Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Josh & Henry on CNN: "We came very close to having our marriage destroyed"


Last year, Velandia, a dancer from Venezuela, and Vandiver, a Princeton graduate student, were legally married in Connecticut. But under federal law—the Defense of Marriage Act—immigration authorities don’t recognize same-sex marriages and Velandia was denied legal residency in the United States. But Judge Alberto J. Riefkohl granted an adjournment in Newark’s Immigration Court, according to Advocate.com, mentioning “the possibility that the definition of marriage may be changed or amended.”

Were you able to celebrate the judge’s ruling?

JOSH: We breathed a huge sigh of relief. We came very close to having our marriage destroyed. The judge could have issued a deportation order on that day. If Henry had been deported, we would have been separated for a minimum of ten years.

I can’t describe how it feels to sit in a court room and face a judge who could deport your spouse. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe this was happening in America. The spouse of an American was about to be deported simply because we are a gay couple.

HENRY: I was able to breathe again. We had a special dinner that night with my mom and close friends, but we know that the storm just got quiet. There is much more to come and we need to be ready.

Why are heterosexual bi-national couples protected under immigration laws, but same-sex couples are not?

J: It is a very straightforward process for heterosexual bi-national couples to stay together.

The American citizen files an I-130 petition for alien relative with USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) for the foreign-born spouse. As long as the couple can show the marriage is real, the petition is approved within months and the spouse becomes eligible for a “green card.”

I filed exactly the same petition for Henry, my spouse. But it was denied. USCIS cited the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the sole reason for denying the petition.

Our immigration laws are designed to bring and keep families together. But DOMA, a federal law enacted in 1996, bars the federal government from recognizing the legal marriages of same-sex couples. This is despite the fact that five states and the District of Columbia permit gay and lesbian couples to marry, and these marriages have been going on for years, beginning in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004.

Because of DOMA, the government acts like our marriage doesn’t exist. It treats us like complete strangers. As a result, I’m denied my right to sponsor my spouse to be with me here in my country. If we were a heterosexual couple, Henry would already be a permanent resident. Because we’re gay, he’s about to be deported.

How many couples are in the same situation as both of you?

H: There are thousands of couples suffering the cruel impact of DOMA, tearing families apart based on an unrealistic law. It is even causing a huge impact on the younger generations, destroying their dream of loving who they want to love and staying with who they want to stay with.

Lots of young gay and lesbian couples have shared with us their despair and sadness of not being able to stay together with the person they love. They’ve gotten in touch with us through our Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/SaveOurMarriage), which now has over 10,000 supporters.

J: Immigration Equality reports that there are over 36,000 same-sex bi-national couples in the U.S. Henry and I have personally gotten to know hundreds of couples like us, couples here in the U.S.who are facing deportation. And we’ve gotten letters from couples who have been forced to go in exile abroad in order to stay together.

Rather than be separated from their spouse, the Americans gave up their home here and became refugees. It’s very brave what they’ve done to be together. But it causes huge hardship. No American should have to go into exile to stay with his or her spouse.

The real culprit here is DOMA. It denies federal recognition to all same-sex married couples. Based on the last census it is estimated that there are 150,000 same-sex married couples in the United States. Every single one of those couples is denied the rights that non-gay couples receive. It’s not right.

In your view, what is the difference between same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriage?

J: Henry and I both wanted to get married. That’s why we went to Connecticut, as New Jersey only has civil unions at this point.

We got married because we love each other and wanted to publically commit to being together for the rest of our lives. I’m from Colorado and he’s fromVenezuela. In both our cultures, marriage is the ceremony in which you commit to your spouse before family and friends. And that’s what we wanted, too.

Our marriage certificate is exactly the same as every other marriage certificate in the United States. We believe very strongly in full marriage equality. Our parents and grandparents got married, and we believe we should be able to express our commitment to each other the same way. It has tremendous cultural and legal significance and it is in keeping with how we feel about each other.

H: I think all human beings have the right to say ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife’ and not ‘my civil union partner’. We don’t want to be second-class citizens. My husband, an American born and raised, shouldn’t be put in that category. He is a person, a citizen, and he deserves the right to love and have his love for me treated equally under the law.

You’ve got to return to court in December. What will happen then?

H: We are hoping that between now and December that there will be change, that a wake-up call will happen in America. We need immediate action from Secretary Napolitano to stop the deportations of same-sex spouses. I’m still in deportation proceedings, so I’m still at risk of being taken away from my other half, but I am not alone. The government needs to act to protect all couples in this situation.

J: Henry’s deportation looms over of us every day. We’d rather be planning the rest of our life together, just like every other newlywed couple. Instead, we are fighting these legal battles to stay together and keep our love and marriage alive.

What happens in December ultimately depends on the Obama administration. We are urging the administration to immediately halt the deportations of spouses of gay and lesbian Americans. President Obama and Attorney General Holder have determined that DOMA is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

So why are the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys still actively prosecuting the deportations of our spouses?

Secretary Janet Napolitano, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, has the power to suspend these deportations.

Henry and I will be separated, and our marriage destroyed, long before DOMA is repealed by Congress or struck down by the Supreme Court. President Obama needs to instruct Napolitano immediately to protect couples like us from deportation and prevent the irreparable harm of being torn apart.

Based on what I read on your website (www.JoshandHenry.com) it seems that you were initially reluctant activists. What has being so public about all of this meant to you?

J: Neither of us wanted to be activists, that’s for sure. Henry is a professional dancer, and I’m studying to be a professor. But we had to fight for our love and our marriage.

As we heard from hundreds of couples like us, we realized that we had a duty to speak out for them too. It’s something we take very seriously. A lot of these couples can’t speak up, for fear of persecution, or they have been forced into exile and have no voice here at home.

We are trying our best to be their voice. Last summer we joined a group of bi-national couples like us who sought to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act in Immigration Court and helped launch StopTheDeportations to build a movement around this issue.

H: We both felt we needed to take a stand for our love even though we didn't know what it meant to be activists. We have taken this as our mission to bring change and to inspire, to educate and to speak out about this issue. This issue has been in the closet for way too long, silently neglecting the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans for many years.

On Monday, The New York Times reported, in separate stories, that Rick Welts, the CEO and president of basketball team Phoenix Suns, and CNN anchor Don Lemon both revealed they are gay. The United States is still a very conservative country. Do you imagine a time when stories such as Welts’, Lemon’s and yours receive no media attention?

J: I definitely can imagine such a time. I grew up in rural Colorado, where no one said a word—at least not a good word—about the possibility that someone in our community, like me, could be gay. I bottled up everything inside and didn’t let it see the light of day. But times are changing, and it makes a huge difference every time a major figure is truthful about being gay.

Struggling against this discriminatory law, DOMA, I’ve realized that we can never take for granted that things will get better automatically. It takes action on our part, courage to be who we are and to accept others for who they are, to bring about change.

We have a ways to go before people in every corner of our country, and every walk of life—including professional athletics, entertainment, business and politics—can feel comfortable and safe openly being who they are.

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