VICTORY! Long Nightmare Ends for Married Lesbian Couple in Denver, ICE Stops DOMA Deportation

Sujey and Violeta on their wedding day in Iowa on November 15, 2010

November was a month of celebrations for Violeta and Sujey Pando, a married lesbian couple living in Denver who have been inseparable since their first date. The month began with the six anniversary of that first date.  Then, a week later, on November 10 they celebrated the second anniversary of their wedding, which had taken place in Iowa. As Violeta wrote in their original post when the joined The DOMA Project in August 2011:

“I love Sujey with all my heart. I knew when we started dating that I had found true love for the first time in my life. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were engaged for two years, our plans for our wedding were still taking place at the time Sujey was picked up by immigration. Even though we knew that the federal government doesn’t recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, we knew just as strongly that we wanted to marry and move forward with our lives together as a family. As an engagement promise, we got tattoos with each other’s names. We planned for two years to get married in one of the states where marriage was legal for a same-sex couples. Finally the day came. Sujey and I married November 15, 2010 in Iowa. It was the happiest day of our lives.”

Violeta is a American citizen, born and raised in Denver, where she studied Criminal Justice and works as a Correctional Case Manager. By the time that they met, Sujey had already been in the U.S. for more than 10 years. During their long two-year engagement while they planned and prepared for their wedding Sujey was picked up by Immigration & Customs Enforcement during a routine traffic stop and was placed into deportation proceedings.  Sujey had fled Mexico as a teenager where she had been abused and rejected by her family, and struggled to survive in the U.S.

Violeta and Sujey knew they faced an uphill battle to remain together in this country, but they were ready to challenge the system to do better. Violeta filed an application for relief based on the hardship deportation would cause to her as her spouse and demanded to be legally recognized as a spouse for immigration purposes.

When Violeta and Sujey bravely attended an Immigration Court proceeding in August 2011, only one other same-sex couple (also DOMA Project participants) had ever been successful at administratively closing deportation proceedings on the basis of their marriage. Furthermore, they were in the Denver District where Immigration & Customs Enforcement was known to be particularly unsympathetic to requests for discretion.  Still, with the media surrounding them and eager to tell their story, the couple pressed forward with word of a new deportation policy from the administration.  To their great relief, the presiding Immigration Judge determined that the case should be postponed, to a date in 2012 to determine the status of the law regarding their marriage-based application for relief. Later it was re-calendared to 2014, along with most of pending cases in Denver as that city was selected in December 2011 for pilot program to test the new prosecutorial discretion guidelines.

We filed a massive submission for Sujey requesting exercise of prosecutorial discretion for her as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.  We urged the government prosecutors to agree to stop the deportation proceedings. As the pilot program came and went, Violeta and Sujey were unsure what had become of their request. Meanwhile, an inter-departmental working group had been formed by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to review all cases nationwide.  The working group included one individual responsible for monitoring any LGBT-related cases.  For a year, Violeta and Sujey waited anxiously not knowing whether their request would be rejected. Their whole future would depend on whether the government decided to exercise discretion favorably in their case.  While they were waiting, Sujey became eligible for and obtained employment authorization, but still the deportation proceedings were not closed.  

Finally, at the end of November, their prayers were answered.  For the first time in more than 18 years after she first escaped horrific abuse in Mexico, Sujey Pando was officially allowed to remain.  With various applications for relief pending she continues to be eligible for employment authorization. Both women remain active in The DOMA Project and continue the fight to organize and empower others to raise awareness of the impact of DOMA on binational lesbian and gay couples.

With Two Days Left in Denver Pilot Program, Married Lesbian Couple Facing Deportation Waits Anxiously. Will Their Case Be Administratively Closed?

Sujey and Violeta Pando

A lesbian couple is sitting on the edge of their seats at home in Denver waiting for the telephone to ring. Right now, a call from federal immigration attorneys could bring to an end the nightmare Sujey and Violeta Pando have been living ever since Immigration and Customs Enforcement came into their lives in 2008. There are only two days left in the government’s ambitious plan to review all pending cases in the Denver Immigration Court for possible closure. Denver was chosen to be a Pilot Program city for the application of new humanitarian guidelines for closure of low-priority deportation cases. It is believed that the review of all pending cases is all but complete. And still this couple waits, hoping for good news.

Sujey, a citizen of Mexico, has been in a committed relationship with her U.S. citizen wife, Violeta, for more than six years. They married in 2010 in Iowa. Violeta cannot sponsor Sujey for a green card because the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents recognition of their valid marriage for any federal purpose.

Sujey and Violeta Pando made headlines last August when they won a temporary reprieve from deportation. Denver Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov postponed Sujey’s deportation hearing to January 2012. In November, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Denver would be one of two cities chose for a pilot program in which the DHS would review all pending deportation cases to close all low-priority cases and conserve agency resources by focusing on deporting those individuals who are a threat to public safety or have extensive criminal records.  When the pilot program was announced Sujey Pando’s case was temporary rescheduled to a date in 2014, pending review by the DHS-DOJ working group and local ICE attorneys.

For the last month, Sujey and Violeta have anxiously awaited word from ICE that their case had been reviewed. By the beginning of January they were getting very nervous. They are very aware that pilot program is due to end its review on January 13. “The date is marked on our calendar. It is a day that we dread, because we are afraid that if we do not hear from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors by then, it means that they have decided to deport Sujey. We pray that they are just taking great care to read Sujey’s entire file and make the right decision, but we are losing sleep over it and our whole family asks every day whether there has been news.”

Determined to take a more proactive approach, the Pandos worked closely with their attorney, Lavi Soloway, who compiled a large submission of evidence and made a formal request for “prosecutorial discretion” to the Office of Chief Counsel in Denver on January 7. The 76-page submission details why Ms. Pando, who has lived in the United States since she was forced to flee Mexico as a teenager 17 years ago, should be granted humanitarian relief and have her deportation case closed under new guidelines issued by the Obama administration that are meant to protect all families, including lesbian and gay couples, who are under threat of being torn apart by deportation.  The Pandos and their attorney have also reached out to elected officials in Colorado to bring the case to the attention of the working group’s LGBT liaison in Washington, DC.

Under the June 17, 2011 memorandum from ICE Director John Morton, individuals in deportation proceedings would have their cases reviewed and closed if they were deemed to be “low priority” to permit the federal government to focus resource on immigrants that pose national security risks and public safety threats. Sujey Pando clearly meets many of the criteria set forth in those guidelines:

  • Length of Presence in the United States – Sujey has lived in the U.S. over 17 years, almost all that time in the Denver metropolitan area.
  • Circumstance of her Arrival – Sujey was brought to the U.S. as a minor to escape a lifetime of abuse in Mexico. Her flight from danger and young age both clearly weigh in her favor for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
  • Marriage to a U.S. Citizen – Sujey & Violeta have been in a loving relationship for over 6 years, and made a life-long commitment to one another when they married in 2010 in Iowa. (Since June when this memorandum was issued, the Obama Administration has clarified that prosecutorial discretion will take into account gay and lesbian binational couples, even if they federal government cannot legally recognize their marriages, due to the Defense of Marriage Act.)
  • Caretaker of an Individual with Serious Disabilities – Since 2005, Sujey has helped care for her long-time friend, who currently lives with Sujey and her wife. This friend was seriously injured in a workplace accident, and requires help in her day to day life. The care, support, assistance that Sujey provides to this U.S. citizen is a basis for the government recognizing that this case is a low priority and that Sujey should be permitted to remain in the U.S.
  • Ties to the Community – In addition to her wife and her friend Diane, Sujey has strong ties to her home of the last 17 years. Her in-laws, neighbors, friends and her landlord submitted affidavits attesting to her good moral character and the importance of having her in their lives. In addition, Sujey has volunteered and contributed to charities in her area. These facts all go to show that her true home is here with her wife, not anywhere else.
  • Participation in Civil Rights Advocacy: Additionally, Sujey’s participation in LGBT civil rights advocacy also weighs in her favor for cause to close her removal proceedings according to related departmental policy against deporting those involved in the fight for civil rights and civil liberties. It is not in the interest of justice for the United States to deport individuals who are involved in changing unjust and unconstitutional laws, especially for couples like Sujey & Violeta who would otherwise be permitted to pursue a marriage-based green card petition.

The Obama administration announced with great fan fare that it would implement a kinder, gentler deportation policy that would aim to keep families together, including LGBT families. The Department of Homeland Security noted that an LGBT liaison, Executive Secretary Philip A. McNamara, was made a member of the DHS-DOJ prosecutorial discretion working group to ensure that guidelines are applied in an inclusive and consistent manner. Sujey Pando’s case is a test of this administration’s promise to protect all families from being torn apart by deportation.


Sujey and Violeta’s Victory, Beating Back DOMA Deportation Makes Big News in Denver

From left, Sujey and Violeta Pando and the Denver couple’s attorney, Lavi Soloway, walk into court Friday before a federal immigration judge postponed a decision on deportation of Sujey Pando.  The decision came a day after the Obama administration announced a policy change that makes cases like Sujey Pando’s a low priority. The Pandos were married in Iowa in 2010.  
(Karl Gehring, The Denver Post)

Complete article from Denver Post:

Shift in national immigration policy just in time for Denver woman facing deportation

By Felisa Cardona
The Denver Post
August 20, 2011

The Obama administration’s sudden shift in immigration policy had a tangible impact in a Denver courtroom Friday when a federal immigration judge delayed a deportation hearing for a lesbian fighting to stay in the country with her wife.

“I feel relief, and I thank the judge because she is a human being,” said Sujey Pando, who is trying to stay in the U.S. following a 2008 traffic stop that revealed her undocumented status.

Sujey Pando is one of 300,000 undocumented immigrants across the country who Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday should begin to be considered “low priority” for deportation. Pando was facing the possibility of removal from the country, but the the immigration judge, Mimi Tsankov, postponed the hearing until January, citing Napolitano’s shift.

“The judge was not comfortable moving forward with so much at stake,” said Pando’s attorney, Lavi Soloway.

The status of undocumented immigrants who pose no security risk and came to the country as children should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in compelling circumstances, Napolitano said in a letter to the Senate released Thursday.

The policy change includes consideration for immigrants who have familial ties to the U.S., including lesbian and gay families.

Critics of the plan say the White House is providing back-door amnesty to undocumented immigrants and overriding Congress’ authority on the issue.

Napolitano thinks easing up on those cases will let courts focus on security threats and undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

Over the next five months, prosecutors may be offered more guidance by the government as to how to proceed with Pando’s case.

Prosecutors could decide to allow Pando to live in the U.S. under certain conditions and drop the case against her, Soloway said.

Pando’s mother and stepfather brought her from Chihuahua, Mexico, into the U.S. when she was 16 and promptly kicked her out when she revealed she is a lesbian.

Her mother, who has permanent residency status, obtained citizenship for her three sons, but not her daughter, because she is gay.

In 2010, Pando, 34, traveled to Iowa so she could legally marry her longtime girlfriend Violeta Pando, a 27-year-old U.S. citizen. They live in Denver.

Sujey Pando works as a restaurant service manager, and Violeta Pando is a correctional case manager for felony offenders.

In November 2008, Sujey Pando forgot to use her turn signal while driving in Adams County, and police pulled her over. She didn’t have a valid driver’s license, and she didn’t lie to the officer about her status.

The police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pick her up, and she was jailed for 3 1/2 months.

“I was scared to go into that kind of facility because I am not used to that kind of life,” she said.

Violeta Pando says her government should be protecting her marriage instead of trying to destroy it.

“If I was straight they would be helping me keep her here,” she said. “I do feel relief today, and I am happy our marriage was being recognized a little bit at least.”

Victory for Sujey and Violeta Pando! Judge Halts Deportation, Sets January Date to Consider Application Based on Their Marriage

Lavi Soloway: “Today Denver Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov halted the deportation of Sujey Pando and scheduled a new hearing to consider an application based on her marriage to her U.S. citizen wife, Violeta Pando. Because today’s hearing was intended to be a final decision day on Sujey’s deportation, the judge’s action was unusual; she spent 45 minutes methodically considering the procedural posture of the case.  In the end, the Judge set aside the intended purpose of the hearing, citing developments including the Attorney General’s intervention in a similar case in May (Matter of Dorman) and noted that the issues involved in this case existed in a context that was “fluid” and “in a state of flux.” The Judge referred to events that occurred as recent as yesterday as having an impact on how to proceed. Yesterday, the DHS Secretary Napolitano ordered a review of all pending deportation cases for possible closure, including those involving LGBT families.”

Sign Our Petition To Stop The Deportation of Sujey Pando

On August 19th in Denver, Violeta and Sujey Pando will face the worst nightmare for any lesbian or gay binational couple: a final deportation hearing in an Immigration Court. They are legally married, but Violeta, a U.S. citizen, cannot sponsor her spouse, Sujey, who is from Mexico, because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In fact, because of DOMA, this loving, committed couple of five years, who married last year in Iowa, may be torn apart by a judge’s order next Friday if action is not taken to prevent it from happening.

The President has said that DOMA is unconstitutional and has endorsed its repeal. The President must immediately direct the Department of Homeland Security to halt all deportation of spouses of lesbian and gay American citizens to prevent DOMA from destroying marriages. If Sujey Pando is deported she will be barred from returning to the U.S. for ten years.

None of this would be happening to an opposite-sex couple in the same situation.

Urge President Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Attorney General Eric Holder to take action: exercise prosecutorial discretion, respect Violeta and Sujey’s marriage, and prevent this married lesbian couple from being torn apart.

Sign our petition to the President and send a message that we need immediate executive branch action to protect all lesbian and gay binational couples.

To help Sujey and Violeta further:

  • Follow STOP THE DEPORTATIONS: The DOMA Project for further updates

  • Call your elected officials to urge them to help couples like Violeta & Sujey Pando before Sujey’s final hearing on August 19th
    U.S. Representative Diana DeGette: 202.225.4431, Denver 303.844.4988
    U.S. Senator Michael Bennet: 202.224.5852, Denver 303.455.7600
    U.S. Senator Mark Udall: 202.224.5941, Denver 303.650.7820

  • Share our petition urging the officials to halt DOMA deportations. To share this petition via email, facebook, or twitter, use the buttons below.

Violeta & Sujey’s Fight Against DOMA Deportation Featured in Out Front Colorado

Read the complete article here. Read the Violeta and Sujey’s story in their own words here.

Sign this petition to President Obama asking him to halt the deportation of Sujey Pando and all spouses of lesbian and gay Americans.

Violeta and Sujey: Married, Lesbian Couple Fights DOMA Deportation in Denver, Final Hearing on August 19

My name is Violeta. I am a 27 year old American citizen. I live in Denver, Colorado where I was born. I hold a degree in Criminal Justice and work as a Correctional Case Manager. My wife, Sujey, and I, are one of the many same-sex couples who are threatened with being torn apart because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Because of DOMA, I cannot pursue the most obvious solution which would be to petition for her as my spouse; instead we are fighting for asylum due to her past experiences of extreme harm that she suffered in Mexico and her fear of returning there. All our hopes are on this asylum application–a long, difficult and painful struggle for Sujey, who has had to re-live traumatic incidents of physical and sexual assaults–but there is no guarantee that it will be granted. What is so obvious, is that we should never have had to fight in this way at all. We have been together for almost 5 years as a couple and we are married. No American citizen should have to beg for protection for her spouse; the right to sponsor my spouse for a “green card” should be automatic for me as it is for all other American citizens.

On August 19th, an Immigration Judge in Denver will decide whether Sujey will be deported from the United States. This fact puts our life, our marriage, and our family into a state of complete chaos. Sujey has lived in the United States since she was brought here as a teenager, and she is fully a part of my family as any spouse can be. Why does my government insist on enforcing this unconstitutional law against me? If Sujey is deported she will be barred from the United States for ten years. TEN YEARS. There are no words to describe the anguish we feel as the days countdown to August 19th. We hope and pray for a miracle.

I met Sujey on November 2, 2006 at a gay club named El Protrero and from that day on we have never been apart. We had our first date the next day. Sujey was very supportive of me while I attended school and put in long hours studying. She would stay up late with me as I tried to get my homework done and would help me study and read my term papers. I loved her immediately. Two months later, Sujey and I moved in with each other; we were spending so much time with each other, our relationship was getting serious, and it made no sense to be paying two monthly rents. Our pets got along great, too. We quickly became one big a happy family. Together we now have 4 dogs, Honey, Briza, Akira and Rocko and 2 cats, Kissie and Soulen. We also have a red tail Boa, her name is Destiny.

I love Sujey with all my heart. I knew when we started dating that I had found true love for the first time in my life. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were engaged for two years, our plans for our wedding were still taking place at the time Sujey was picked up by immigration. Even though we knew that the federal government doesn’t recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, we knew just as strongly that we wanted to marry and move forward with our lives together as a family. As an engagement promise, we got tattoos with each other’s names. We planned for two years to get married in one of the states where marriage was legal for a same-sex couples. Finally the day came. Sujey and I married November 15, 2010 in Iowa. It was the happiest day of our lives.

Sujey and Violeta on their wedding day in Iowa, November 15, 2010

I learned of Sujey’s abusive childhood early in our relationship. Sujey has many personal issues due to all of her trauma, so there were times when we had to sit down and talk about things. I learned that Sujey was given away by her mother a few months after her birth and that Sujey was raised by her grandmother. And in her grandmother’s care, Sujey was the victim of extreme cruelty and abuse because she was a “tom boy.” One family member in particular was determined to show her “how to be a girl” and raped her repeatedly. No one could protect Sujey. Even the Mexican authorities refused to intervene.

As a little girl, Sujey loved sports. At school, however, she was often in too much pain from her abuse to play sports which would result in dismissal from class. At home, Sujey would get in trouble for being dismissed and would get beaten up by her uncle. Sujey has lasting physical injuries resulting from the physical and sexual abuse she suffered growing up in Mexico. Her history makes me want to cry when she talks about it, but I can’t cry in order to support her, I have to be strong and be as optimistic as possible. Some days it is very difficult to keep a positive attitude. I can see the fear in her eyes, sometimes she thinks that her tormentor will come to the United States to look for her. I have to calm her down and reassure that I am here for her and that she is safe.

Once, when she was 16, Sujey was thrown out of her house in Mexico and was forced to hide at a neighbor’s house for a few days. Desparate, she decided to call her mother, who by then resided in the United States. Her mother was married, but had never told her husband that she had left a daughter behind in Mexico. On the phone, Sujey’s mother refused to help her, but her mother’s husband intervened, to his credit, and forced Sujey’s mother to go to Mexico to get her. And that is how Sujey was brought to the United States, where for the first time she met her three American-born brothers. Her feeling of safety lasted only a short time. A few months after Sujey was brought to the U.S., her mother discovered that Sujey was gay and threw her out into the street. Even though her mother was a green card holder she refused to sponsor Sujey.  Sujey was left to fend for herself and find a way to survive in the United States without any support.

In November of 2008 Sujey got pulled over for a routine traffic violation and was taken to jail. There, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was notified and she was placed into deportation proceedings. We have been fighting to stay here ever since. I went with her to her mother’s home to beg for her help but she refused to help Sujey because she was gay. We are scared for our lives and our future if Sujey is deported.

It is a shameful and sad reality that this country officially discriminates against lesbian and gay Americans by denying recognition of our marriages. We are second-class citizens at best. Denying that our love and our families are of the same value, denying us the same respect and the same legal protection simply because we are gay is unAmerican. We cannot be a country that cherishes equality, as long as our laws enforce this cruel discrimination against me. My government is so powerful that it can come into my home and drag my wife off to be deported, treating me like nothing more than a legal stranger.

I have been placed in a position where I have to choose between my country and my wife. If my wife gets deported and I choose my country, I would be left without my wife. If I leave to Mexico with her, I am left without my country. To keep my marriage intact I am being forced out of my own country. If Sujey is deported then I will be deported too, because I will not leave her side. She is my wife and I will be there for her to protect her and make sure she is safe with my last breath. The reality is that we have no way of surviving in Mexico. I don’t know what we will do. I should not have to be exiled from my own country because I am a gay woman. I am an American citizen. This should not be happening.

We have joined the Stop The Deportations campaign to help make others aware of the humanitarian crisis that binational gay couples face, even when we are married. We need your help to stop this deportation from happening. We are reaching out to our two U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and our Representative Diana DeGette to ask them to call on the administration to stop this deportation. We ask everyone who is reading this to help us by calling those elected officials and urging them to take action to save our marriage and stop this deportation.


U.S. Representative Diana DeGette: (202) 225-4431    Denver (303) 844-4988
U.S. Senator Michael Bennet: (202) 224-5852    Denver (303) 455-7600
U.S. Senator Mark Udall: 202-224-5941    Denver (303) 650-7820

© The DOMA Project

Attorney advertising

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.