Monday, December 20, 2010

José and Steve: Running Out of Options

José and Steve's wedding rings
Steve and I came across your website and wanted to share our story. Understanding the struggles of binational couples means also learning about the endless, complex journeys of immigrants to the United States.  The defeat of the DREAM Act in the Senate on December 18 was a crushing blow to us and to all young men and women brought to the United States as children by their parents.   As a gay couple, we know that the solution for us lies with the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

I was just seven years old when I was brought to the United States. My parents decided to leave Peru to move us out of harm's way. Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path was an active Maoist Peruvian terrorist group known for its brutality and violence. My parents felt it was no longer safe to raise me and my two-year-old sister in Peru. We moved to Miami, Florida were we were all granted legal status because of my dad's work visa.

Growing up, I was taught that if I worked hard the  opportunities would be endless. I quickly mastered English. I was in gifted classes in elementary school and I spent my summers at school. I got so far ahead in mathematics that I had to take one class (Algebra 2) at the high school before coming back to middle school for the rest of the day. I was admitted to a Magnet science and math high school and graduated with a 4.9 GPA. I participated in everything from Model UN, Performing Arts, to the Swim Team. I was Editor-in-Chief of the Yearbook. I competed in every academic competition, often winning, and I was a even a State Officer for one of my clubs. I was part of the Duke University Talent Identification Program. I was a National Hispanic Merit Finalist and AP Scholar.  I went to the State Science Fair and won a Silver Crown for our Yearbook.  I was doing everything I could to ensure that I would go to a good college and secure my future.

And then the other shoe dropped.

I started applying to go to schools. Turns out, as a child whose status was derived from his parent's non-immigrant work visa, I lacked sufficient immigration status to qualify for any federal aid or help. My dream of attending Duke University or Columbia evaporated.  I had excellent grades and high SAT scores, but I would have to apply as an international student rendering me ineligible for any financial aid. At that time, my mother's brother, a U.S. citizen, petitioned for us to get permanent resident status (“green cards”), but that process that was estimated to take 10+ years.  Unexpectedly, a short term solution gave me some reprieve. The University of Florida awarded me private scholarships to cover all my tuition. I was still considered an international student, but they used private money to ensure I would get my education. I graduated in 2006 with a Bachelor's of Science in Environmental Science.

While in school, I battled depression. I knew I was gay, but I had not come out to my friends or family. Separately, I wanted to get internships in my field, but as an international student they were out of reach. I put on a good face and tried to hide my sadness. To my fraternity brothers, I was just happy old me, but inside I felt lonely and hopeless. Near the end of school, I withdrew for a year due to my many issues, but I went back. I changed my major from Environmental Engineering to Environmental Science because I knew I would run of money before completing the longer engineering degree.  In the back of my mind was the realization that even when I graduated I wouldn't be able to do anything with my degree because of my immigration status. Lacking any choices or any plan for my future, I pushed on anyway. My family kept pressuring for me to find the right person and get married, like my sister did. Of course they knew that if my life progressed that way my immigration status would also be resolved. I knew that I could never do that. I pushed back, but I couldn’t say why. They still didn't know I was gay. Everything finally got to me and right before I graduated I sunk to my very lowest and most desperate state.  Feeling trapped by these circumstances, I needed a change.

I graduated, sold my truck and left Florida and headed to the Pacific northwest. It was about as far as I could go to start a new life.  I had no friends, no family, and no job. Intentionally, I set out to start over. I slowly came out to my family and to my friends. I met Steve (an American citizen) and we fell in love. I felt for the first time that I had met the person who I had needed my whole life. Even though I had always been surrounded by friends and family, I had always felt lonely - I finally started feeling happy.

While I was waiting for my the sibling petition filed by my uncle for my mother to become “current,” Steve and I became closer and closer as a couple. This past spring, after being together for 3 years, we married in Greenwich, Connecticut.  It was the happiest day of my life. We followed that with a beautiful ceremony a few weeks later with many of our friends and family. Then we traveled to Florida where we celebrated with many of my friends.

Shortly after, the “priority date” on my uncle’s petition finally became “current.” However, I now learned that during that long wait I had irreversibly “aged out” after turning 21. I could no longer derive permanent resident status through my mother, because immigration viewed me as an adult, and not as a “child.”  This news was devastating. In a single moment, I went from waiting to get my “green card” to having no options. I don't have work authorization and we are running out of time. If I were straight, my marriage would have been all it took to fix this, but I am not.  Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), our legal marriage is worthless to the federal government. I cannot miss the fact that four years ago my sister received her green card on the basis of her marriage. The contrast between my situation and hers reinforces the feeling that Steve and I share, that we are devalued by this country, discounted as less equal and less deserving simply because we are gay. Yet, the people that know Steve and I know that our relationship and our commitment to each other is no different than any other. We love each other, we are happier together than we've ever been before.

My entire life is in this country. I had no input in my parents’ decision to bring me and my sister to this country when I was a child. I did everything right to try to achieve this American Dream and in the end I am left empty-handed.  My husband is treated as a second class citizen and is helpless to change these circumstances. If it wasn't for the love of my family and friends - I don't how we would go on. We cling to the hope that we will be able to make a future together despite this seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Peru may be where I was born, but ironically America is the only home I know. I say ironically, because the problems Steve and I face are entirely because of this country’s discrimination against us as a married gay couple. We must fight for our right to be together. We cannot give up because Steve and I have nowhere to go. We are desperate for DOMA to be defeated. We are afraid that I could be deported to Peru, a country of which I have no longer have a strong connection and where gay men are persecuted.  We are hoping that by lending our voices to this effort as a married binational couple we can help others understand the way in which DOMA threatens to destroy our family. We ask everyone reading this to join in the effort to repeal DOMA and help end the cruel discrimination again gay and lesbian binational couples that tears apart American families.

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