Thursday, July 28, 2011

Josh Vandiver & Henry Velandia and Courage Campaign Ask Senator Robert Menendez to Support DOMA Repeal

Josh and Henry photographed in May in New Jersey's Liberty State Park (Jonathan Ystad/GetEqual)

Today Josh and Henry teamed up with Courage Campaign launching an effort to persuade their United States Senator Robert Menendez to join 29 other member of the Senate and become a co-sponsor of the DOMA repeal bill, the Respect for Marriage Act. Josh and Henry point out in their letter to the Senator that DOMA is tearing apart married gay and lesbian binational couples. Senator Menendez is an ally of the LGBT community and is the co-author of the comprehensive immigration reform bill currently pending in the Senate that includes a provision that would allow for the immigration of partners of lesbian and gay Americans and permanent residents, however he has not joined the fight for repeal of DOMA. Last week the President formally endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act and the Senate Judiciary Committee held its historic DOMA repeal hearing. It is time for every supporter of LGBT equality to stand up and fight for repeal of DOMA. Call Senator Menendez at 202-224-4744 and tell him about the hardship caused to you by DOMA.

Dear Senator Menendez,

We write as a married same-sex couple on behalf of ourselves and many other New Jersey families who are being denied equality, out of concern over a particular piece of legislation.

Sen. Feinstein has introduced S. 598, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the odious “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA. We know you are a supporter of equality for same-sex couples, Sen. Menendez. What’s more, as the lead sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes the Uniting American Families Act, you know that ending DOMA would eliminate the discrimination in immigration law that nearly forced Henry's deportation, even though we are legally married.

It is therefore with surprise that we learned you are not one of the 29 Senators who publicly support the Respect for Marriage Act. As you know, Senator, this issue would permit the tens of thousands of same-sex couples -- many of whom live in New Jersey -- to have access to the over 1,100 federal rights and benefits to which heterosexual couples are entitled. These include Social Security benefits, health insurance, immigration benefits, tax provisions, and more. These benefits would strengthen New Jersey families by providing tools that help loving, committed couples and their families to take care of each other. What’s more, if the Respect for Marriage Act becomes law, this recognition would not stop when couples cross state lines -- the lawful relationships of loving, committed same-sex couples could be recognized in all 50 states.

Through our Stop The Deportations project we've joined with other same-sex bi-national couples who are being denied immigration benefits due to DOMA. Many are facing the nightmare of deportation and separation because of DOMA. We hope it's an oversight that you have not yet joined your colleague Sen. Lautenberg in co-sponsoring the Respect for Marriage Act, Sen. Menendez. We, along with supporters of equality across the country, look forward to your prompt reply.

With respect,

Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia
Princeton, NJ

Monday, July 25, 2011

Almost 30 Years After They First Met, Lin & Martha Continue to Fight for Couples Exiled to the DOMA Diaspora

Living Into a Fair Future
By Lin McDevitt-Pugh

This is a story about Martha and me. Martha went into exile in 2000 when two important and incompatible facts dominated our lives. We were in love and realized we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Martha could not stay in the United States because US immigration law prohibited her from sponsoring me as her permanent partner to live there with her.

Martha and I live in the Netherlands. For the past 13 years we have been confronted with the fact that, in this time of globalization in which people often partner with those of different nationalities than their own, the United States does not allow its citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration purposes.

For the past 9 years Martha and I have actively worked to change this cruel law while she lives in exile. It is time for change. The US immigration law hurts us, hurts Martha’s family, hurts the thousands of families like ours, and it hurts the United States and the freedom it stands for. We think love can change the abject law that keeps Martha in exile. Martha needs to be able to go home and bring me, her wife of 10 years, with her. This is the story of who we are, our love for each other, and never giving up on our dreams.

When Martha and I fell in love we had been friends for 17 years.
Martha and I met in February 1982. I was working in an international media office in Amsterdam with people who promoted clean energy. I had a monthly journal to type but my colleagues were banging out a bi-weekly news release on our one-and-only machine. So I traveled across town to another non-profit, an international policy studies center, to see if I could use one their electric typewriters.

I arrived at the office and a young intern from the USA was typing away; she kindly moved to another chair and watched as I laboured through my pages of copy. When I came back next day to finish the job, I learned that, when she arrived in Amsterdam to start her internship, a co-worker gave her a list of names of people she should try to meet. Coincidentally, my name was at the top.

That is how Martha McDevitt and I met and became fast friends.

When my girlfriend of the time gave birth to our son, Koen, Martha adored him. Martha, a highly competent seamstress, created one little jumpsuit after another for Koen and frequently babysat for us.

In 1984, Martha met an American service woman stationed in the UK who was visiting Amsterdam for R&R where she would not have to hide her sexuality. My family began celebrating holidays with Martha and her partner. In 1990, when Martha’s girlfriend left the military, the couple returned to the USA. Martha knew she would miss us but she wanted to be near her family and wanted to develop a career in her own country. She gave me a modem to put in my computer, so that we could email each other and keep in touch that way. I cried for 6 months. I missed my best buddy.

Fortunately, Martha found that her knowledge of Dutch and her computer skills were very much in demand in Silicon Valley. She was able to secure work that regularly brought her back to the Netherlands and I had work that occasionally took me to the East Coast of the United States; from there, I’d fly to San Francisco to visit her. In this way, we managed to maintain a close and precious friendship.

The friendship was easy and did not have any of the thorns and brambles we experienced with our lovers. My relationship faced constant turbulence despite the best will in the world. When our son was 12, my partner and I decided to disengage. Martha’s relationship, too, had encountered its own turbulence. We both concluded that relationships and turbulence went together, and easy companionship was a thing of friendship.

That changed the week of Martha’s 40th birthday when I visited her in California. By that point, Martha was a senior manager in a Silicon Valley firm and had separated from her girlfriend. It was during that visit that I recognized that what I felt was more than friendship. But with more than 16 years of ease and pleasure as friends on the line, my voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper when I asked her if she wanted to risk more. After what seemed many seconds, I forced my eyes to lift and to look at her. I encountered her smiling face, that beautiful face I had known and enjoyed for so many years. Yes, she wanted that too.

Sigh. This is the stuff of a fairy tale, or shall we say the kind of fairy tale I wish I was told when I was a child. Those kinds of fairy tales hadn’t yet been invented about two women with different nationalities, living on different continents, who fall in love.

And the fairy tale ending still has not been invented. Once we acknowledged we were in love, the confrontations with reality started. To begin with, we had to think about where in the world we would live. Literally. We had three places we could be with family. While I am a Dutch citizen, I am Australian by birth and am privileged to have two living parents in Australia. Martha was living near San Francisco, close to her family, and loving it. And my son Koen was 16 and living in Amsterdam. I certainly did not want to leave him before he was an adult.

For more than a year, from 1999 to 2000, Martha or I flew over the ocean at least once every 6 weeks to spend time together. When we weren’t together we spoke every day on the phone and we had a constant stream of emails. Martha knew it would be very difficult for me to move to the United States as immigration law only recognized heterosexual married couples.

But we had each other and a strong commitment to fairness. We knew that it was our right to be together because we believed – and continue to believe – that we all have a right to equality under the law. We believe that most people will agree with us if they let their hearts speak.

Still, going back and forth between two continents quickly lost its shine. In 2000, Martha found a job in the Netherlands and moved to join me there, 18 years after we first met. In May 2001 we married under the new Dutch law, one month after it was introduced. Having the right to choose to marry, we experienced what it was like to be first class citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities my brother and sister and Martha’s siblings experience in their own country. We don’t feel different, we are not legally different, we are simply people who choose to form a primary relationship with each other and have that relationship recognized by the State. We chose marriage. We wanted to stand up in front of friends and family and request that they support our relationship through thick and thin. We wanted to exercise our right to form that most essential cornerstone of society, the family. We experience the joy of our marriage every day of our lives.

The distinguished photographer Gon Buurman took photos at our wedding for use beyond our own living room wall. We were thinking about the power of the image to support the growing number of voices in the United States saying that two people loving each other should be able to celebrate that in the way that is customary in any society: through marriage. The photos have appeared in magazines and newspapers, on websites and in books. They have even been in art exhibitions, street exhibitions and an exhibition at a retirement home. We have been interviewed for more than 5 books and have talked about the where, what, how and why of our wedding in filmed interviews and in mainstream magazines in the 10 years since.

Martha even spent time on our honeymoon writing about these issues for a gay publication in the USA. We were astounded when the editor wrote back asking if we were sure the marriage was legal. His question was a distressing reminder that in United States it can be hard for even gay people to imagine legal equality.

But our marriage was legal and very real: from the veils and the bouquets to the flower girls, page boy, and the exchange of rings; from the kiss and the champagne on the steps of the City Hall to the celebrations afterward with family and friends from Australia and the USA, from Germany and the UK, and of course from the Netherlands. We were sung to, had poems written about us, we danced the night through and we celebrated life and love.

After several months, though, the reality of our situation began to weigh on Martha. She was living back in the Netherlands, somewhere she had never planned to return. Her dreams of living in her own country, with her family, building her career, were smashed. She had not voluntarily left the USA to be with me; she was exiled. Exiled for love. And because she knew that she was not the only one, in 2002 Martha founded the organization “Love Exiles” to be a community of people who could support each other in exile and who could work together, and with organizations in the USA, to put a halt to the unnecessarily cruel law that made it impossible for people to live in the United States with their foreign-born loved ones and spouses. We set up a board, with Janherman Veenker, a Dutchman whose partner of 20 years, James, was a dean at Rutgers University; Bob Bragar, a New York lawyer who had fallen in love with Rik , a judge in the Dutch law courts; Robby Checkoway, a US-born journalist living in the Netherlands with his UK partner Chris who ran a flourishing internet company; attorney Kirsten Anderson who had fallen in love with Dutch policewoman Jacqueline; and Martha and myself. Our first action was to organize a Thanksgiving dinner at which the Love Exiles living in the Netherlands treated representatives of the local community, including a mayor and a prominent politician responsible for opening marriage to same sex couples, to one of the USA’s finest eating traditions. A lawyer in Los Angeles knew we were organizing the event and he put his client, Tim Heymans in London, in touch with Martha. Love Exiles UK was born. Shortly after, when we were filming a film about love exiles in Germany, Love Exiles Germany was born. Then came Love Exiles Canada and Love Exiles Australia, all of them online communities sharing information on how to cope in a foreign land, how to let their elected representatives know about their situation and how to work toward changes in the law. None of us have come to terms with the fact that the USA would prefer to lose their citizens to exile rather than accepting their partners as residents.

In 2004 Martha joined an 8-day bus ride across the United States organized by marriage equality activists on the West Coast. Their aim was to travel through the heartland educating people along the way about why the freedom to marry matters. Martha kept an audio-log throughout the ride which was later broadcast on Radio Nederland and won a major media award.

A year later, in 2005, Martha was sitting at home in Amsterdam watching developments in California. An exciting majority of the state legislators had voted to open marriage to same sex couples. Would Governor Schwarzenegger veto the bill that would allow couples of the same sex to marry? With our rights hanging in the balance, Martha decided to book a flight home to try to be of help. Within days she was in Redwood City near San Francisco with her mother, preparing a two-day bike ride to the California capital of Sacramento. She bought a new road bike, contacted local marriage and immigration equality activists and set off early one morning to the flash of TV cameras on a journey that brought her to the Governor’s office.

I made a t-shirt for her to wear, with our wedding photo on it. I love the photo that was taken of her wearing it and standing under the portrait of the Governor and his wife. She didn’t get to see the Governor. She left a message. The governor vetoed the bill, saying the courts and not the legislators had to decide.

When Martha was in the States, my job was to inform the press. Alone on the other side of the world, at least I was in an advantageous time zone to get out press releases in support of the efforts of our friends from Out 4Immigration and to publicize the ride. The story of Martha’s ride to Sacramento was one of the top 10 stories of 2005 according to the Dutch magazine, Zij aan Zij.

There are many more stories I could tell about our ongoing efforts to expose the discriminatory effects of US immigration law and the negative impact those laws have on the ability of US companies to employ gay Americans who have foreign partners.

I really admire the efforts of my wife, Martha. Every day, she is thinking and talking and writing about a future in which our families will not face discrimination. She is fearless and at the same time sunny, funny and a treat to be with. One day she will have the right to live in the same country as her mother, her sister and her brothers, the country in which she was born – and to do so without having to leave me, her spouse, behind. We deserve that simple but critical right.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monica & Cristina Fight for Their Marriage at the Board of Immigration Appeals, As NYC Celebrates Marriage Equality

U.S. Embassy in Sydney Denies Christopher's Request to Visit Arthur, Enforcing 10-Year Bar With No Mercy

Christopher and Arthur fight a technicality that keeps them apart, despite their 14-year relationship

An update from Christopher Joseph whose heart-breaking story of a 10,000 mile separation from his partner, Arthur, was posted here on April 10, 2011. Christopher and Arthur met and fell in love in the United States 14 years ago, but following incorrect advice from an attorney, Christopher departed the U.S. to return to Australia after having overstayed his visa by 13 months. As he later learned, this meant that he would be barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 year, or until 2019.  Each year, countless lesbian and gay binational couples are separated by the 5 or 10 year overstay bars.  Christopher has been trying to get back to the U.S. begging elected officials and Consular officers for help. All his efforts, as he notes below, have failed.

From Christopher:

It seems our quest for a path to return to the United States has failed on all accounts. While I have been here in Australia I have sought help through the US Consulate without success. Their response has been that it didn't matter why I overstayed my visa; even though I may not have been at fault, the ten year entry ban would be enforced with no chance for any appeal. The Consulate Officer was quite belligerent in writing, so much so that it felt that they were enjoying denying me any help. Meanwhile Arthur had been getting assistance with a representative of Marriage Equality who arranged a meeting with our U.S. Senator back home; but again, no success. The Senator would not call the Consulate on our behalf even though his staff indicated to us that he believed he was supportive of our plight. All other avenues have fallen flat and we have been left staring at locked doors. We have one final act seeking help with another Senator but judging by past efforts, we don't hold much chance of anything positive coming forth.

We are devoted to each other and our love for one another will not perish even though it seems we cannot spend our lives together. As I said in my letter to our Senator, I spent 33 years of meeting people and not finding my Mr. Right until I found my Arthur and he found me. I believed love was never going to find me but it did and no lawmaker, cetainly those who have never met us but yet still believe they can decide our fate, will ever keep us from the love we share. Arthur has spoken about coming to Australia, a country that doesn't allow same sex marriage but does allow same sex partner immigration. In that sense the U.S. could learn a few things from what other countries are doing. American politicians tell the world that "all men are created equal" and generously uses the word "freedom" as though it is something they can export by example. That is far from the truth as far as we are concerned. Arthur has a stable home and family life in the U.S. and I would never want to break that up. We both live in hope that one day soon, those who make these laws decide to change them and we would never want anybody to go throught the pain we now have to endure. Whether or not this is survivable only time will tell. At the moment I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe the tunnel end is a rock wall.

Without the Defense of Marriage Act we would actually have a chance to overcome this 10-year bar. Arthur and I could marry (we'd have to fly to a third country to do it, like Canada) and then apply for me to immigrate to the U.S. Through that process, I could apply for a waiver on the basis of my marriage to a U.S. citizen, if I could prove that it would cause extreme hardship to Arthur if I were unable to immigrate before 2019. Knowing the hardship we have experienced for the past two years, I hardly think it would be difficult to explain that concept to Consular Officer. Of course none of this should have ever happened. If we had married in 2009 and Arthur had been able to petition for a "green card" for me, my story would have been just as simple and straightforward as that of any straight binational couple.  DOMA caused this disaster, perhaps these are its unintended consequences, who knows? It doesn't matter. There are many lesbian and gay couples whose lives have been ruined because of DOMA and the 10-year bar on returning. A broken immigration system and a cruel, discriminatory anti-gay marriage law have caused so much sorrow.

If by chance you are a law maker and are reading this, we both hope you never have to be apart from those you love and who love you. Your decisions, or lack thereof, are destroying true families and you are destroying love. The agony we feel is so far the worst feeling we have ever encountered. In some ways, losing a loved one may be an easier thing to deal with for there is closure. With Arthur and I, all I do is wonder how he is and how hard it is when he needs my help.

DOMA needs to end. We need to have full equality, dignity and respect for all LGBT families. Foot dragging by any politician on this issue means more families torn apart, more lives destroyed and continued second-class citizenship for all lesbian and gay Americans.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Video: Stop The Deportations Rally Across From San Francisco Immigration In Support of Doug & Alex

Thanks to Sean Chapin for putting together this video montage of our July 13 rally. The result was a big victory for Doug and Alex.

Becky & Sanne: Ten Trips, a Wedding and a Daughter. Exiled Binational Couple Finds a New Life in Belgium.

My Union is Sacred

One moment has the power to last a lifetime and change the course of a life. September 30th, 2008. I was in Northern India leading a group of young adults on an alternative educational journey. She was there on an art internship. We had both—me, with the group and her solo—registered with an Ashram where we would attend an intensive 8-day yoga course. Introductory evening: she is called Sanne. She comes from the Netherlands. I am Becky; I come from America.  We are certain…Our gazes open doors to places that have no borders. The world is small, but the heavens not.

It is India, so we are cautious. Though it is hard to hide what seems to be bursting forth with such gusto and intent. One of my students says to me, in a hushed tone, just three days after Sanne and I meet, “Becky, it seems like you are in love.” It’s true. I am—deeply and in ways I had only dreamed of.

Eighteen days later, Sanne and I part. My group is off to another part of India. Sanne is making her way south to Mumbai, her point of exit back to the Netherlands. We have no idea when we will see each other again. I tell her I will find my way back to her.

December 2008 - Trip One

I am in between groups, but I must see her. I squeeze sixteen days in the Netherlands. I feel I have known Sanne forever. Her family feels like my own.

March 2009 - Trip Two

I have finished my stint in Guatemala with the next group. Sanne is rooted to her place in the Netherlands as she finishes art school. Even though I know her, I want to get to know her. I have a little less than two and a half months left on my tourist visa for this six-month period. We learn what life is like on a daily level. Again, we are certain; we want to build a life together. I go back to America in May just biding my time until we can reunite. My life feels empty there without her.

June 2009 - Trip Three

I have just seven days left as a “tourist.” I stay exactly the alotted time in order to attend Sanne’s art exhibition and graduation.

July 2009 - Trip Four

It’s Sanne’s turn to be a “tourist.” It is much more difficult for her to come to America than it was for me in the Netherlands. Americans are suspicious: of everyone. Her grandma deposits a lump of money into her account, so she can show that she has enough to stay for the maximum six months. We make some semblance of a life for ourselves in Milwaukee where my twin sister resides. We know this arrangement will be short-lived, and we must come up with a plan if we are to remain together. In the meantime, I have one of those dreams that I know can only be my soul speaking. I am meant to carry a child in Africa. Again, for a fleeting moment, our world is borderless.

January 2010 - Trip Five

This time, together, Sanne and I make the trip to the Netherlands. Now, we feel like partners. We are indeed partnering in our life. We intend to keep it this way. It’s a logistical trip as a result. How can we create a life with one another unbound by visa requirements?

February 2010 - Trip Six

Together, we have made our second trip. We are in Ghana now following our passions: Sanne is learning woodcraft from a local artist, and I am writing. We are both birthing something in ourselves before we take on the conception and birthing of our child. It’s a simple life in form, but complicated in relations. Sanne and I are relegated to tales of us being “real, good friends.” Wink Wink. Of course, we knew that coming into this. Same sex relationships are illegal in Ghana. You can even serve prison time.

May 2010- Trip Seven

A soul has chosen us. I am certain we are pregnant. Now, residency is imperative. Sanne has returned early to arrange details for my immigration. It will be difficult, but not impossible. Thank God the Netherlands recognizes my partnership. We are so blessed that we can create a life together in one of our countries.

June 2010 - Trip Eight

I am back in the Netherlands. Those four weeks apart felt like an eternity. I just wanted to share this pregnancy with Sanne. We inform our families of our life, our plans. We will marry in September. We already know that ours is a Sacred Union that can’t be touched or influenced by anything outside of ourselves, but we want rights, too.

July 2010 - Trip Nine

I have to leave again, otherwise the paperwork can’t be arranged in time to avoid “tourist”status. With my belly in bloom, I return to America to be amidst family and friends. My community is there. It’s bittersweet, really. I’ve found my life partner and so much is being created, but I must also leave so much behind. I feel heartache and love operating simultaneously. Sanne and I both know we would stay in North Carolina if we could. We both feel a connection to the mountains there and the people. One day, we think.

August 2010 - Trip Ten. The Last.

I am back. Things are becoming clearer, even if they are still tricky. To Belgium, we must go. Immigration law is less stringent there. We have concluded that immigration in the Netherlands is for people with money. In Belgium, you need less of it.

September 20, 2010. We marry almost two years, to the date, of our meeting. It’s simple. It’s sweet. It affirms what we have already commited to with one another. It feels different though, carries with it different implications. We are seen as a couple now— by the law and by immigration officials— a luxury not afforded to us back in the United States because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a Union between a man and a woman.

Since we are talking about marriage here, I’ll be candid…I never imagined I would get married, at least not in the traditional sense. I had always envisioned some kind of commitment ceremony where friends and family would witness my partner and I sharing vows that we created— vows of conciousness and empowerment. Marriage, in my eyes, was the formality. It still is. Indeed, when Sanne and I got married, everything felt different. We had, after all, stated our vows (still our creation) in front of others. There’s power in that. But there is also power in having our Union recognized by our government. Especially now that immigration is dependent on it.

So, the paperwork is in order. We begin our life together. We find a home in the literal sense. In its figurative sense, we have learned that home is inside of us. But, we are realizing, with each passing day, there is something more to “home.” It’s not unlike a relationship in that way. Sometimes there is but one place (or in terms of a relationship, but one person) that really stirs something deep in our beings. A place (or person) that calls forth the bigger and brighter aspects of who we are because it just FEELS right. To Sanne and I, that place is the mountains of North Carolina. There’s a resonance we feel there that we haven’t known anywhere else. And now, as caretakers of our daughter, Willow, we have an even bigger responsibility to live where our hearts and souls desire. We are models for her of what it means to live life.

So Sanne and I are doing it. We are living life. We are listening closely, and we are placing our hearts out there— our story— with the knowledge that, just as our neighbors, we are humans with an equal desire to love and be loved. We don’t wish to meddle in politics or religion or the lives of others, for that matter. We are not activists. We are people, and all we desire is the freedom to be who we are, to live our life as a family, and in the place that feels home to our souls.

Together, let us work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. It only serves to reinforce the isolation and division too many of us— no matter the race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation— feel in our insides. Support Unity: family unity. Support Love. Support Life. Let our higher selves be the model we choose and live by— if not for ourselves than, at least, for our Gods and our children.

Thank you for listening. If you feel compelled, share this story: with like-minded folk or differing-minded folk. It doesn’t matter. It is all of our journeys, after all, to be fully who we are. I am called Becky. She is Sanne. Our daughter is Willow.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Stop The Deportations Teams Up With Lambda Legal: Fighting DOMA at the Board of Immigration Appeals

Lambda Legal Files Amicus Brief To Urge Immigration Officials to Stop DOMA Deportation of Monica Alcota, and All Same-Sex Binational Couples

Cristina Ojeda and Monica Alcota
On July 11, Lambda Legal Defense joined the fight to stop the government from tearing apart Cristina Ojeda and Monica Alcota, a married, binational lesbian couple in Queens, New York. The nation's oldest and most respected LGBT legal organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Board of Immigration Appeals after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied the couple's marriage-based immigration petition.

Cristina and Monica have fought a high-profile battle against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and deportation proceedings since joining the Stop The Deportations campaign last summer.

In March, New York Immigration Judge Terry Bain, acting with the agreement of the Immigration & Customs Enforcement prosecuting attorney, postponed Monica's deportation hearing on the basis that Cristina had filed a marriage-based "green card" petition for her. Monica and Cristina are scheduled to return to court in December for another hearing to review the status of that petition.

In April, USCIS denied Cristina's "green card" petition for Monica, citing DOMA and also relying on a 1982 decision known as Adams v. Howerton from California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  (That case involved a gay binational couple, Anthony "Tony" Sullivan and Richard Adams, who had fought and lost a legal battle against the then-INS.  In 1996, Lavi Soloway wrote this article about the couple and their fight on the occasion of their 25th anniversary. Tony and Richard recently celebrated their 40th anniversary and are still fighting for equality and justice for binational couples.)

Cristina appealed the denial of her petition to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The lawyers for the couple, Stop The Deportations co-founders, Lavi Soloway and Noemi Masliah, filed a brief arguing that the BIA should not affirm the denial considering that the Department of Justice, of which the BIA is a part, has itself determined that DOMA is unconstitutional.  The brief argued that the BIA should hold the case in abeyance, given the rapidly evolving legal context, specifically the DOJ's filing of a 31-page brief against DOMA and in support of the plaintiff in the Golinski case on July 1; the DOJ's decision to allow married same-sex couples to be recognized as married in U.S. Bankruptcy Court proceedings on July 7; and the Attorney General's historic intervention in a BIA decision on May 5 that suggested the DOJ was considering whether "partners" in civil unions could be recognized as spouses for immigration law purposes.

Lambda’s amicus brief to the BIA argues that immigration officials are attempting to incorrectly apply the findings of the Adams v Howerton case to find a reason to deport Monica Alcota.

Lambda is coming to Monica’s defense with a brief that argues that Adams v Howerton has been superseded by multiple intersecting legal and legislative developments since 1982. Many modern recent developments for same-sex couples have occurred since 1982, including the rise of jurisdictions where marriages and civil unions between same-sex couples are recognized to be lawful, and where pending federal litigation are challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Despite the obvious inapplicability of Adams v Howerton, USCIS continues to tear apart same-sex binational couples in situations similar to that of Cristina and Monica, ignoring their marriages. While Immigration and Bankruptcy Courts across the nation are showing flexibility in dealing with married same-sex couples, USCIS, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, seems unwilling to entertain that option.

Lambda’s urged the immigration officials to exercise prosecutorial discretion to administratively close or postpone all pending immigration cases involving married same-sex couples, at least until DOMA is either repealed, or declared unconstitutional. Absent DOMA, there would be no obstacle to the approval of  the marriage-based "green card" petition filed by Cristina for Monica. Tens of thousands of lesbian and gay Americans would have equal access to the family unification provisions of U.S. immigration law, just like all married couples.

See Lambda's complete press release and the amicus brief filed in support of Cristina Ojeda and Monica Alcota here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Victory for Doug & Alex! San Francisco Immigration Judge Postpones Deportation Hearing for More Than Two Years

Alex and Doug attend rally this morning on Montgomery Street
across from San Francisco Immigration Court
Media contact: Justin Page/Lavi Soloway at or 925-408-0662

Immigration Judge Postpones DOMA Deportation Proceedings For Two Years, Allowing Married Gay Binational Couple to Remain in U.S.; Directs Government Attorneys To Act on Request for Termination of Deportation Proceedings Within Sixty Days

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – This morning in San Francisco, Doug Gentry and Alex Benshimol -- a married binational same-sex couple -- appeared before Immigration Judge Marilyn Teeter for a deportation hearing and were permitted to remain in the country despite the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the law that prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages by the federal government. This is the latest in a series of recent court rulings that have demonstrated the inequality that DOMA forces same-sex couples to live under.

Specifically, the judge laid out two options. She gave the government 60 days to decide whether it will agree to drop deportation proceedings against Alex -- a Venezuelan citizen -- altogether. If the government elects not to drop proceedings, the same judge will revisit the case again in September 2013, ensuring that Doug and Alex are protected from deportation for at least two more years allowing them to return to building a life together with their family, including Alex's two step-children.

"Today the Immigration Judge demonstrated compassion and understanding for Doug and Alex as a married binational couple, granting them a reprieve from deportation by postponing further proceedings to September 2013," said Lavi Soloway, lawyer for Doug and Alex, and founder of Stop the Deportations. "The Judge also gave the government 60 days to inform the court whether it will agree with our request to terminate these proceedings pursuant to prosecutorial discretion guidelines issued June 17 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton. We will continue to advocate for termination of these proceedings and a moratorium on all deportations of spouses of lesbian and gay Americans."

"Today's victory is yet another sign that when we engage the system and demand full equality we encourage those in power to find reasonable interim solutions that protect LGBT families, even as we fight to bring about an end to DOMA.  Doug and Alex showed tremendous courage standing up for all binational couples as they insisted on fighting for an end to the government's deportation proceedings against Alex. After the hearing the couple went for a celebratory lunch.  The couple looked forward to spending time with their extended family including Doug's two children who have always considered Alex to be their step-father, even before he and Doug married last year.  They are very relieved to have been given a two year reprieve and they will continue to fight for an end to DOMA deportations, Soloway said."

Alex came into the U.S. 12 years ago from Venezuela and overstayed a tourist visa, an immigration violation that straight binational couples can easily remedy once married; as a gay married couple, Doug and Alex do not have that option. Many binational couples are legally married like Alex and Doug, but they are still treated as legal strangers in the eyes of the federal government. There is only one reason Doug and Alex faced deportation proceedings at all — the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that the President and the Attorney General have both determined to be indefensible and unconstitutional.

To support the couple and to show widespread public support for their right to remain together, legally, in the United States, many organizations working for full federal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans will hold a rally outside the courthouse in San Francisco where the hearing is scheduled to take place. Organizations leading the rally efforts include GetEQUAL, Marriage Equality USA, Out4Immigration, and Stop the Deportations.

These organizations launched a petition drive last week to show public support for Doug and Alex, garnering close to 17,000 signatures of individuals who are supportive of assigning all the same rights and responsibilities to binational same-sex couples as to binational heterosexual couples.

Organizations supportive of the couple and the rally include API Equality, API Legal Outreach, Asian Law Caucus. Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Central American Resource Center, Chinese For Affirmative Action, Equality California, Immigration Equality, Love Honor Cherish, National Center For Lesbian Rights, National Immigration Justice Center, San Francisco Immigrant Legal And Education Network, and the San Francisco LGBT Center.

Representatives Mike Honda (D-CA) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) have also been actively supportive of the couple, and provided written statements that were read at the rally. Rep. Lofgren's statement included a passionate plea for binational families, including the excerpt below:

"Legally-married couples are being torn apart today in America because our laws unconstitutionally discriminate against same-sex marriages. Each and every day, American spouses are being forced to make unacceptable choices: live their lives separated from one another by thousands of miles, abandon their lives in this country and move someplace else, or break the law and go into hiding. This is a heartbreaking situation all across the United States. I believe the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and that the government should respect legally-married same-sex couples. I am confident that DOMA one day will not be law. The whole country will look back and understand it was simply discrimination."

Speakers at the rally included Bevan Dufty (Supervisor), Phil Ting (Assessor/Recorder), Vincent Pan (CFAA), Ross Mirkarimi (Supervisor), Lavi Soloway (Attorney for Doug & Alex), Heidi Li (APILO), Ming Wong (NCLR), Ana Perez (CARECEN), Annette Wong (SFILEN), Dusty Araujo (NIJC), and Judy Rickard (Author, “Torn Apart: United By Love Divided By Law”).

Monday, July 11, 2011

Stop The DOMA Deportation of My Brother-In-Law: California Family Fights to Keep Doug & Alex Together

A letter from Cecily McDonald about the fight to keep her brother, Doug, and his Venezuelan-born husband, Alex, together in this country.

Doug and Alex on their Wedding Day in July 2010
         The Fourth of July has just passed, but for my family it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.  As I sat and listened to the patriotic songs playing while we watched fireworks at the high school where 2 of my 3 sons have graduated, I was saddened.  Our family is not enjoying the freedom depicted in those songs.  Instead, we have a heavy cloud hanging over us because two members of our family are not free to enjoy the freedom and equality that our country celebrates on this holiday.  Those two people are my brother, Doug, and his husband, my brother-in-law, Alex.

            Most of our family first met Alex on Thanksgiving 2005.  Like other American families, we traditionally celebrate the holidays with the extended family and we are often joined by friends who aren’t able to be with their own.  Since that day we have all grown to love and admire him for many reasons. But now the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is threatening to take him away from us all. 

My brother Doug and Alex are now married, but because they are a gay couple, Alex is in imminent danger of deportation to Venezuela. This is only because their marriage and their 6-year relationship is not being respected as all other marriages are under federal immigration law. This inequality means Doug & Alex will be torn apart unless something is done very soon to save their marriage.  That is something very hard to understand and extremely upsetting in many ways.  Because of DOMA our family has become painfully aware that “all men are created equal” really means “only some men are created equal.” How can this be happening to all of us? I kept wondering that on the Fourth of July as we sat there surrounded by people waving our country’s flag and applauding the show.

            Let me try to explain why this is hurting our family.  For me, Alex is another brother.  Growing up it was only Doug and me, though I wished I had another brother or a sister.  When Alex became part of our family in 2005, we bonded quickly just as though we had always been siblings. Now I get to love, tease, talk to, and laugh with Alex and he gives it all right back. My sons are lucky, too. With Alex, they have another uncle who loves them, gives them advice, and gets firm with them when they need it.  Although they are grown now, they still recognize that Alex's wisdom and experience are valid and come from a place of love and respect for them as his nephews.  The same goes for Doug's children, my niece Katrina and my nephew Kenneth. No surprise that they are sometimes spoiled by their Uncle Alex, but he does a good job of keeping it all in balance.

            To give you an idea of how close-knit our extended family is, even my mother-in law Evelyn is close to Alex with whom she shares a love of cooking and gardening.  She enjoys our Christmas celebrations at their completely decorated home so much, saying it’s like a fairyland and she can’t imagine how we would ever be able to do it as well ourselves. My husband Randy enjoys having another brother-in-law and says he doesn’t know how anything would be the same if we have to lose Alex.  My other brother-in-law, Wayne and his partner (who is also named Wayne) Alex shares music, do-it-yourself projects, and love of food.

When I think of how Alex has become central to our family, the hardest part is remembering how important he became to my late father, David.  When my mother passed away in 1994, my parents had been happily married for 42 years.  When his own health started declining, dad still wanted to be as independent as possible so Doug and Alex found him an apartment close to where they lived at the time.  With Doug often traveling for work, Alex was there whenever dad needed any assistance, needed to be accompanied to medical appointments, help with groceries, re-filling prescriptions, or even to have  a light bulb changed.  Dad adored Alex, and Alex certainly cared for him as though he was his own father. Dad was so grateful for Alex's generous spirit; Alex could always get him laughing and feeling better. Many times dad said to me how much it meant to him that Alex made Doug so happy and was such a wonderful person.

Even after my father's death in March 2008, Alex's compassion was central to our family's ability to cope with ou loss. Alex kept us all going, helped to clear out his apartment, and supported us all through our shared grief till we could regain some balance.

Alex and his step-daughter, Katie
          Alex and Doug built a successful pet grooming business, which was the direct result of the long hours that Alex worked and his careful skill.  Over the years, this business employed my nephew Kenneth and his girlfriend Jordan who were unable to find jobs in the depressed job market in California. Kenneth was grateful to his stepfather, Alex, not only for the job but also because it gave them a chance to strengthen their already close bond.

Of course, if Alex is deported the person most directly impacted will be my brother, Doug. What on earth is he to do if that happens?  Even if Doug could leave the United States and move to Venezuela to live with Alex (which is not possible under Venezuelan law), Doug will be leaving behind his only sister (me), his children, his nephews, his career, his business, and his lifelong friends.  If he stays, he loses his loving husband and partner in life to whom he has committed "to death do us part."  Doug and Alex are a happy, loving couple: an example of what marriage should be.  I cannot even imagine their life if this deportation is carried out: does Doug fly back & forth to visit his own husband and hope the Venezuelan government doesn’t refuse him entry or exit?  Venezuela can be a dangerous unfriendly place for anyone known as a homosexual.  Does Doug put himself at risk as a gay man and as an American by traveling to that country?  Do they face a separation of 10 years?  What married couple could survive that separation?  How could our extended family's love and support ever be enough for Doug & Alex if our government tears them apart only because it refuses to recognizes their marriage?

 Our love for Alex has no limit. Alex shares the language, customs and upbringing of his youth with us and spares no effort at celebrating the holidays and birthdays in our family. He is generous to a fault.  He is a wonderful guy to be around and anyone who is around him is better for it.  None of us who know him can imagine what it would be like to live without Alex if he is deported.  

The federal government is tearing apart this American family: my middle aged sibling will lose his spouse, and we all stand with him, including my senior citizen mother-in-law; my husband, his brother and his brother's partner; my grown sons (Alex's nephews); and my niece and nephews (Alex's stepchildren).

As a family we are committed to fighting DOMA and stopping this deportation. 

Nothing is more American than standing up for freedom and equality.  The Fourth of July and what it stands for will remain forever changed for my entire family and myself until DOMA has been repealed or struck down and all DOMA deportations have stopped.

Join Doug & Alex and their many supporters who will protest Alex's deportation on Wednesday July 13 at 7:30 a.m. at San Francisco Immigration Court (120 Montgomery Street). For more information see this Facebook event page.

Friday, July 8, 2011

GetEqual, Marriage Equality USA, Out4Immigration, Immigration Equality & Stop The Deportations Join Forces: Keep Doug & Alex From Being Torn Apart by DOMA

Check out GetEqual's website, sign our petition to the President and learn more about our protest scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on July 13 in front of the San Francisco Immigration Court. Other organizations that have signed on to this action include Love, Honor, Cherish, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Equality California.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Good News For Rodrigo & Edwin: Baltimore Immigration Judge Re-Opens Proceedings, Cancelling Order of Removal

Earlier this year, in a cliff-hanger, Rodrigo Martinez was almost taken into custody and deported to El Salvador. Now, in the first case of its kind involving a married binational couple, an Immigration Judge has reversed her own deportation order in order to give both the DHS and the couple an opportunity to achieve a just outcome, and explicitly to focus on DOMA-related immigration issues. Never before has a binational couple won the re-opening of proceedings on the initiative of an Immigration Judge to address a DOMA deportation.

Edwin and Rodrigo, on vacation this week with their family in Delaware, celebrated the news
that the Order of Deportation against Rodrigo had been cancelled by the Immigration Judge

Rodrigo Martinez and Edwin Echegoyen, a married binational couple, have been fighting for the simple right to live together in this country since 2002. After years of battling the system and exhausting all appeals, they lost. Rodrigo was ordered deported. Determined to stay together, Rodrigo did not leave the U.S. and the couple continued to fight.  They knew that one day the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers would come looking for Rodrigo, but they were not willing to give up, even against such overwhelming odds.

Finally in mid-February 2011, it happened. DHS notified Edwin that they planned to deport Rodrigo by March 9.  Rodrigo and Edwin immediately contacted Stop The Deportations and joined our campaign.  Then, on February 23, the President and Attorney General announced that they would no longer defend DOMA because they had determined that it was unconstitutional.  After 8 years together, Rodrigo and Edwin married on March 1 and demanded that the U.S. government respect their marriage by putting any deportation action against Rodrigo on hold. This effort was temporarily successful at stopping the physical deportation of Rodrigo on March 9 and it paved the way for the major development detailed below that brings new hope to this couple that their battle to stay together might finally be over.

Today we can share with you the news that Baltimore Immigration Judge Lisa Dornell has ordered that Rodrigo's case be re-opened. In doing so, the judge has canceled the deportation order that had been entered against him in November 2008. Instead he will return to court on September 12, 2011 for re-opened proceedings.

Judge Dornell, who had ordered Rodrigo deported in 2008, has now decided, on her own accord, that it is "in the interest of justice" to re-open proceedings and to give Rodrigo another opportunity to win protection from deportation. Specifically, Judge Dornell has re-opened proceedings (1) to determine whether Rodrigo is eligible for protection from deportation because of country conditions in El Salvador for gay men and (2) to determine the relevance, to this case, of any change in policy or law impacting married gay binational couples with pending green card petitions.

In a footnote the Judge also advised the parties to be prepared to address the DOMA immigration issues

Because Rodrigo was ordered deported in 2008, this action by the Immigration Judge is a tremendous victory.  This is the first time that efforts by Stop The Deportations have succeeded in reversing a final order of removal and re-opening proceedings.

Brief History of This Case

Last March Edwin Echegoyen was ordered to surrender his husband, Rodrigo Martinez, to the Department of Homeland Security on March 9, so that they could execute an outstanding final Removal Order against him. Edwin was facing certain deportation to El Salvador. As readers of this blog may recall, we stopped that deportation with a multi-pronged advocacy campaign focusing on Maryland's two U.S. Senators and the couple's represenative in Congresss, Chris Von Hollen. We also reached out to the Deportation and Removal Branch and gave them ample opportunity to review the facts of this case. Edwin and Rodrigo have been together for 8 years. Days after the President announced that he would no longer defend DOMA because he had determined that it was unconstitutional, Edwin and Rodrigo traveled to Washington DC from their house is in a suburban Maryland county, and married across the street from the D.C. Superior Court. Edwin immediately filed a "green card" petition for Rodrigo on the basis of their marriage. We worked to persuade the Deportation and Removal Branch in Baltimore to rescind the Surrender Notice, but failed. DHS required that Rodrigo surrender and would not tell us in advance how they would decide this case. The media was tremendously helpful in bringing to a wider audience the plight of a married binational couple bring torn apart by a DOMA deportation. Rodrigo and Edwin went to the Federal Building that morning with a local television news crew and none of us knew whether he would be permitted to leave or if he would be taken into custody. We were all able to breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate another small victory when Rodrigo emerged safely, given the right to stay in the United States with an order of supervision. We filed a Motion to Reopen proceedings on the basis of worsening conditions in El Salvador for gay men, and on the basis that circumstances had changed because of his marriage to his U.S. citizen husband, Edwin.

On March 7, the same Immigration Judge ordered a "stay of removal" temporarily preventing the Department of Homeland Security from carrying out the existing "final removal order." Now, almost four months later, the Immigration Judge has wiped that existing final removal order from the books. Rodrigo was ordered deported in 2008, but this move effectively cancels that order, and replaces it with new proceedings and a new day in court that will allow Rodrigo and Edwin to continue the fight for full equality and work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys to achieve the outcome that best protects them in the short term.

Coming on the heels of Josh and Henry's victory last week, this news is cause for celebration. It involves a far more complicated procedural posture than our previous cases and the unprecedented action by the Immigration Judge to reverse herself by re-opening the case demonstrates that fighting DOMA in Immigration Court and in the court of public opinion is yielding important incremental victories on the way to full equality.

Join us in congratulating Rodrigo and Edwin as they now look forward to finally putting this entire matter to rest beginning with a status hearing on September 12, 2011.

Chris Geidner writing at Metro Weekly reports on today's news and draws connections between developments for binational married couples fighting DOMA and the administration's surprise 31-page filing against DOMA (and against Congress's own attorneys) in support of the plaintiff in the Golinski case on Friday. See: "Interest of Justice" Leads Immigration Judge To Reopen Case, Ask About "Same-Sex Spouses" and Visas.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Watch: MSNBC's Thomas Roberts Interviews Josh & Henry About Their Historic Victory Ending DOMA Deportation

This interview originally aired June 30 when Thomas Roberts invited Josh Vandiver & Henry Velandia back into the MSNBC studio to discuss their historic victory after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to close deportation proceedings against Henry.  Josh and Henry were previously interviewed by Thomas Roberts on April 28 and on May 9. (h/t Equality Matters)