Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Sveta & Andi: Together for 11 Years, Married Lesbian Couple in Illinois Faces June Deportation Hearing
I was born in what is now Kazakhstan. I came to the US when I was fifteen; this year I will be thirty. I like Linux and painting. I love a wonderful woman named Andi and I have loved her since we met eleven years ago.
We met online, on a web forum dedicated to a show called Xena: Warrior Princess. Andi wrote poetry; I began adding onto her words and poetry became collaboration, long series of verse, one line after the other. It was through shared words that we grew closer: we fell in love, and she moved across several states from Colorado to be with me.
Many years later, we are still together. We now live in Illinois. We love each other and not much has changed in that regard. Except now, I am stateless, which means I am a person with no nationality or citizenship. An undocumented alien.
It wasn’t always this way. Until 2009, I was in the U.S. legally on a work visa. I contacted the embassy of my country of origin for help on renewing my passport. I provided all the necessary forms and documents proving that I was a citizen, demonstrating that my stay in the U.S. on the student visa and then work visa was legal. Despite the difficulty of speaking a language I barely remembered, I did my best explaining my situation and then I asked for their help.
At first, they seemed willing to assist and took down my information. But then their behavior drastically changed: I was ridiculed, ignored, and finally stripped of my citizenship. Their decision was made on a technicality and left me with no recourse.
That drastic action took place after the embassy officials learned from me that I had a wife: that I, a woman, was in a relationship with Andi, another woman, and a US citizen. Andi and I left the embassy with the paper stating that my citizenship had been revoked and we did not know then what it meant.
One thing was clear: out of many unacknowledged and unprotected men and women in my country of origin, I was still a lucky one. I was lucky to be alive, to be away - to walk away now, still able to speak out freely about what happened to me. After stripping every status I had in their country and almost every opportunity I had in the US from me in a single decision, the embassy officials had little else to take. They had already effectively erased me from existence.
When I applied for asylum in US in 2010 on the basis of my fear of persecution as a lesbian, the man who looked at my application informed me that he would have to strike Andi's name and information from the form because he could not "recognize" her as my wife, not even on the asylum application, which paradoxically asked for my marital status and the name of my spouse. He quoted the Defense of Marriage Act as the reason she was to be erased. He crossed every mention of her methodically from every field and asked me to review and approve every removal by initialing it. It was the proper procedure and federal law said we couldn't be married, and there wasn't much I could do about it. Instead I had to focus on talking about the stigma and discrimination that someone like me would face every day in my country of origin, of the injustices and the harm that they suffer, invisible and unacknowledged by the majority at every turn of their lives.
Despite all the heart-wrenching stress of that day, of having to relive a traumatic experience and speak out about just how terrified I was, for my future and for Andi's, through all our worry and our fear, I kept hoping that in the end someone would listen and the nightmare that hadn't lifted from our minds for months would be over at last.
Instead, we were forwarded to the immigration courts in what seemed to be a long road ahead, full of waiting for the next hearing date, trying to put the thoughts of alien numbers and identification documents from our minds, and fighting for a chance to tell my story and Andi's, because our lives are inevitably shared.
I've been in the States since 1997. Unable to be sponsored through marriage, or even to marry Andi and have our marriage recognized, I took the long path to retain my legal status, first by earning two Masters degrees, and then by working for my university. I was two years away from being able to apply for an employment-based green card when I learned that I no longer had citizenship. Anywhere. Such a development had very real and very concrete consequences. Without a valid passport I was unable to renew my work visa. I lost my job but gained a brutal diagnosis of PTSD and anxiety. I became an asylum seeker. Through it all, for eleven years, Andi was with me, sharing the same anxiety, and the same fear of separation. She was sharing my life as my spouse. In the end though, even though we made a commitment to each other and we have called what we have a marriage for years, it all comes down to the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Defense of Marriage Act says that we do not have the right to be treated as a married couple. It's unconstitutional, yet it is still enforced.
If DOMA wasn't in place, Andi would have been able to sponsor me for a marriage-based green card at any point since we began our relationship in 2000. We would have been able to request a marriage license and have our marriage recognized in many more states than a handful. Sadly, our state, Illinois, is still not one of that number. Fortunately, a neighbour-state, Iowa, now is.
If we were a heterosexual couple, we would have avoided over a decade of headache and fear: years of falling through the cracks of immigration law into legal limbo, of holding an assortment of temporary visas and depending on grades and school attendance and work performance and so many other factors painfully outside of our control in order to keep our family together. Every reason imaginable counted in the eyes of the law, except for the one that meant most to us: our love and our commitment to stay together.
But we are lucky. I am an overachiever, and she is strong and stubborn, and we survived this far.
Or did we? Statistically my chances of winning asylum are no better than an even half-and-half. Andi says that if I am to be deported in the end, she will follow me without question. If that's not courage, I don't know what is: for a disabled American woman, an openly lesbian one, being exiled into a country that does not acknowledge gays and lesbians, an authoritarian regime on the democracy index, one which actively opposes the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, is a very dangerous situation. Trouble is, if I am to be deported back to my country of origin which no longer claims me as a citizen, Andi will not be allowed to follow me, just as I will not be allowed to return to the States. Andi is disabled, so she cannot qualify for a job visa and the only family tie she'd have - me - is not recognized there as family by local law. She'll never even be assigned an entry visa, just as I will disappear without a voice or means to survive.
This is the stark possibility that we’ve had to face every day for all the years of our lives together.
If we weren't a same-sex couple, but a heterosexual one, things would be quite different. Our first wedding ceremony in Illinois would have been recognized over the one in Iowa years later, one which finally allowed me to take her last name. The majority of my immigration stress would stem from studying for my citizenship exam. I would be able to travel freely, I would be able to work, I would be able to vote. Our relationship will be equally recognized and honored under the law as any marriage, with all the protection that entails. But despite no such protection being offered, we are together, and we are still lucky to have each other, for better and for worse.
In this age of fast-track marriages and divorces taken for granted, if one is looking for the very definition of love and long-term commitment, truly they should look no further than tens of thousands of same-sex binational couples and their children facing discriminatory laws, distance, and separation, in order to keep their families intact. Having to protect our families one day, one step at a time, we of all people realise what's at stake, we know what marriage is about, how valuable and precious and important such a union is, how it must be treated with all the respect it deserves; because we also face, personally and every step of the way, the dangerous cost of being denied such a basic human right.
If there’s anything that I've learned over these years, it's that even the hardest of times provide us with the opportunity to do incredible things. We survive unthinkable hardships one breath at a time simply by putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to give up. Every day we achieve unreachable goals and we make the impossible happen.
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono faced their deportation battle, they established a conceptual country of peace named Nutopia. It had no land, boundaries, or passports, only people. The references to Nutopia are still alive in today's culture, almost four decades later. It became a part of their activism and part of their story.
Sadly, in our reality, the lack of a passport only enforces the countless boundaries for Andi and me, and it only contributes to our hardship.
I am thinking of putting a rainbow flag cover over my invalidated identification documents. It's the only flag that I have left to count as my own.
One day, when DOMA is repealed, I hope this changes.
at 9:46 AM