married couples only. Because of DOMA, that option is closed to us. After much research we decided that our most viable alternative was to work within the current non-immigrant options available and aim for a tourist or student visa so we could be together, at least temporarily, in this country.
Let me begin by saying that trying to obtain a visa from the Philippines to the United States is much like trying to break out of a prison. I am sure many couples have faced this dilemma when the non-American partner is from a country not considered a “First World” country. In fact, what few Americans realize is that perfectly honest, well-intentioned citizens of most of the world’s countries will have no chance of ever of getting a visa even to visit our shores briefly and then return home. Unfortunately there is such a high rate of fraud; so many people in the world want to come to the U.S. permanently even if they profess to have a temporary intent. So my fiancé and I were forced to enter Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell to try to get a visa so we could enjoy just a short time together, all the while knowing that a straight couple who were engaged to be married could have these problems solved by applying for and receiving a fiance visa and then “permanent resident” status or a “green card” with relative ease.
After a flight to Manila and a quick check-in to a hotel across from US Embassy, Francis was off to his interview. His first attempt was denied under what is called “Section 214(b)” on the basis that he could not prove sufficient non-immigrant intent. In other words, he failed to prove that he would return to the Philippines. We were devastated, but with perspective we now see that it was almost the assured outcome of this process.
Saddened but determined, we then decided we might be more successful going the student visa route. Since Francis has a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing, we sought and found colleges in my area that offered ongoing nursing programs. Not only would we be together, but he could enhance his credentials and be able to gain job experience through work placements arranged by the school, within the guidelines of student visa restrictions.
More research, paperwork, and my having to show that, as his U.S. sponsor, I had the capacity to support his education and living expenses while in the US. I did some accounting and was able to pull together enough liquid assets to prove my financial qualifications.
In addition, Francis had to complete English courses and tests to prove his English speaking abilities. Fortunately, his enrollment was accepted by one of the colleges and he was immediately issued a Form I-20 so that he could then apply for the visa. Even better was the fact that this college is just minutes from my house.
Again, off on another flight to Manila, more hotel stays, another long line at the Embassy, and another denial. Once more, denied due to the failure to prove his intent to return.
We are obviously disappointed, but there’s something about when you want something bad enough you just are not ready to accept defeat. As a result, we decided to go the student visa route once again, use a consultant firm, armed with knowing what mistakes we made in the first two attempts.
At this point we needed a success. Since I had some vacation time coming I decided to travel to the Philippines and give us a chance to spoil ourselves at a resort for a few days, but more importantly I would have the chance to meet the family to whom I had only been able to communicate with via Skype until then.
Our time together in the spring of 2012 was amazing and beautiful. Naturally, I did not want to be any further than a few feet away from him as possible. It’s funny how you appreciate each moment together when you’re a prisoner of distance for much of the time. Upon the conclusion of our stay at a resort in Boracay, we flew to his hometown of Davao. From there we would travel to his family home of Midsayap, a rural area in southern Mindanao.
Upon our arrival in Davao, we were met by his brother, sister-in-law, and our God-Daughter, Arianna. I knew this was going to be a life changing event the moment I climbed into the van they rented to take us on our journey. In the window was a sign welcoming me to the city of Davao and to the family.
Even recalling this event takes me back to that moment and the overwhelming feelings that were going on inside my heart. I knew at this instant that this was the spouse and family I had dreamed of but never thought it possible for me.
Upon our arrival in the area Francis was born and raised we checked into our hotel. His parents and many family members had already checked in prior to our arrival. Now let me tell you that this hotel was not what a typical American person, who just happens to have spent many years in the hotel industry, would have imagined ever staying. Regardless, it was soon overshadowed by the hugs and handshakes from people who, in an instant, were no longer strangers but a family I might have known my whole life. It was as if I was coming home. Besides, I had Francis, my mahal, with me. If we were staying in a tent, I would have been happy just as well.
The next day was spent traveling to Francis’ family home. I thought I understood the word rural, but it was completely redefined on that day. Francis grew up on a farm. A typical tropical farm where his family made a living harvesting bananas, rice, and coconuts that surround a home referred to as a Nipa hut I believe. A home built from the resources right there available on the farm.
Even in the tropical heat that day, to have an intimate look at my fiancés background and perspective was a gift that I cannot express completely in words alone. Here we are two people, from completely different worlds, whose paths somehow crossed to lead to this moment.
Later than evening his family threw us an engagement celebration in his rural hometown. The event was one that we will never forget for many reasons. One of which is that, to me, this was our formal engagement that was both recognized and supported by his family that evening.
One must understand that this is a poor country, with families living in conditions that are unimaginable to so many people here in the US. Yet, his family used their very limited resources and put together a celebration to both recognize our commitment in addition to officially welcoming me to the family.
We are now on the side of a barely paved road, in an open air diner that is decorated with crepe paper, folding tables, and balloons with the words “Welcome to our Family Kevin Yeager, We Love You” imprinted on them. I lost count of how many family members came that evening, not to mention how many pictures were taken of my fiancé and I with various aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.
The highlight for me the following day was to be officially welcomed by my fiancé’s Lola (grandmother), the matriarch of the family. I remember to this very moment, the feeling of her grasping my wrist and whispering, “I would like to welcome you to our family.” During our visit at her home, she had the strongest, yet loving grip on me the whole time. I was again experiencing moments that I wanted to live in and somehow make them last forever.
I learned much on this particular trip. I find myself in a small remote town where I was witness to a group of people who struggle on a daily basis just to maintain basic necessities, yet gladly offer an abundance of unconditional love and acceptance. All this was in contrast to having just spent a few days at a five star beach resort. Amazing how an evening of hugs and welcomes completely trumps a resort that even includes your own beach butler! I was living a dream, one I had thought impossible… a man to whom I willingly offer my commitment and a family who invites me graciously and unconditionally into their lives.
Upon my return to the U.S., Francis continued his English classes to study for the English exam as needed for our next shot at a student visa. Again, his enrolment application was accepted by the college, he received the I-20, we paid the $200.00 SEVIS fee along with both the consultants and visa application fees. A trip to Cebu to meet with consultant, then flight to Manila, more hotels, and standing loaded down with documentation for an interview. The door was slammed shut in our face again with nothing but an emptier bank account, heartbreak, and one more piece of paper with excuses for denying Francis the visa. As attorneys in the United States, such as those at The DOMA Project, would have told us, these efforts are almost always in vain. We did not have the benefit of that knowledge, but it may not have mattered. We felt we needed to try every avenue so not to remain forcibly separated. Our love was so strong it could not tolerate surrender.
Now we find ourselves saddened that we must continue to endure this separation due to the injustice of our current immigration laws. Although I am periodically able to travel to and from the Philippines with no problem, it is both expensive and relegated to when time off from work is available. Our story is like so many other same-sex couples in similar circumstances who are forced to live apart due to current discriminatory restrictions. I wonder how many people realize the financial and emotional toll same-sex and/or bi-national couples have to endure.
I now am more determined than ever to find a path in which Francis and I can be together. I have considered relocating to the Philippines and living in exile at least until a change is made in our current laws. I have consulted numerous immigration attorneys who are sympathetic, yet all agree that this is almost a no-win situation. There has been discussion of the option of was possibly sponsoring my fiancé for a work visa through my family’s business. I have researched this, but it appears to be quite complicated navigating all the paperwork and understanding the requirements, if it is even viable.
With regard to employment-based visas, these can be just as difficult to obtain as a student or tourist visa. Three common categories of employment-based visas are L-1, H-1B, and E visas. Even though Francis may be eligible for an H-1B visa as a nurse, this type of this visa does present some problems. First H-1Bs have an annual quota and this year’s quota has been filled which means USCIS is not accepting petitions for H-1B visas until April 1, 2013, employment on October 1, 2013. In addition, H-1B employers must show the position requires a Bachelor’s degree. Francis would need a U.S. employer to file a petition for the H-1B on his behalf and the position would have to be directly related to his field of study. USCIS’ position on nurses is that only senior or highly-specialized nurses qualify for H-1Bs because registered nurses generally need only an associate’s degree. It is incredibly unfair and frustrating that we are left with almost no options. But of course there is one option, the only option, the single most obvious and apparent option that presents itself to every binational couple, though it only functions at this time for opposite sex couples; that option is a fiancé visa and a green card. That is the fight we must undertake now. We cannot be distracted by an alphabet soup of visas! It is degrading, costly, and insane to play this game. My government has no business treating me this way, and I am ready to fight back.
In spite of the sadness and frustration, we will continue our fight to be together. Each obstacle we face results in our being even more determined to succeed in our goal of creating the life of which we dream. A life, unfortunately, unfairly allowed to a limited segment of our country’s population. Our hope is that soon we, and all other couples currently separated or facing the possibility of separation, will no longer have to endure this legacy of injustice. We all deserve a life and family not separated by distance and discriminatory rules and regulations. Our dreams are your dreams. They are the dreams of all human beings. We seek to live in peace, together.
I made a promise to Francis. I will not stop, I will not give in, and I will not allow any person, embassy, rule, or injustices have the final say in our life together. This is my vow to my beloved Francis, the one man whose path crossed mine by some universal miracle. I now fight not only for our dream, but for the dreams of countless couples who know the pain of separation due to the inequality wrought by DOMA.