John and Shaun Attend Their Green Card Interview, Determined to be Treated Like All Other Married Couples
Ever since we married in January 2012 and later decided to file a green card petition – the same way an opposite sex couple would- we knew, if we were lucky and our case was not denied outright because of DOMA, that we would have to face a green card interview. We spent the last year working closely with The DOMA Project, visiting both of our U.S. Senators and our Representative, to educate them and their staff on the issues married same sex couples face under current immigration law. We fought to win their support to have an abeyance policy implemented, so couples like us could have our marriage based green card petitions placed on hold, until DOMA was finally struck down. (Below is a short video of our wedding reception in January 2012, narrated by our attorney, DOMA Project co-founder, Lavi Soloway.)
Outside of that, our life was just like any other newly married couple. For the first time in more than 11 years, we no longer had to face constant separations when Shaun had to leave the US and return to the UK for months at a time, because we made the decision that he would not leave again and that we would not be separated. Instead, we decided that we would fight for the green card that should be ours, the future and stability that should be ours and the respect and equality under the law that should be ours. Aside from this legal process, for the first time we spent all our time together uninterrupted by travel after a short visit, we established a more robust social life and adopted two orphaned kittens. Our house became a real home and finally we had a true sense of being a family. Imagine that for 11 years we made do with visits and separations and had such a fractured life as a couple. We now had a home. For sixteen months, Shaun and I have experienced what so many other couples in our situation are denied because of DOMA: the simple right to be together in this country, in our home.
Then we received our interview date, and reality set in. We were not like other families. No one had introduced a bill to defend our marriage, or to ensure Shaun would be able to stay here. Even after 13 years together and a legal marriage, we had to once again be reminded that in the eyes of the federal government, we are no more connected than two strangers on the street.
As we gathered all we needed on the night before the interview, we were tense. I tend to withdraw under stress and Shaun snaps easily. We ended up having one of the first arguments we had since we married. The pressure and fear of the unknown, of being one of the first same sex couples to attend this kind of interview, really got to us. By the time we arrived for the interview the next day, we were both emotionally on edge.
Our appointment was set for 1:30 pm. We sat waiting with our lawyer Lavi Soloway, who always helps relieve our anxiety. For many binational couples like us, our relationships are sustained by years of visits. Each visit depends on the judgement of an immigration officer at the airport when the foreign partner lands and seeks entry as a visitor. Those experiences are stressful for both of us. We never knew when it might be the last time Shaun would be permitted to visit me. So when it comes to facing an immigration officer, we experience tremendous anxiety. Everything rides on it. Shaun had many bad experiences with immigration officers in the past. Some had been rude and did their best to be intimidating. Having our lawyer with us yesterday as we waited to be called for the interview made Shaun feel like the little kid bringing his big brother along to defend him against the bullies.
After waiting a short while, Shaun’s name was called and we were led to one of the interview rooms. We sat in a pleasant, brightly lit room. No bars on the windows, no lights ready to be shined into our eyes like interrogations on TV cop shows. We were politely asked to take seats while the officer briefly read through our file. One of our fears was that they would ask me questions about events that happened so long ago, and that I would not recall exact details; those fears turned out to be groundless. They did not ask the color of his shirt on our second date. They did not ask him what the shoe sizes of my parents were. We laughed after that we had been worried about those things.
We went to the interview with photos, bank statements, utility bills, letters from friends who vouched for our relationship. We brought all the evidence we had to prove that we had a real marriage, that we lived together, and that we lived our lives as a married couple. This is the process for all other green card marriage interviews, and it was in a way comforting to be able to go through this process and have our marriage treated like all other marriages, in this way, even if we could not leave that day with an approval of our green card petition. The officer looked through our photos with all the captions showing our lives together from our first date in 2001 to the present and he asked a few basic questions about how we met, how much time we had actually spent together. The majority of the time he reviewed through our petition and application that we had filed with the Immigration Service in February 2012 and reviewed our joint legal documents, insurance policies etc. He asked Shaun a series of questions to determine his eligibility to be an immigrant to the United States. He reviewed our financial documents and Shaun’s medical exam that had been submitted previously. Throughout the whole 45-minute interview the officer was polite and respectful to us. There was no language used that treated us differently from an opposite sex couple. In fact our sexuality was not mentioned and DOMA was not referenced at all.
During the interview we knew that we were not alone. We knew that we were there representing tens of thousands of gay and lesbian binational couples who are engaged in a fight every day for the right to be together with the person they love. We knew that the world was changing outside the four walls of that office and that change did not happen on its own; the momentum toward equality resulting from the courage of so many who came before us. That courage and that momentum toward equality was also with us during the interview. In a sense, DOMA was with us as well, though it felt very much that the old statute from 1996 was on its last legs.
At the end of the interview our lawyer went over some legal and technical aspects of a same sex marriage application with the officer. We were the first gay couple interviewed at this particular office. The DOMA Project has filed green card cases for approximately 70 same-sex couples since 2010, some have been denied earlier in the processing when it is discovered that they are a same sex couple, and others made it to an interview. Of those who were interviewed, some were denied at the interview itself. We knew we were lucky that we had made it to this stage. We knew that The DOMA Project had won 10 cases at the Board of Immigration Appeals ordering the Immigration Service to re-open denied cases and conduct interviews where they had not taken place.
All that being said, we know that at any time after our interview we may receive a letter in the mail denying the petition based on Section 3 of DOMA. Despite what some people think, the Obama administration is still not willing to do what is within their power to do: to hold all same sex applications in abeyance, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA. With our entire future in the balance, and we continue to speak out and encourage others to join in the fight to defeat DOMA.
President Obama: “Don’t Let DOMA Destroy Our Marriage.” Gay Veteran Files Green Card Case For His British Husband After 11 Years Together, Fighting for Their Future
By the time I reached my mid 50s, I had begun to let go the hope of finding a life partner. Maybe it was a combination of society’s views of gays, combined with the scars of a Catholic upbringing, that left me feeling I did not deserve what most people had. All that changed when Shaun entered my life. We met online, and at first it was just the occasional chat. He was in England and I was in California, so we had something of a geographical and time zone challenge. After a while, I found myself looking forward to coming home from work to see if he was online. A strong bond of friendship quickly formed. Shaun talked to me in a way I had not known with others. He was honest and very direct with his observations. Sometimes his words seemed too direct, later I understood that everything he said, came from his caring about me and wanting me to have a better life. I began to have feelings for him that I had never felt for another person. What makes this even more unique is that these feelings developed even before I ever saw his face, as this was before webcams or online photos where as commonplace as they are now. When Shaun sent me the first photo and I saw the image that went with the words, I was blown away! Six months after chatting, I learned that Shaun would be coming to Los Angeles to visit friends, who would go around the United States riding roller coasters. Little did we know that we were going to set out on a decade long roller coaster ride of our own.
I was excited that Shaun was coming to Los Angeles, but my heart sank immediately when I learned that he would be so close, but that his itinerary did not leave time for us to meet. Then one evening the phone rang. It was Shaun asking if I would like to join him and friends for lunch the next day. Before I knew it, I said YES! That day was one neither of us can forget. It was January 11, 2001. Shaun tells the story of how when he first saw me he was a little afraid, as I was bouncing up and down with excitement. If I was, it was nerves. In person he looked even better than his photos. As we ate lunch my hand began to tremble with joy. He reached over, took my hand and looking directly into my eyes, he whispering in his British accent, “It is OK, just relax”. Our lunch went so well, that Shaun altered his plans and spent his final week with me. It was then that we knew that this was more than just friendship. We spent one of the best weeks of our lives together. Then we faced what would become a constant source of agony for us – the airport good-bye.
A few months later Shaun retuned for a month. We then committed as a couple and began to look for ways to stay together. I had no idea that would be near impossible. We tried everything from student visas to business visas. All required an investment of money neither of us had. We contacted our elected officials. Most just sent a standard reply, saying they could not help. I pushed harder and went to the office of my member of congress. One of her staff suggested that Shaun “find a woman to marry”, in order to get a green card. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and even the American Civil Liberties Union just replied saying, “The time is not right for cases like yours.” Then for a year between 2002-2003 we opened our life to a documentary maker, who was making a film about binational couples. After completion they could not find a distributor. It was not seen as marketable. Our plight seemed hopeless.
For the next decade we lived what we called two half lives: one half together, and the other half alone. Shaun has always been employed by his family, so with their help and support he would spend three months in the U.S. and three months in the U.K. In 2002 Shaun was stopped on entry to the U.S. and detained. They questioned him for hours. They opened his case and just threw his clothes onto the floor as they searched it. One officer held up toiletries and other personal items, while a second laughed and made comments on what was in his case. Eventually he was allowed to stay for six weeks but told he would no longer be able to use a “visa waiver program” to visit. He was told that he must apply for an actual visitor’s visa at the U.S. Embassy in London. Shaun did as told, and he received the visa; but several more times he was detained – some times for as long as five hours. During the times he was questioned, I would be left waiting at arrivals, with no idea what was going on.
One time I was told by an airline representative that Shaun was going to be handcuffed, taken to a detention center and flown back to the U.K. the next day. Each time he was detained, Shaun cut back the time he would spend in the US. He would ask immigration, how long he could visit without it being a problem. He was told, “You are just coming here too often,” or “visit here less than expected.” He was never given a clear rule to follow. All the trauma of this had a serious affect on his health. He would sink into deep depressions as his time to leave me came closer. Then before he returned to the US, his fear of immigration would consume him to the point of not being able to eat or sleep. Each time he became convinced that he would be denied entry and banned from returning to the US for ten years. Twice a year, for ten years, he repeated this grueling routine. He would stand in a line, hoping that we would be allowed to continue our lives together. We were both all too aware that at any time, a U.S. Customs and Border Protections officer could destroy what we had worked so hard to build together.
We have had to hold our relationship together using webcams and phone calls. When we were apart, Shaun would wait up until past midnight his time, so we could chat for an hour or two when I got home from work. One of the hardest parts for us, has been when one of us is sick. During the times I was too sick to go to work, Shaun would spend all day on the phone with me. Then at night I would put the webcam on while I slept, and he would watch over me.
As I have grown older, the health issues have become more serious. Just before Shaun was to return to the U.K. a year ago, I was given the news that I might have had prostate cancer – my PSA level was high. There was no way Shaun could stay with me. His visa was to expire and he had to leave. I once again took him to the airport and returned alone to our home, to our things, to the place we shared together for the last eleven years. Then I got a call saying the doctor had done a second PSA test and it was even higher than the first. I was facing cancer alone. I was facing possible surgery alone. I was facing a life crisis without my partner. There was no way Shaun could re-enter the US for a few months, or he would run the risk of being denied entry. I got so scared and angry I had a meltdown. I raged that this treatment was inhuman! I have worked all my life. I paid the same taxes as straight couples. I served four years in the military for my country. Why did I not deserve the right to have my partner at my side when I was sick? If not him, then who would be there to nurse me if I was ill? I sat down in the middle of the living room floor, with tears in my eyes. I was scared and my fright turned to anger, then my anger turned to determination. It was at that moment, the feelings I once had about not deserving what straight couples had, vanished. I deserve the same rights as they have!
I was fortunate that my treatment did not involve surgery, but during that time one image kept coming into my mind. During the brief window in 2008 when California allowed gay couples to marry, Shaun and I had watched a wedding at the beach near our home. As the sunset touched the ocean, two young women with a small circle of friends, walked to the edge of the water. They stood there quietly exchanging vows as the light faded. When the darkness fell they walked hand in hand back to their house. It was simple and beautiful and I wanted that too! I wanted to have that right. I wanted to have all that Shaun and I have fought to keep together, sealed by marriage. I promised myself that if marriage returned to California, then finally we would have that too.
Sadly, by the end of 2011, marriage equality had not yet been restored to California and we were growing impatient. In January 2012, Shaun and I would celebrate our 11th anniversary together as a couple, and I would retire after 50 years in the workforce. We wanted to celebrate these life milestones with something special. So on January 11 we flew to New York and were married. It meant more to both of us than we ever imagined. We are as proud of our marriage license, as if it were a diploma from an Ivy League college, because it was not something that came to us easily. It was all so special for us, that we did not think too much about the consequences that could result for us as married binational gay couple. We were soon to be reminded of that, however.
As we flew through Detroit on our way back to Los Angeles, we were sent as a couple to a TSA agent. Sure, it was just a domestic flight but the TSA has broad power to question travelers and somehow they picked on us, two newlyweds heading home. What followed were a series of personal questions including, how long had we known each other? What was the nature of our relationship? How did we first meet? What were our plans together? As an American citizen, I have NEVER been questioned in that manner. It was intrusive and spoken with an intimidating tone. For the first time I saw a little of what Shaun has faced each time he entered the US. Although we were not technically being interrogated by immigration officers, the worst fears ran through our mind. We both panicked, fearing that if they found our marriage license in our possessions Shaun may be sent to a detention center for displaying intent to remain in the United States while he was a visitor; we had read that had happened to others. The fear in Shaun’s eyes was so intense, that I made up my mind that this had to stop! We could no longer live this way.
As a married, gay binational couple, Shaun faced not only questions, but a strong chance of being denied entry when he was next to have to return to the US. That was the turning point. We joined Stop The Deportations-The DOMA Project so that we could join the fight to end deportations, separations and exile caused by the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act.” We recently filed a marriage-based green card petition and will now fight to convince my own government not to deny our case, but to put a final decision on hold until DOMA is struck down by the courts.
I am proud to have lived to see my own President send out a public message to the isolated and vulnerable LGBT youth of America, assuring them that they are not alone and encouraging them that “it gets better.” Still, I wonder, Mr. President: what about me, what about the seniors, the vets, the married gay binational couples? And what about this veteran who proudly served his country during the Vietnam War? How can it possibly be that I enlisted to do my duty and prepared to sacrifice everything for my country to defend the freedoms we so often take for granted, but my country now wants to destroy my marriage and tear my husband away from me? If, Mr. President, you deport my partner, if you take away all that I have worked for my entire life, when I AM ALONE – what is your message for me? You can take action now to save us from this disaster. You, Mr. President, understand that years are precious for the gay seniors America? You have spoken about “the fierce urgency of now.” I know you understand. I need my President to take action. Your words are of tremendous inspiration, your decision not to defend DOMA in court is historical, but we need this administration’s direct intervention to prevent disaster from befalling our family. The President has that power. I know my President believes this is wrong. He must act now to stop DOMA from destroying our families by directing the Immigration Service to stop denying our green card petitions.