Forced to Move Back and Forth Between Los Angeles and Johannesburg, Avril and Rika Share Why DOMA Must Go
Rika and I met in 1997 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where we were both born and raised. We are both film and television editors. I had been on my own for twenty years and had begun to believe that was how it would always be for me. Then, I walked into an edit suite one day and there she was! We worked on a few productions together and found that we enjoyed the experience tremendously. I guess it was inevitable that, in the year 2000, romance would sneak into our relationship. We moved in together in 2001. Following a traumatic experience that made in living in South Africa really difficult for me, I applied for an EB-1 immigrant visa (one of the rare employment based “green card” categories for which you can self-petition, Employment Based First Preference Alien of Extraordinary Ability) and it was granted four years later. In 2006, we came to the U.S. and I was admitted as a lawful permanent resident with my green card. We loved it here – being out and about and not having to rush home before dark. We could walk everywhere and, for the first time in our lives, we felt free. On that trip, we met with my immigration lawyer who told us that there was no way I could sponsor Rika as my partner. If we were a heterosexual couple, none of this would be an issue; Rika would have been eligible for a “green card” as my spouse, as a “derivative” family member when my EB-1 petition was granted, or later I could have petitioned for her. But of course, as a same-sex couple we had none of those rights because our relationship was invisible under the law. The fact that we had been in a committed relationship for six years, had no value in the eyes of immigration law. Therefore, becoming an F-1 (student) visa seemed to be the only option for Rika, until we figured out some other solution that would keep us together in the same country.
Following our first visit to the U.S., we went back to South Africa to pack up our belongings for our move to the U.S. At the end of May 2007, we began our new life here, together. Even though she already had two university degrees, Rika enrolled at a U.S. college and studied for 18 months. She was then allowed to work for a year after graduation (this employment authorization is known as “post completion optional practical training”). After a few months, the anxiety set in. What would happen when the year was up? We had already spent our savings on her education and the move across continents, how could we make this work for any length of time? The strain on our relationship was often almost too much to bear.
So, in her late 30s, Rika became the oldest intern at a large company! Like many foreign students, her internship led to a job offer. Her vast experience in post-production led the company to agree to apply for an H1B work visa – everything looked good to go! But the H1B numbers ran out (they are only available in limited number each year and the supply is often quickly exhausted) and we missed the boat. We were devastated. We tried to stay positive. We focused on our relationship, our love, our commitment to each other. Over cardboard boxes and packing tape, we celebrated our 9th year of being together.
And we knew that even if we went somewhere else together, I could not leave for an extended period (we were told to limit my absences to less than six months at a stretch) to maintain my status as a permanent resident of the United States (we did not want to jeopardize that). We also knew this would mean we may have to be apart. We had been out of the country for about three months when Rika was offered her old job back – this time the H1B petition was submitted early enough and there were still visas available. We came back to Los Angeles in late 2010 and in September 2011, I became an American citizen. It was a huge event in my life, but it was bitter-sweet. Instead of the two of us standing side by side pledging allegiance to the flag, we were separated by immigration policies that refuse to see us as a family. We are in the process of applying for Rika’s second 3-year work visa. The strain has been enormous: Rika feels that she constantly has to push herself to do better than everybody else, because if she loses her job, we lose the life we’ve built, the plans we’ve made, and goals we’ve set for our lives together. However, now that I am a United States citizen I am more keenly aware than ever that I should be able to end this anxiety and stress by petitioning for Rika as my spouse, as any other American citizen would do. Yet DOMA prevents that.
Rika is the love of my life. I am in my mid-50s and cannot keep starting over in a different country. This is my home and now the country of which I am a citizen. This is a country that I have grown to love and where I voted proudly for the first time last year. All the same, I am all too aware that DOMA’s continued existence means that my 13-year commitment to Rika is not fully respected in the country we’ve come to call home.
Joining the many brave DOMA Project couples who have shared their stories against DOMA, we have decided to share our story to help raise awareness of this injustice. Every time a story is shared, we continue to build momentum for marriage equality and equal recognition of our relationships at the federal level. The greater our momentum, the more likely is a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court to be. So, please forward our story to your family and friends via email, Facebook, twitter, or any other means! Together, we will make sure that laws like DOMA will never again cause the kind of inhumane circumstances that we and other couples have had to suffer. With much determination, I know that we can and will make a difference. I look forward to the day that I will file a petition for Rika’s green card as my spouse, but until that day happens we are both committed to working with all binational couples to bring about change by winning over the hearts and minds of most people who have never pondered the extraordinary harm caused by DOMA to our families. We will win, and we will not stop fighting until we do.