Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Victory for Sveta & Andi in Chicago! Lesbian Couple Stops DOMA Deportation by Bravely Fighting For Their Marriage and Their Married Name, Alongside Asylum Claim

Readers of this site will recall this earlier post, "Sveta & Andi: Together for 11 Years, Married Lesbian Couple in Illinois Faces June Deportation Hearing." Sveta had been legally in the U.S. for almost  all of the last 15 years.  The government of Kazakhstan stripped her of her citizenship in 2009 when consular officials found out she was a lesbian, married to her American wife, Andi. Sveta fought deportation to Kazakhstan because of her fear of persecution. She also pressed the court for consideration of the marriage-based green card petition filed by Andi.  Sveta and Andi were emboldened to take this action after high-profile victories by other couples in the Stop The Deportations campaign. A combination of these strategies brought victory to this couple last week.

What's in a name? I've asked myself that question, comparing civil unions in our state, Illinois, to full equal marriage just across the river in Iowa. We know the answer. We are living it.

When my wife and I crossed that river to marry in Iowa, I took her last name. How could I not? It was an act of self-affirmation and it was one action of many to show to the world that we belonged together. That one shared name, meant that we were a family.

 Sveta and Andi the day after the ruling

On the day we married, I thought back to the moment when I applied for asylum. I was asked by the Asylum Officer to strike my wife's name from my asylum application. That instruction was followed by a brief explanation that the Defense of Marriage Act would prevent her from being recognized as my spouse, even for the purpose of simply recording her existence as a fact on the application. While the asylum process exists to provide safe haven to the persecuted, at that moment it was distracted with the distracting business of erasing the existence of a U.S. citizen because of DOMA.

I thought of our first vows exchanged along with rings, many years before, an occasion which went unacknowledged by any state or federal law. That has improved though: for Iowa, for Illinois, and for us, as, surrounded by our friends and family, I wrote Andi's last name as my new name on the marriage license form. I claimed it in my new signature, and from that moment on we shared a name.

Thank you, Iowa.
On their wedding day

My Illinois state ID card was the only identification I had left as an asylum seeker, one that let me travel within US, if not outside it. As a stateless person, stripped of my citizenship by my own government, I was lucky to hold any identification to begin with. I frequently worried about what might happen if enough time had passed and the only identification that I held expired while my immigration case was still on hold. What happens if I ever lose it? I had no clear answer. The unlucky timing of my first hearings scheduled by the court landed me in a frozen state: just a few days short of eligibility to receive a temporary work authorization card. I was in limbo for an indeterminate time onward. This limitation came with the bonus of not being able to initiate a name change on a social security record, and, consequently, my only ID card. An irreplaceable, precious card, alas, with my maiden name on it.

What's in a name? It was just a word printed on a piece of plastic, an identity card but not an identity that should matter. Considering other vital priorities - survival, safety, staying together - this particular uncorrected matter could be delayed. Despite the last name my only ID held, we were married. I introduced myself and signed paperwork using our shared last name. We informed the immigration court of our marriage and submitted a copy of marriage certificate to be examined at the next hearing.

Coincidentally, this hearing fell on the date of our first anniversary: June 15th was when Andi and I exchanged our rings and vows. Now, six years later, half of that day was to be taken by the immigration proceedings and the other half... I could not plan that far. It was not up to me.

As the proceedings began, I was required to state my name. And so, I leaned toward the microphone, and said it.

My judge looked at me and explained that for the purposes of the court, the proceedings would have to use my maiden name. Oh, I thought. Well, I tried. And then the judge continued, taking the time to add that it had to be done because my asylum application was originally filed using that name. I realized what he was saying. That was the only reason the judge had to use my maiden name.

It was a minor remark, but it came as a welcome surprise and thus was memorable.

The judge surprised the couple with his handwritten notation "Svetlana Apodaca" at the top of his decision, accepting that Sveta and Andi were married and permitting Sveta the dignity of sharing the name of her spouse

During the hearing, I listened to others discuss the undecided issue of DOMA within the immigration context, they spoke of many unknowns, of undetermined dates and lack of scheduled solutions. I did not expect this to be easy; I was prepared for a long day in court and no clear or good ways out. Determined to pursue every possibility available to us, my lawyer spoke of the plans to appeal in the future, of many reasons to wait, to postpone the deportation proceedings, to leave my case unresolved until either the legislature or the higher courts decide on the issue of DOMA, and marriages, for good. In sort, we pursued every avenue to impress upon the court and the government attorney that we would fight for our marriage to be treated equally. We learned from the success of other married binational couples who had gone before us, and whose stories you have read here. We were fortunate to be able to consult with Lavi Soloway about those cases. In the end, the judge, having given consideration to the issues and challenges surrounding the marriage-based green card petition, pressed on with my asylum claim. He chose to continue listening to the remaining witnesses and to render a final decision that would determine the fate of our marriage and our future together.

When, hours later, a decision was made, my asylum was granted.


At that long, stunned second, I remember staring at the courtroom through a sudden glassy wall. I put all of my hopes toward what I perceived to be the best case scenario: several years of unresolved, undefined limbo status contested and fought over in courts, but... Is this over? Now?

I don't cry often. I did, as I continued listening to the verdict.

It sunk in, gradual and striking: I am safe. I am allowed to stay. I would not be separated from my wife.

As the judge signed the final order, he took the extra step of adding my married name onto the document.

I was stunned and numb as I took that paper with my name - my actual name - on it. Outside the courtroom, my wife stared in question and listened and rushed to hold me. Days later I was still trying to comprehend my new reality. The fact might hit me someday soon with its sheer impact and I'd be stunned and amazed all over again.

With one judgement, with one document, and within one day, I, once again, had permission to work, a possibility of travelling the world freely, and a chance of someday being able to cast a vote. Against the odds, Andi and I, once more, could live together without the fear of separation and had a future we could plan for. And I had my name back.

Getting a new ID, with my married name on it, was no longer an impossibility.

It was a long road, one that many couples like us have faced before us and will face again. Immigration Court is a fate which both of us would have been spared from, had we been a heterosexual couple, acknowledged and protected by many aspects of US immigration law. But we are not there - not yet. We are a married binational same-sex couple and our green card application submitted for me by my US citizen wife before our hearing date, in defiance of DOMA, is pending without resolution. We are so proud to be standing with other married binational couples: those who stood up to DOMA first by filing marriage-based petitions and impressed with their simple humanity our resolve to be treated equally. We derived courage and support from the leadership of others who, in the last year, forcefully paved the way by filing marriage-based petitions and fighting to halt deportations.

To all the other couples like us who are fighting to remain together in this country, I wish them only the best and I admire their actions. We must keep up the pressure on the system. Even tiny incremental victories like reclaiming our married name from a system that would exclude us become victories for every couple that comes after.

Our first anniversary date now holds a double meaning. Andi and I keep track of many such personal anniversaries. I would guess that other couples in our situation also end up with multiple anniversaries instead of a single wedding date: there are days of trading and re-trading vows, rings, “I Do's", until such act is acknowledged, counted, recognized one piece at a time. Recognition, and piecemeal rights to commitment, to existence, are won and will continue to be won, in the course of many days, months, and years, by activism and by stories like ours, in court or in legislature.

One day, looking back free of the burden of DOMA, we'll have many more occasions to celebrate. But until then, we must keep telling our stories.

Submitted by Sveta Apodaca

1 comment:

  1. Sveta,

    Until reading your articles I had forgotten how good of a writer you were...if anyone deserves this it is you and andi. You fought for what was right and you won. Congrats again.