Friday, April 8, 2011

Together For Nine Years, Minnesota Gay Couple Lives in Fear of Deportation Because of DOMA

I no longer remember exactly when it happened.  One day, while I was in college in the late 1990s I first heard about the inability of American citizens to sponsor their partners for green cards. recall exactly what my reaction was: “Well, I’ll never have to worry about that!” 

I grew up in rural North Dakota. The thought of meeting and falling in love with anyone who was not a citizen did not even cross my mind at the time, it was such a remote possibility. I moved to the “big city” of Minneapolis in 2001 with the intention of finding a place that was more comfortable for me as a gay man. I didn’t want to live my whole life in North Dakota.

I met José in 2002 at a friend’s birthday party. I remember seeing him sitting on the couch, all by himself, a flurry of activity around him. He was cute, but obviously shy, so I sat down next to him and we just talked. I think we both felt out of place. He was the quiet type and I was new to the gay scene in the big city. We met by chance again soon after at a nightclub in St. Paul. I say we met, but really I just saw him from across the room and remembered how cute he was. I didn’t even say hello. My roommate and I left for another club in Minneapolis after about an hour. And sure enough, after a few hours I ran into José again. We danced all night and I jokingly accused him of following us. I didn’t know at the time that he’d become the love of my life, and that we’d spend the next 9 years together. We dated for a year, and moved in together in 2003. We have lived in the same townhouse the whole time, our cute little townhouse in the suburbs.

We are like any other couple. We have good times and bad. We fight and make up. One of the hardest times in our relationship was when I went back to school for my master’s degree in 2005. It’s a very intense 2.5-year program. I’d spend 6 hours a day in class and come home only to lock my self in the spare bedroom to study for 8 more hours. We’ve made it though some tough times. Everything we’ve gone through together is like what any other couple experiences, but we’ve also endured an extra burden in addition to the normal couple experience.

I found out that José was in the U.S. without lawful status shortly before we moved in together. I’m not sure if I knew at the time the entirety of what that meant. I told him  that I loved him no matter what, and that it didn't matter to me. On the outside, he looked like any other person. He is Latino, and in some ways he fit right in to the diversity of the Twin Cities. He had a driver’s license. He had a steady job. I didn’t understand what it really meant to be "undocumented."  Thinking back now, I was so young and ignorant.  I truly believed that our love was all we needed.

Nine years later, I see the impact legal status has on José and on us as a couple. There are many things we’d both like to do that we can’t. The scariest thing is the fear we live with everyday. If we are stopped, or have to deal with the authorities for any reason, it can cause panic. All it would take is for someone to ask for proof of his immigration status and our biggest nightmare would be upon us: our life as a couple could be over.

José has a job, but it isn’t the best. He is constantly ridiculed and put down there. He has been robbed at gunpoint, twice.  Because of his status he is vulnerable to those who want to take advantage of him and he is afraid to report anything to the authorities.  Every time something happens, I tell him to leave and find a different job, but it really isn’t that easy. So he stays and plods along in the same mediocre job. No health insurance. No sick time. No vacation time. Low pay. No respect. Constant insults from customers. Unrealistic managers. José is intelligent, educated and highly resourceful.  He has a business degree from Mexico, but none of that matters.  He has no opportunity for a better job because of his legal status.  Any heterosexual American in our situation would not be writing this story, or sharing photos of themselves with their faces concealed by masks.  Any heterosexual American would have simply married and sponsored their spouse. If we were heterosexual, José would have long ago had a "green card" and even U.S. citizenship.  But instead we live in a prison forced upon us by discriminatory laws.

We’ve talked about all of our options to remedy our situation. I told him that I would move to Mexico with him if he was deported.  But that option is not a good one for us. I don't know how we would survive there, how I would work, and while Mexico City does now allow gay couples to marry, the reality is that gays are not treated well in Mexico, there is still a lot of homophobia and machismo.  As an American, I'm not convinced I could live safely there. Mexico isn’t getting any safer with the drug wars either. So we thought about Canada. That would be a better option, but not great. If José leaves the country, he is barred from returning for 10 years. And so we are trapped. His whole life is here. So immigration to Canada (if we could qualify to immigrate there!) is only an emergency option to be kept on the back burner.

As much as we live with constant anxiety and fear, we are also frustrated about our inability to plan for our future.  We are being robbed of the hopes and dreams that most couples take for granted.  As we are both getting older we would like very much like to start a family. That too is out of our grasp. We’ve thought about surrogacy, but the costs involved are staggering. Even though I have a good paying job, we’d have to use all of our savings for one round with no guarantees.  And José has no opportunity to pursue the career for which he has been educated, so he is chronically underemployed.  We have also considered adoption. We haven’t gone down that road because we were afraid we would not be approved after home visits revealed José's immigration status.  Home studies for an adoption are understandable, but they would seal the fate of our plans to start a family. Obviously when you spend nine years as a binational couple in hiding, you aren’t going to invite someone into your home to investigate your partner's immigration status. So we wait to start our lives as we watch our friends, straight and gay, get married and have children. It is heartbreaking. We know that years are being robbed from us by the U.S. government and the cruel discrimination imposed on me as a U.S. citizen just because I am gay.

We watched with hope in 2004 when Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay couples to marry.  We thought that perhaps it would change something in our lives. I didn’t realize the full impact of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at the time, but I sure found out. It meant that to the federal government, that even if we married, our relationship was worth less than others—nothing in fact— because we are gay. So we waited again.  We didn't marry because like so many binational couples we were probably more scared and uninformed than anything else; we were afraid if we married this could somehow lead to José being deported. We didn't realize that there were actually attorneys out there who specialized in LGBT immigration issues so we never got proper advice. We just postponed our plans to marry as we had postponed everything else in our lives.

We watched in 2007, when President Bush was pushing for immigration reform. We never thought we’d agree with anything President Bush had to say, but there we were, hoping and praying for reform. José would watch C-Span for hours on end. He was horrified at the hateful things some members of Congress would say on record! We were only more devastated when nothing happened.

We were both overjoyed when President Obama was elected with huge Democrat majorities in both houses. We thought for sure that our prayers had been answered. The things Obama had talked about while campaigning were music to our ears. I spent hours knocking on doors and making phone calls for Obama and Franken. When the economy crashed it seemed certain that immigration reform and gay rights legislation would no longer be a priority. Again, we felt let down.

This year however we had great cause for both excitement and disappointment as a binational couple. First came the news that the President would no longer defend the indefensible, horribly named "Defense of Marriage Act."  We did not expect that this would result in a fast solution for us, but we were hopeful.  Then at the end of March we learned that all green card applications for same sex couples were going to be put on hold; my heart soared!  Perhaps I should have known better than to get so excited. It just mean my crash to reality would be even harder when it turned out that, in fact, they would not be put on hold. But during those few days when everything seemed possible, I started to think about all the possibilities. If José got employment authorization and legal status the constant daily fear would be gone. Maybe he could get a better job. Maybe he could go back to school. We started making plans to get married. One more step closer to equality! The joy was short lived. We were both crushed.

Perhaps one good thing came of all of the excitement and disappointment of the past few weeks; we are definitely planning on getting married. We decided to do it on our anniversary later this month.  We should be feeling happier than we do, but there is an air of caution over our heads. The lingering doubt that practically resides in the back of our minds; a little voice that constantly asks if this is really the right thing to do. Its not that we aren’t committed to each other or in love, but we constantly have to think about the legal aspect of everything we do in our lives.  We have decided that this is the right thing for us to do.

As an American citizen, soon to be married to the love of my life, I am now going to join the many other binational couples and reach out to my U.S. Senator Al Franken to urge him to call on Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to put a halt on deportations of spouses of gay Americans. After all, if the President thinks DOMA is unconstitutional it cannot be used to deport José. That minimum security is something we deserve as Americans while Congress works to repeal DOMA or lawsuits bring it to its final day of judgment in the Supreme Court. This administration must protect LGBT families, and stopping all deportations involving married binational couples is a necessary first step.  I am taking a baby step out of our self-imposed prison. I will meet with my elected officials, though José will stay at home, afraid still to "come out" as undocumented.  But I will fight the fight for equality. I hope you will join me in defeating DOMA and stopping the deportations.


  1. Put everything behind and have a great wedding =)


  2. Good luck you guys, thanks for sharing your stories. I can relate to your situation and I am angry our government has had no problem with good citizens being faced with what you are faced with.

    I had heard that in Australia, a citizen can sponsor anyone--ANYONE--two times in their life, regardless of the nature of the relationship: friend, colleague, lover, spouse, business partner, whatever. After researching it this does indeed appear to be true. The primary condition is that the foreigner lives with the Australian citizen for a minimum of one year. These are the kinds of choices we should have as "free" Americans.

    In my writing to Senator Feinstein, one of my senators, about the UAFA in recent years, she always cites in her responses (and as a reason for not cosponsoring) how inflammatory the issue is given ongoing social debates about immigration and same-sex marriage. While I believe her lack of taking a stand adds fuel to those fires, a bill to allow US citizens the kind of freedom Australians have is a solution to this issue that does not force marriage upon us (after all, many straight AND gay people are ambivalent about the institution even as they may be very committed for life to each other). It would also help flesh out the places where the lives of the undocumented have become entwined with those of US citizens, for all kinds of reasons, and maybe offer a tool that walks the line between mass-deportations and amnesty.

    We have married before but ours is not legal, and we, like you, will do it again soon because we see what a repeal of DOMA would require. As much as I don't have the energy to start working on a bill to allow any American to sponsor as Australians can, it strikes me as a good idea--and I will at least call my reps about it. But in the meantime I wish you guys luck--and please know you are not alone. The time to demand that we are recognized as part of the social fabric, and that our families be treated with respect, is here and we need to accept no less. Telling us as citizens to leave our homes and families due to puritanical rules we do not believe in is an unacceptable choice.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. I can relate to it since mine is also similar. Get married and enjoy your wedding.