President Obama: All I Want For Christmas Is To Be With Raúl

 


The holidays are a time to be with family and friends; a time for sharing with loved ones, a time for gratitude, and a time for reaffirming our most cherished beliefs, values and traditions.  However, for those gay and lesbian binational couples who, like me and Raúl, are forced to spend Christmas apart, the holidays are particularly difficult.  While I cherish our first (and so far only) Christmas together back in 2009, I could not have imagined then how much we would struggle for the simple right to be together in this country. At the time, I was half-way through my Peace Corps service in Ecuador. On Christmas Eve, Raúl and I prepared a delicious, traditional midnight dinner, much to the chagrin of my sleepy non-traditional neighbors! It seems like only yesterday. Now, two years later to the day, we are be engaged to be married and partnered under Ecuador’s civil union law, but still more than 3,000 miles apart.

On our mini-honeymoon to Baños

This holiday season, Raúl and I would like to take a moment to share our story once more with family, friends and all fair-minded individuals, known and unknown. In the past two years, we have worked together to overcome obstacles to strengthen our relationship and secure our future together as a couple. We haven’t always been successful in our endeavors. Last year, we attempted to bring Raúl here to spend the holidays with my friends and family. He had never visited the United States before and he had not met any of my family in person, although my parents were starting to get to know him by Skype. We were hopeful that as our extended family gathered for the holidays in Illinois that Raúl would be with us. But that was not to be.

Those already familiar with our story know that Raúl’s visa application was denied in 2010 because of his inability to convince a consular officer in Guayaquil that he intended to return to Ecuador after visiting me and my family for the holidays. Torn between the U.S. and Ecuador, I decided I would spend Christmas with my family in the U.S., having already been absent for the previous two years because of my Peace Corps service. After the holidays, I returned to Ecuador to be with Raúl and plan our next steps.

My extended family meets Raúl at my grandparents’ 50th anniversary celebration in August

This year we were successful in securing a visa for Raúl to come for my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in August. It was the first time Raul met my family. He was able to meet my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all of whom received him with a warm heart and open arms. Raul is very grateful for the many experiences he had while in the U.S. His many firsts included a baseball game, a football game, waterskiing, bratwursts, and visits to Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City. A highlight of the visit was when we got engaged atop my apartment building in Chicago on a beautiful autumn day, overlooking Lake Michigan, the University of Chicago campus and downtown in the distance. The experience was truly an unforgettable one. In keeping with the holiday spirit, we would both like to thank those that made that fablous month-and-a-half long visit possible: Lavi Soloway of the Stop the Deportations: The DOMA Project; Parmer Heacox, Peace Corps/Ecuador Director; Congressman Bruce Braley; the US Consulate in Guayaquil; my parents and grandparents; and all our friends and family who lent a listening ear or shoulder to cry on.

Though Raúl returned to Ecuador months ago, we maintained contact as before with daily phone calls and Google video chat. Even with daily contact, it has been hard for us to live apart, and particularly for Raúl who now lives in what he describes as multiple worlds. In one, we are able to be open about our love for one another. In another, he must keep us and himself a secret for fear of losing his job and housing. Feeling foreign in his own country, Raúl cannot claim the U.S. as home even though we both know it is the only place where our family, our love and our dreams for the future can be one.

Last week, Raúl and I celebrated our civil union on our two-year anniversary in Ecuador. With a small group of our Ecuadorian friends, including my host mother and aunt from my Peace Corps site, we held a short ceremony and fiesta to commemorate our special day. The simple ceremony and reception (we spend most of our ever-diminishing resources on plane tickets) was a sign of what we hope to come.  Of course, leaving Raúl at the end of my trip was heartbreaking. We both dream of someday of getting married soon in the United States in the company of friends and family, once we know Raúl will be able to stay and make a home with me. It would be a victory worthy of great celebration, not just for the two of us and the estimated 40,000 same-sex bi-national couples currently living in separation and exile but also for our families who yearly wonder, as my cousin Katelyn just asked me moments ago, “are you going to Christmas?”

Our civl union ceremony last week in Ecuador

Unfortunately, our dream is not yet reality; a “yes” to my family Christmas in the U.S. continues to mean “no” to Raul, my partner. As another Christmas draws near, Raul and I are once again thousands of miles apart. Certainly, we have much for which to be grateful; many bi-national same-sex couples still have not even had the chance to be in the U.S. together. A quick visit to Stop The Deportations – The DOMA Project and you will read profiles of many such couples (and even more appear in the comments); in some cases, they have been together much longer than Raúl and I. This serves to remind us that we all must press on. For every success there are many that cannot maintain a long distance relationship under constant pressure placed on us by the poorly-named “Defense of Marriage Act”  or DOMA, and we must be a source of support for each other and stay engaged in this advocacy until we achieve full equality.

In closing, we often take for granted what we have and hold dear, even while celebrating those very treasures during the holiday season. This Christmas will be a difficult one for my family as it is the first year that we will celebrate Christmas without my maternal grandfather who passed away days before Raúl and I arrived in the US in August. Living in Ecuador with Raúl at the time, I remember wanting so badly to be in the U.S. to comfort my family and pay my respects to Grandpa. This Christmas, two very important people in my life will be absent: my grandfather and Raúl.

It is often absence that makes us realize just how much we cherish one another and how important it is to be together.  As my family knows all too well, nowhere is absence more felt than in the family  For this reason, Raul and I are sharing our story with GetEQUAL, Stop the Deportations and Out4Immigration and their “Home for the Holidays” campaign. We are not asking the impossible.  It is well within Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s power to allow law-abiding individuals such as Raúl to join their extended families for the holidays on humanitarian parole. We are aware that humanitarian parole would not be a permanent or even ideal solution to the struggles of same-sex bi-national couples. That will only come about with the repeal or court-mandated abolition of DOMA.  However, humanitarian parole would make a big difference for Raúl and me and the estimated 40,000 same-sex bi-national couples living separated, in exile or facing deportation. This much-needed short-term fix will have long term consequences for us all, allowing us to begin building our lives together, eliminating the necessity of choosing between career, family and country. Lastly, it would allow us the freedom to be with our families in the US for the holidays.

All I want for Christmas is to be with my whole family here in the US. All I want for Christmas is Raúl. We both believe that this is not too much to hope for. If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent speech at the United Nations on LGBT rights is any indication, that hope may not be unfounded.

You can learn more about the “Home for the Holidays” campaign here.  Please join our campaign to reunite separated and exiled couples by signing this petition at GetEQUAL and/or sharing your story with us at Stop the Deportations – The DOMA Project.

Raúl gets his Wings: U.S. Embassy Grants Tourist Visa to Travel with Brad from Ecuador to the US in August

Raúl and Brad

A happy update from Brad, from Cuenca, Ecuador.  

For many gay Americans with a partner abroad, obtaining a visitor’s visa can be an elusive and frustrating process. Just spending a few weeks together in the United States can start to seem like one of life’s most daunting challenges. Most applicants for visitor visas in developing world countries have virtually no chance of approval unless they are from the most affluent echelon of society. LGBT applicants, who may have fewer “country ties” than most (no spouse and children to anchor them to their own country, for example), often have even lower chance of success. If the Consular Officials know that the purpose of the trip is to visit a same-sex partner, that could be enough reason to deny the application since that may suggest a strong likelihood that the applicant will stay in the U.S.  These were the enormous odds that Brad and Raúl were up against as the fate of their visitor visa application was in the hands of the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil, Ecuador. 

We’ve all heard the story about that Peace Corps volunteer who goes off and spends two years working alongside community members in a developing country. Before he returns home, he meets the love of his life and before you know it, they’re on a plane to start a life of opportunities together in the U.S.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how the narrative works for a good number of same-sex couples who fall in love abroad, be it in Peace Corps or otherwise.

I met my partner, Raúl, in August 2009, half way through my Peace Corps service in Ecuador. Not much longer after that we started dating. We were an unlikely couple to start, being of different nationalities, languages, education levels, and socio-economic status, among other differences. However, what we lacked in a common background, we made up for in patience, caring, and clear communication. Throughout the ups and downs of my final year of service, Raúl and I grew as a loving couple. July 29, 2010, my close of service, came much too soon. My plan was to leave the country to seek employment and apply to graduate programs in psychology in the U.S.

Brad’s grandparents who will soon
celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary
with Brad and Raúl present
  

Still, we had hope that Raúl could at least visit my family and me for Christmas, further strengthening our relationship and allowing us to make plans for the future. A month and a half after my departure from Ecuador, Raúl applied for a visitor visa and his interview with the US Consulate in Guayaquil. Unfortunately, we were rather naïve about the application, thinking that our relationship would be a helpful factor in his application when in reality it was a hindrance. Once it was known Raúl’s partner was an American living in the U.S. that constituted an important factor for the Consular Officer who assesses each applicant’s presumed immigration intent.   Raúl had other deficiencies that would doom most Ecuadoreans from obtaining visitor visas to the U.S., such as his relative lack of savings and lack of strong connections (like a wife and children, or property ownership) in his native Ecuador. As a result, Raúl’s application was rejected without much consideration from the consular official.

It was a heartbreaking moment for both of us and we shared it with The DOMA Project on this site earlier this year. I still remember being in Chicago’s Union Station hearing Raúl cry over the phone after his unsuccessful interview. Never had I felt so powerless. That day, I decided that if Raúl could not visit me and my family in the US, I would return to Ecuador.

So, I did return—much to the disappointment of my family and friends back home. Together, we bought a café/bar aptly named “Black and White.” Starting a business was far from easy given that neither of us had any experience in opening one, much less while holding a 40+ hour/week day job. Fourteen hour days were not uncommon. In spite of the stress of working our day jobs and running Black and White, we were eventually able to make our small business profitable.

After a couple of months together, we decided we would try again for a visitor’s visa. I knew that my grandparents would be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in August and while I was still in the US, my grandmother invited both me and Raúl to join the family for this momentous occasion. After consulting extensively with Lavi Soloway at The DOMA Project, we began working on Raúl’s new application. This time around we took a much more comprehensive approach and did our homework with Lavi Soloway’s guidance. Between my day and night jobs, I did my best to motivate myself to work on writing and collecting affidavits from family members back home; documenting an offer to post a bond to guarantee Raúl’s return if a visa was granted; completing the DS-160 form; compiling financial records and business records from our business, Black and White; purchasing round-trip plane tickets; acquiring an invitation to present on Ecuadorian crafts;  and collecting any other information that might convince a consular officer that the purpose of Raúl’s visit was specific, discrete and temporary.

Thankfully, in addition to collecting all the evidence that would overcome the Consular Officials presumption of immigrant intent, we were able to secure a Class B Referral from a member of the US Peace Corps Mission in Ecuador. Also, following Lavi Soloway’s suggestion that we reach out to our elected officials, we were able to get a letter sent from Congressman Bruce Braley’s office to the US Consulate, requesting that the Consulate give a thorough consideration of Raúl’s application.

After months of hard work, anxiety, exhaustion and tears, and several pro bono Skype consultations with Lavi Soloway, the application was ready. On the day of Raúl’s interview, June 27th, 2011, we were both extremely nervous, knowing that since he had been denied the year before, the outcome of this application was extremely uncertain. It was hard to permit ourselves to get too optimistic.  Even with all the evidence we were able to compile, we both knew it was more likely than not that his application would once again be rejected.

Much to our surprise, Raúl beat the odds. The friendly consular officer in Raúl’s interview took the time to understand the unique circumstances surrounding his application to visit the United States.  She noted that Raúl’s purpose in visiting the U.S. was to attend my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  She had statements from my grandparents and my parents in the file, with all the other evidence.  Upon the conclusion of Raúl’s interview, the consular officer informed him that he would be granted a visa to accompany me on a visit to my family in the U.S. When Raúl told me over the phone of the outcome, I was overwhelmed by feelings of joy, disbelief, anxiety, and vindication from the past year; I can’t well describe just how I felt. All I could do in that moment was cry. Even now, I get teary-eyed writing about this.  Most importantly, I felt that for the first time my government had validated my effort to be treated equally and with respect by knowingly permitting a gay man from Ecuador to travel to the U.S. to spend time with the family of his American boyfriend.  I was grateful that the Consular Officer believed Raúl when he said his intention was only to make a short visit and that he would return to Ecuador as promised.  The Consular Officer required Raúl to physically return to the consulate after the trip to prove that he had come back. This suprised us, but it also reminded us how incredibly difficult it is for an unmarried man, with limited financial means and few ties to his own country to obtain such a visa at all.

Raúl once told me that he was born without wings to fly—that is, the ability to accompany me to the U.S. Today, thanks to many people including my parents, grandparents, Lavi Soloway, Representative Braley, the Director of Peace Corps/Ecuador, the US Consulate in Guayaquil and many others who offered either advice or a listening ear, Raúl now has his wings. He now will have the privilege to meet my family as I have had the privilege to meet his. We are most grateful to all for this opportunity.

Because Raúl’s visa is a visitor’s visa, it is temporary. He must and will return to Ecuador. All the same, visa renewal requires another application and further uncertainty. As with bi-national same-sex couples residing in the US, we exiled couples must also learn to overcome uncertainty, separation, and expiration dates. This unfair burden for same-sex couples must be resolved so that future couples like Raúl and me have a fighting chance.

Regardless of what may happen after Raúl’s visit, we will keep fighting for our relationship. We hope that Raúl’s wings won’t be clipped once he returns to Ecuador.

See also, “From Iowa to Ecuador: Peace Corps Volunteer Falls in Love, U.S. Denies His Partner a Visa,” and “Exiled in Ecuador, Brad & Raúl Try to Plan for a Future Together.” The Iowa Independent ran this article about their plight.

Last fall Brad wrote a moving essay for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender U.S. Peace Corps Alumni, titled, “Back Home: How Peace Corps/Ecuador Changed Me,” in which he describes his experiences in that country and his coming out to his grandmother back home in the rural midwest.

Exiled in Ecuador, Brad & Raúl Try to Plan for a Future Together

Brad and Raúl

We first posted Brad and Raúl’s story back in November. Recently Brad contacted sent us this update.

July 29, 2010 was a bittersweet day. That day was the culmination of my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. I had a lot to be proud of. Over those two years, I facilitated a number of parenting and life skills workshops in the schools of my community. I even helped a local volunteer committee raise additional funds to build an elder care facility for the elderly of my community. Within the Peace Corps community, I played an integral part in the re-establishment of the LGBT Interest Group, a group that continues to foster a safe and inclusive environment for LGBT volunteers in Peace Corps/Ecuador. Though it’s easy to get caught up in such achievements, I was also aware of the people I was leaving behind, not the least of whom was Raúl, my wonderful partner. In my original post, I presented just some of the ways we were there for each other through thick and thin. Because of my relationship with Raúl, not to mention the members of my community, July 29, 2010 was not an easy day.

In spite of our impending separation, Raúl and I had hope. We had applied for a tourist visa so that he could go to the US and spend the holidays with my family. We were both anxious for him to meet my family as I have had the privilege to meet his on a number of occasions. As I described in my original post, the visit was not to be. The U.S. Consular Officer summarily dismissed Raúl’s application due to his inability to demonstrate sufficiently strong ties to Ecuador.

In the months following that September rejection, we spoke over the phone every day. Raúl never failed to ask about my family, my two part-time jobs, and my graduate school applications. Naturally, I was always eager to hear about his family, his work and his English studies.

In November, we decided to invest in a local café in Cuenca, the major colonial town in southern Ecuador where Raúl and I met and grew in our relationship. For about a month and a half, Raúl worked his job in construction and at the café in the evenings. We knew it would be difficult, but after some consideration, we both decided it was something we wanted to do. As the owner of a business, we also felt that this venture may strengthen a future visitor visa application. I did my best to encourage Raúl and assured him that I would soon be there to help.

Brad and Raúl with Raúl’s niece

On January 8, at about 5:00 a.m., my flight touched down in Guayaquil’s International Airport full of anticipation. After 5 months of separation, I was about to be reunited with the man I love. At the airport, we embraced each other for a long time, trying not to cry. Surely we drew some stares, but we didn’t notice. After spending a day in Guayaquil, we spent a few days at the beach, celebrating our reunion and our one-year anniversary as a couple. It seemed so surreal. After 5 months, it seemed like we had hardly missed a beat. In spite of the very real pain of being separated, we were able to get to know each other in new and exciting ways. We definitely grew as a result of the experience.

A few days later, we returned to Cuenca, where I was to begin my current job as a Regional Coordinator with Community Enterprise Solutions (CES) in Ecuador. Thanks to CES and their partnership with a local Spanish language school, I was able to obtain a visa to live and work in Ecuador for one year.

In spite of the time I spend away from Cuenca while traveling with CES, Raúl and I continue to grow as a couple. Six days a week, we work together to run our café, Black and White. After leaving the office of CES, I open the café at 6:00pm while Raúl prepares dinner to bring to Black and White. Depending on the night, either one or both of us stay till close. Every month, we enjoy more and more success. Soon, Raúl will be able to devote himself full-time to the café, giving us more time to be together.

Managing Black and White has certainly been a challenge at times, especially since it takes up most of our free time. Fortunately, we have been able to manage the stress by maintaining an open and respectful dialogue and enjoying every moment we can. This month, we were able to escape and visit Raúl’s family for Carnaval!

Raúl and Brad at their café in Cuenca

As for the future, Raúl and I aren’t certain what it holds for us. In August, I will return to the US to spend time with my family before beginning a PhD program in Psychology. Acceptance and rejection letters have already started to arrive from various schools. As was the case last summer, we hope that Raúl’s visa application will be approved. Though the odds are against us, we hope against hope that we will both be able to attend my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, to which Raúl has been invited.

Aside from Raúl’s visa application, we are, like so many gay binational couples around the world, also holding out for a groundbreaking decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). During my “exile” I have followed almost obsessively the latest developments on the marriage equality movement and in particular the DOMA challenges. I could hardly contain myself the day I read about President Obama’s decision to stop defending the discriminatory law in court.
I believe that DOMA will be overturned or repealed in the near future, but the nagging question for us is: will it be soon enough for Raúl and me? How long will our approaching separation last this time? Will we be able to join the rest of my family for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary? Will my parents get to meet Raúl in person before we hit the two year mark in December? Will I have to choose between my career and the man I love? DOMA has separated far too many families like mine for far too long. I hope that soon it will be a thing of the past. I hope Raúl and I will get the fighting chance we deserve.

The Iowa Independent Features Brad & Raul and the Campaign to End DOMA

Read the full article here.

From Iowa to Ecuador: Peace Corps Volunteer Falls in Love, U.S. Denies His Partner a Visa

Brad, Raul and Raul’s sister

We decided to share our story to let others know about the way in which discrimination can destroy young, new love.  This December my partner and I will celebrate our first anniversary as a couple, but we will be in two different countries that are 3,000 miles from each other, and in many ways, worlds apart.

Raul lives in Cuenca, Ecuador and I live in Davenport, Iowa.  We met in the middle of 2009 when I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small town just outside of Cuenca.  As soon as we met,  we had that kind of instant chemistry and we bonded quickly. We knew that we wanted to be together as a couple and after a few months of stalling on my part as I weighed the practical considerations, we began our relationship. As with many new couples, things went rather smoothly for the two of us.  We spent many moments during my final year of Peace Corps service getting to know each other, visiting his family, visiting my host family, and helping each other out through thick and thin.  He was there for me when I got tonsillitis and was so sick that I couldn’t eat anything at all.  He knew he could count on me if the lunch lady forgot to bring him lunch at the construction site where he worked.

When it was finally time for our tear-filled goodbye at the Quito airport at the end of July 2010, we knew that we didn’t want it to end there. I love him too much to imagine not being with him. Something special and precious happened to us that we found each other, and against all odds and from such different backgrounds and experiences we fell in love.  I promised I would be back and I intend to keep that promise.  I recently accepted a 7-8 month job in Cuenca and will be returning to my partner in January 2011.  Raul and I are very excited about being reunited in a two months.  We have every expectation, given our strong commitment to each other, that we will settle into a routine familiar to any other couple in a new relationship, learning to get to know each other and live as a couple.   We have even been discussing entering into a civil union once we reach the 2 year mark required by Ecuadorean law.  
Unfortunately, over that excitement hangs a dark cloud of uncertainty.  Earlier this year, Raul applied for a tourist visa to visit me in the US.  Because of the general subjectivity of the visa application process at the US Consulate in Guayaquil, Raul was denied a visa. He simply could not provide sufficient evidence of his intention to return to Ecuador, even though he had no intention of doing anything other then coming for a short visit. Unfortunately, coming to see me is not a very persuasive reason for a visitor visa since it is presumed that he would remain in the US and never return. He has little prospect of coming to the US on a work visa, since his skills are as a construction crew foreman and for the most part, long-term work visas are only available as a practical matter for highly skilled occupations. While many are fighting to prevent their partners from being deported, I just want Raul to have the possibility of visiting me in the US so that he can meet my family and see where I grew up. We understand that would only be  a brief visit, but as we are planning our lives together, it would be mean so much to us.  Many binational gay couples who first meet and fall in love abroad are in a similar situation.  I know it is hard for Consular Officials to determine who should be allowed to visit, especially from a relatively poor country such as Ecuador, but surely some policy could be put into place to permit me to vouch for his intention to return to Ecuador? Heck, my entire family would be willing to sign off on that.  We just want to be able to share some of our life here with him. And even that is denied to us.
As for me, I am in the midst of Ph.D. program applications to start in the 2011-2012 academic year. Thanks to my quality education, references and strong test scores, I am applying to be admitted into some of the best Psychology programs in the country.  However, if I am offered admission and the chance of a lifetime that it represents, Raul and I will face a decision that no heterosexual couples in our situation should be forced to make.  We will have to decide whether to live 3,000 miles apart and wait for the laws to change or live together in exile and accept the consequences for our livelihoods and standard of living. A third possibility is to study and live together in a marriage equality country. However, in my field, that would be a career limiting move; even if I could find a Ph.D. program abroad in a country where we could both live, that foreign degree would not be as well-received by US institutions. Did I work this hard and this long to get to where I am to lose what I have achieve or may achieve? Why can I not file a fiancé visa petition for Raul, like all heterosexual Americans can in this situation? If he was granted a fiancé visa, he could come here, we could marry and I could petition for his green card. I would continue to pursue my Ph.D. and I would be able to do so without losing either my country or the man I love. Why is my government so hell-bent on doing this to me? I am speaking out because I worry that our lawmakers are not aware of the small ways in which the Defense of Marriage Act destroys dreams and short circuits blossoming love. And in the end, our dreams and our love is what makes us human.
Raul and I have some difficult decisions to make. When I return to Ecuador in January, we will spend a lot of time discussing them and weighing our options. Our only hope is that things will change quickly.  We are both committed to helping bring about that change.  As a gay binational couple we cannot ignore the discrimination. We hope others out there will read this story and join in this effort.
© 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.