Forced Into Exile, Jesse & Max Fight To Return: File Fiancé Visa Petition and Challenge DOMA

I never imagined that what began as a typical night out on the town in Manhattan would mark the beginning of a most amazing journey with the love of my life.
On that magical night in January 2001, I met Max in a nightclub. When he told me that he was visiting from Argentina and that it was his first day in New York I offered him a tour of “my city.” We felt very comfortable with each other, very quickly, and I wanted to share everything (stories, favorite places, and friends). During those initial weeks he met my neighbors, friends and even my parents. I’ll never forget how he gave them such a warm embrace upon meeting them. They immediately loved his open spirit and warmth. It’s a Latin thing.
Shortly after, Max returned home to Argentina leaving me with an invitation to visit him there. As soon as I could I made the trip. I traveled to Buenos Aires for the first time and Max and I were reunited. This time he showed me his country, his life and introduced me to his family and friends. We realized that our relationship was getting more serious, and fast. We spent the next 12+ months traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Argentina and between those visits we kept in touch by endless phone calls and e-mails. During this time I met and got to know Max’s parents, Marta and Carlos, and his brothers Pablo, Matias and Sebastian, as well as many of his close friends. His family welcomed me with open hearts. We were young and falling in love. To have both families across the world from each other embrace us as a couple was wonderful.

During this time, I joined a binational couples group at the Lesbian & Gay Community Center in Greenwich Village. I had never been so head-over-heels in love; at the same time, I realized that we had a practical challenge: the person I was falling for was from another country. I knew there would be a lot to learn (and laws to navigate) in order for Max and I to live together in New York. I remember being astonished to discover just how difficult it was for other gay binational couples to make a life together. Max and I were enjoying those early “honeymoon” days of a relatively new relationship and I was already confronted with numerous stories of couples whose relationships had ended. This was because they could not find a solution around the discriminatory laws that prevented them from living together in the U.S. I was determined that we would meet this challenge head on and that we would not be broken up because of the arbitrary reality of borders or citizenship.

In February 2002, Max obtained a 3-year work visa in the U.S. and we were finally able to live together under one roof; no more long e-mails and late night phone calls. We lived in Greenwich Village, the same neighborhood that witnessed our first kiss. As happy as we were, we were constantly aware that being together depended on Max’s job and his work visa. Without a job his visa would be terminated and he would have to leave. This reality became an enormously stressful experience. We were grateful to have worked out a temporary solution, but a dark cloud lurked as we wondered how we could make this more stable.

During these years we grew as individuals and as a couple. We had many memorable times together in New York. Of course, it was not a completely smooth road. Aside from the up and downs every couple goes through we had the tremendous stress of Max’s unstable immigration status. Max’s reliance on a job and a visa meant that he did not share the same privileges that I did as a U.S. citizen. That created some tension, which we tried to acknowledge and work through as much as possible. But the reality was still there: Max had to sacrifice his career and accept any job that would sponsor him, incurring a small fortune in legal bills, and never knowing whether his stay in the U.S. would come to a crashing end at any moment. This stress almost overwhelmed us, but we managed to keep it from destroying the love we shared.

Jesse and Max with their dog Duncan and Jesse’s parents at Gay Pride in New York in June 2003

After 4 years of living with this constant instability and imbalance in our lives, we were forced to make a very difficult decision. With no route to a green card ahead and only a precarious temporary work visa, we realized that for us to continue our lives together we would have to find a new home outside the United States. We simply could not remain in a country that threw so many obstacles in our path. Our relationship was too valuable to us. We were both offered jobs in Budapest, Hungary. We informed our families and packed our possessions. We knew we were lucky. Despite being forced into this Hungarian exile, far from everyone who was dear to us, we also knew that many other gay binational couples find no way to be together at all and end up breaking up as a result.

Leaving our supportive friends and family behind was one of the hardest challenges we ever endured together. We left New York with some bags and our beloved dog, Duncan, with sadness but also hope that things will get better in another country. Leaving my family behind was much more heartbreaking than I allowed myself to realize, even though they knew that our move to Hungary was out of necessity not choice.

In 2007 Max and I celebrated six years together and prepared to move again. This time I was offered a job in London. It was a great opportunity and we were fortunate that the U.K. recognized Max as my partner and gave him a visa to live there as well. Soon Max found work as well and we settled down to new lives in London.

Max and I have never stopped yearning to return to New York. We cannot come back to the U.S. and live as unequal, unrecognized and marginalized human beings. We do want to come back but we want to live in New York legally recognized as a couple. We now live in a country, the U.K., that grants gay and lesbian couples legal status, but this is not our home. As the current law stands, the United States cannot be our home either.

This point always hits me the hardest when we arrive in the U.S. for a visit and we face the dreaded customs and immigration clearance. At that point we must separate and enter the United States through two different lines: citizens and non-citizens. I wait for Max to re-appear on the other side, never forgetting that he does not have the same right as I do to enter the United States. A small part of me fears that for some reason he may be held back and not permitted to enter. It is in these moments that everything becomes crystal clear to me: we must fight this injustice for all couples struggling to be together who may not be as fortunate as Max and I to have found a temporary refuge in exile.

Max and I joined this campaign because we want to return to the United States and marry, but we want to do so on our terms, with full equality and full dignity. Together we decided to put these words into action. For almost a decade, discriminatory laws have controlled us and have flung us around the globe like rag dolls forcing us to live thousands of miles from our families. We believe strongly that this must be challenged. With that in mind, I have filed a fiancé visa petition for Max.

Many reading this may not realize that U.S. immigration laws permit an American citizen to petition for his or her fiancé(e) … as long as the couple is heterosexual. In fact, U.S. immigration law elevates the status of heterosexual marriage to such an esteemed position that it actually offers a visa for a couple intending to marry specifically that they can be together to marry in the U.S. and reside permanently together. The only requirements are that the couple must prove that they have a relationship; that they have met at least once in the last two years; and that they have an intention to marry. In contrast to this simple process, it is outrageous that lesbian and gay binational couples struggle and fight to be together.

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal government denies recognition to same-sex marriages and for this reason my request that Max be granted a visa to come to the U.S. as my fiancé is an uphill battle. But that will not stop me from trying. I am petitioning my government to give me the same rights as all other Americans and to end the senseless discrimination caused by DOMA. We know that this petition is a direct challenge to DOMA, but we see no alternative but to fight.

It is our dream to return to the U.S. and marry in Big Sur, California surrounded by our close friends and family, staying in one place…. once for all. We are prepared to fight to make that dream a reality.

Josh & Henry on Gay Russian News Site

Full story here.

Dance Instructor Fights For Gay Rights

Read full article here.

Josh & Henry Celebrate Fourth Anniversary: Save Their Marriage and Stop The Deportation

Sign and share this petition urging Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano to halt deportations of spouses of gay and lesbian Americans.

                                                                                                             © Paul Schindler 2010

Tonight, Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia will be featured speakers at this event honoring Miss New York, Claire Buffie, at La Pomme Club in Manhattan. Miss New York is a vocal supporter of Marriage Equality. Tickets are $10 and proceeds will benefit the Children’s Miracle Network and the Miss New York Organization.

Josh and Henry have collected almost 9,000 supporters on their Facebook page. If you have not yet visited that page, please do so here. Click on “like” and then “share” this page with others so they can reach their goal of 10,000 supporters.

Save Our Marriage – Stop the Deportation of Henry Velandia Reaches 8,000 Supporters

If you haven’t joined and shared this Facebook campaign please do so here. Josh and Henry are trying to reach 10,000 supporters before Henry’s November 17, 2010 deportation hearing.

Carrie & Claire: Family Separated for Five Years

Carrie and Claire at their September 2007 wedding in Vancouver, Canada

Carrie Tucker is a 55-year old native Californian, a veteran of the United States Air Force and a former State of California employee.  Carrie is also disabled, having had to take disability retirement after working and paying taxes her whole life.  Carrie’s wife, Claire Pollard, is a 49-year-old British citizen who has worked her entire life.  Claire resides in the United Kingdom.
Carrie and Claire met in early 2005 on an internet social site.  They quickly became friends and began emailing and instant messaging on a daily basis.  Neither Carrie or Claire was looking for love, but by early 2006, after countless chats, emails and phone calls, they both felt a strong desire to meet in person.  Claire traveled to California in April 2006 for a two week holiday.  Everything they felt for one another was confirmed—Carrie and Claire were deeply in love.  Carrie’s 14-year-old daughter, Ariana, also enjoyed meeting Claire and let it be known that she approved of Claire for her mom.
After Claire returned to the UK, the emails, phone calls and internet became their daily lifeline.  By July 2006, they knew they needed to share their lives together as life partners, spouses.  On September 7, 2006, Claire was back in California for another brief holiday and the two had a commitment ceremony, officiated by a United Church of Christ minister.  In attendance were Ariana, who wrote a loving message she gave during the ceremony, and Carrie’s sister, Christine, who took photos, gave her blessing as well.

Carrie, Claire and Ariana at their 2006 commitment ceremony

From the start, Carrie and Claire agreed that Claire would move to California, where Carrie’s family lives.  Because of her physical disabilities, a move to the United Kingdom was not possible for Carrie. Together, the couple pursued every possibility offered by the immigration law to find a way for Claire to legally live in the U.S.  They looked into H-1B visas and student visas.  The couple contacted Immigration Equality and confirmed they had looked into the only ways to proceed.  They were one couple of the thousands of binational couples whose love knew no borders,  and whose commitment to each other was boundless, but they were face-to-face with the reality that the Defense Of Marriage Act  legally keeps them apart.
Claire was fortunate to work for an employer that allowed her to take 2-3 weeks holiday a few times a year and the women filled their time together trying to live as if they never had to part.  For years, these few visits each year became their routine, the rhythm of their relationship.
On one of these visits, Carrie and Claire decided to marry. They took the 2 hour plane trip to Vancouver and were married on September 15, 2007,  a year after their commitment ceremony in Sacramento.  During their stay in Vancouver, they discovered they liked the city and the climate would be mild enough for Carrie’s health.  They started to consider a plan to move to Canada, with Claire going first and Carrie following after her daughter turned 18 and graduated high school.  They contacted highly reputable Canadian immigration attorneys, who determined the women could qualify to immigrate under the Skilled Worker program with Claire as the lead applicant.  It seemed a future together was in reach. Even though it meant moving to a third country, it meant they could be together. Finally.
And then, just as it looked like there was light at the end of the tunnel,  the global economy crashed and went into recession.  Canada retroactively eliminated Claire’s skill set from the Skilled Worker category.  This was an expensive and devastating blow to the pair.  They learned that if Claire could get a sponsor employer she might still get a work permit and work toward permanent residency.  In May 2008, Claire took an unpaid, one-month leave from her work and the couple rented a condominium in Vancouver while Claire did a job search.  Sadly, this effort came to naught.
Carrie and Claire are legally married. Their marriage is recognized under California state law. Ariana sees Claire as her stepmother. Carrie’s family has welcomed Claire with open arms. And still, the federal government sees Carrie, an Air Force veteran, and the love of her life, her wife, Claire, as nothing but strangers to each other.  Denying this loving, committed, married couple equal recognition of their marriage has devastating consequences, not only for Claire and Carrie, but also for Ariana who is now 18, and has been deprived of having stepmom Claire in her life for more than five years.
In the summer of 2010, Claire’s job was made redundant and she came to California for the longest time the couple had ever shared together—a whopping 85 days—for the first time they were together long enough to actually calculate carefully as to be sure not to run astray of the visa waiver limit of 90 days.  Claire is currently job hunting in the UK and they have no immediate plans for a future together in one country; just a fervent prayer that the discriminatory laws of the US will change and allow Carrie to sponsor her wife for residency in the US.
Beyond being denied the ability to live together (which, in and of itself, is excruciatingly painful) is the fact that the laws have denied Carrie’s daughter the loving presence of Claire during her teen years.  Ariana and Claire are virtual strangers, Carrie feels fragmented by the split.  The years lost to this loving family can never be recaptured.  The Tucker-Pollards only want what other married couples have—the ability to live with their family, together.
The impact of the Defense of Marriage Act on Ariana cannot be ignored. When lawmakers passed DOMA they failed to consider its impact on the children of binational couples. The fight to repeal DOMA is a fight to preserve marriages and families.

ABC News: Josh & Henry Fighting Deportation, Carrie & Claire Forced Apart For Five Years

Read the full story here.

Dan & Alex Struggle with Separation

Even as a confessed hopeless romantic, I never really imagined falling in love while visiting another country. In May of 2008, I traveled to Brazil to study urban planning in several southern cities, including Saõ Paulo, Curitiba and Florianopolis. I was still smarting from a breakup and sorry if this sounds cliché, but I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

During my second week in Brazil, I was on a bus tour when one of our student guides, struck up a conversation with me. Getting to know me a little better, she suggested introducing me to her friend, Alex. Naturally, I was skeptical of the idea of a “blind” date, especially while traveling in a foreign country, but one group dinner later and I was enamored. Alex and I talked all night. His English was infinitely better than my Portuguese. He patiently corrected my pronunciation, smiling the entire time. We spent the rest of the weekend together, dancing at a concert, hiking to a beach and celebrating a fellow student’s birthday over sushi. Alex was my beautiful and sweet tour guide and it was unexpected, but wonderful.

Over the next few weeks, Alex and I stayed in close contact, chatting on the phone and online. He took a bus trip six hours south to visit me in Curitiba and, before the end of my trip, I traveled back to Florianopolis so we could spend my final days in Brazil together.

A few months later, after many long conversations on line and by phone, Alex secured a tourist visa and arrived in the United States in time to visit me and my family for Thanksgiving. Of course, we were both a bit nervous; six months had passed since we first met and we weren’t sure whether we’d still have the same chemistry we had when we saw each other the previous spring. Thankfully, we need not have worried. Our relationship was natural and easy; Alex stayed with me and it gave us a chance to find out that living together was more than comfortable. My friends and family embraced him immediately and loved him almost as much as I did.

Alex applied for school, hoping to return to the United States in the future as a student.  As an engineering student at one of Brazil’s top universities, Alex was receiving a free education, but he was interested in trying to get into an engineering program in the U.S. so we could spend more time together. Ironically, because of the extremely rigorous nature of his academic program, Alex’s grades were strong but not strong enough to get accepted to a top engineering program in the U.S. to which he had applied. Giving up on that option, Alex returned to Brazil after having spent six months visiting me. Needless to say, our separation was extremely difficult.

In July of 2009 I traveled to Brazil to spend my 30th birthday with Alex. We spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro, then took a bus and boat trip to a small island called Ilha Grande, a few hours from Rio. It was another amazing trip, but bittersweet; ten days was not nearly enough time together. 

The following November, Alex returned for another visit. The time together was wonderful as always. Alex continued to become more a part of my family. We enjoyed each other’s company even when we were dealing with life’s more mundane tasks like grocery shopping or enjoying a quiet evening watching a movie. We went on double dates with gay and straight couples so that Alex could meet my friends. We had dinner with my parents on a regular basis and attended charity fundraising events together. At the end of a four month visit Alex’s visa was due to expire and he had to return to Brazil. We always tried to make the most of our time together even though we knew that all we could have at this point was brief (always too brief!) visits.

We came to realize that we wanted to live together, and that the simplest remedy would be to get married so that I could sponsor Alex as any other couple would. Putting our lives on hold, going back and forth at great expense and loss of time together… that was not supposed to be the way the process worked. You meet, you fall in love, you build a life together.

But the reality for us, as for thousands of other binational couples was not that simple. As a married couple we would not be recognized by U.S. immigration law. The law that is designed to keep families together tears our apart.

We are a committed, loving couple doing everything possible to be together, despite the system’s seeming insistence that we remain apart. We would like to get married and we would like to have that marriage be treated the same as all other marriages. It is very difficult not to get angry about the extreme unfairness of this inequality. Despite our strong desire to live together, we are not able to celebrate the momentous occasions of our lives together. Instead we struggle to accept short yearly visits.

This summer, at Immigration Equality’s Safe Haven Awards in New York City, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was honored. As readers of that book probably know, Ms. Gilbert had sponsored her Brazilian husband for a green card. She learned through that process of the plight of same-sex binational couples. In her remarks, Ms. Gilbert eloquently noted, “in addition to being unjust, and cruel and unconscionable, these laws are stupid. Because they are taking away some of the best and brightest minds and prospects out of the country.”

It is sad that like many other binational couples, we are considering the only option left to us: living outside of the United States. Although we strongly prefer to stay in the United States, the unconstitutional, discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act perpetuates inequality and is effectively forcing us to move to Brazil.

Perhaps readers would be surprised to know that Brazil offers us more rights as a gay couple than does the United States, because it offers me the opportunity to immigrate there on the basis of my relationship with Alex. We want to decide where to live based on what is best for us. We want a real freedom of choice. We want to be able to spend our lives together, surrounded by supportive family and friends.

I write and call my legislators regularly, but with the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform uncertain and no legislative solution in sight, Alex and I wait in limbo, separated by the discriminatory policies of the United States. When the Defense of Marriage Act is defeated we will finally be able to enjoy the same rights as all loving couples.

Restore Sanity, Repeal DOMA

Greg and Wayne protest DOMA at the National Rally to Restore Sanity
October 30, Washington, DC

Samantha and Alexandra: Living in Exile

Samantha and Alexandra on their wedding day, September 3, 2007.

Ours is just one story of thousands.

My name is Alexandra. I am a Dutch citizen. I live in Holland with my wife, Samantha. My wife is an American citizen who, because of DOMA, is forced to live in “exile” from her country as long as she is with me.

In September 1996, when the U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act they carved discrimination against married lesbian and gay couples into law, years before any of those couples would be able to legally marry. More recently, in various countries and several American states, same-sex couples have been marrying, but the U.S. government refuses to recognize the reality of these legal marriages with devastating consequences.  We are just one out of thousands of bi-national couples forced by American lawmakers to live outside the United States for the mere fact that we are a same sex couple.

Our story goes back to the year 2000 when we met through a friend on Yahoo groups and we started talking through the group and emailing back and forth.  Soon we were spending hours each day “talking” to each other on line through Yahoo messenger. Through these conversations we got to know each other very well.  By the end of 2001 I had saved up enough money to visit Samantha in Connecticut for a month.

I realize that meeting someone online and then flying halfway across the world to meet her is risky. But in my heart I felt that she was genuine. I was falling in love with the person I had come to know online and I needed to meet her in person. During that visit we connected on a deep level. To my delight, she really was the person she had portrayed herself to be in all of our online conversations. During this visit we realized that we wanted to be together and we started figuring out a way for this to happen.

Of course, I had to go back home because I was in the States courtesy of the 90-day maximum “visa waiver” visitor program. I returned in 2002 and 2004. I was the one making all the trips because for Samantha it was financially impossible for her to afford the travel. After she paid for basic expenses her retail job at Costco at $10 an hour did not afford her enough income to do much else.

The longer we were apart the more we knew that we wanted to be together and so we tried to figure out a way for me to move to the United States. We found out very quickly that there was no way she would be able to sponsor me on the basis of our relationship since we were both women.

I considered attending an American university to further my education. This would at least give us a few years to decide our next move. Unfortunately, as a student I would have very little opportunity for lawful employment and extraordinarily high tuition costs. I was not eligible for loans so I would have to find $11,000 a year to support myself. Another dead end.

At the end of each trip, Samantha and I said goodbye to each other with tears and heavy hearts. It tore at us to have to part ways again and again with no path for a future together.

Between trips there were long and lonely periods punctuated by a routine of morning emails, a life line between Connecticut and Holland for two women in love.  Our evening phone calls were starting to become torturous because I could hear the hurt in her voice. I would cry every time I hung up the phone. It got so bad that I was crying myself to sleep at night. Going to bed alone after having talked to her became unbearable.

The distance took its toll on us. Finally, it was too much for me to cope with and I broke up with Samantha. That break up brought us closer together because, single once more, I realized that none of the women I was meeting in Holland compared to Samantha. We started talking again and I decided in 2004 that I would visit once more.  We spent the entire month of October together talking more and listening more intently to each other than we had before. On that trip our feelings for each other became more apparent and stronger than ever.

Still…I had to return home to Holland and I had to leave her behind again.  Finally we decided that we could not tolerate living apart. I started figuring out a way to get her to Holland.

Samantha’s financial circumstances were bleak. She was about to become homeless so time was running out fast. She applied for a passport and I scrounged up enough money for her plane ticket to Amsterdam.  In January 2005 she arrived in Amsterdam. Finally, she was home with me.

Eventually we settled down to life in Holland. With the few documents required we applied for a residency permit for Samantha based on our relationship. Six months later we were notified that she had been approved and she would have to go to our tax office and get a social security number so she could work.

Soon after I asked Samantha to marry me. We were married on September 3, 2007. It had been 7 years since we first met on line. It was the dream wedding. Samantha’s father, her brother and her brother’s girlfriend flew in to be there. Her father was the official witness. Even though it is not customary in Holland for the father of the bride to walk his daughter down the aisle, we wanted to incorporate that American tradition. We wanted Samantha’s father to be able to say that he walked his daughter down the aisle and gave her away.

So both my father and Samantha’s father walked us down the aisle. It was the happiest day of our lives. My extended family and our closest friends and some of my co-workers attended. It was absolutely beautiful.

We are now legally married with all of the same rights as my heterosexual sister, heterosexual relatives and heterosexual friends. Samantha has more rights here than she ever had in America and this saddens both of us to no end.

Samantha is still hurt by the fact that her own country does not recognize us as a couple.  Having Samantha move to Holland was the beginning of a whole new set of hardships.  Now we no longer have the distance between us which, believe me is wonderful. But we experience a sense of isolation from Samantha’s family, an isolation that was forced upon us because we had no choice by for Samantha to move to Holland.

We have not seen Samantha’s mother in four years. Samantha misses her mother terribly but we simply cannot afford the travel costs. Every time we experience an unexpected expense (e.g. our car needs to be repaired or replaced) a trip to the U.S. has to be put off for another year.

If you are reading this, you might be thinking to yourself: Samantha chose to live in Holland. But we do not see our life in Holland as a choice since Samantha’s country denied us the choice of building our lives together in Connecticut.  Samantha was forced by the U.S. government to move to Holland and it breaks my heart to see the pain caused to her by the separation from her family and her country. Samantha has worked hard since settling down in Holland. She managed to find a good job. For the first time she has adequate health insurance and opportunities she never had in America.  But, believe me when I say this, none of that matters to us. It’s not the point.

My wife enjoys more freedom here and has more rights than she ever had in America and this seems wrong to me.  Every time an American relative tells us they miss us and want us to move home, deep down inside we feel angry. But instead of lashing out, we educate them on why we aren’t moving back.

DOMA affects us deeply on a daily basis. DOMA also impacts Samantha’s mother, father, brother, grandmother, aunts and uncles even though they might not always realize how much it does affect them.

My wife can go back to America… but she would have to go back alone. For Samantha to return to America means breaking up our family.

And faced with that non-choice, my wife continues to live in exile.

Through all these years that we struggled, spending our savings and crying until we had no more tears, heterosexual binational couples in the same position simply filed papers with U.S. immigration and live together in peace. As it should be. Outrageous that what works for them is denied to us.

In the end, it comes down to this: DOMA needs to go.

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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.