Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The First Big Test: Will The Obama Administration’s New Deportation Rules Come in Time for Brian & Anton?

Brian & Anton will spend the next 38 days waiting for a phone call from ICE that may never come.

For the second time this year, Anton Tanumihardja, an Indonesian citizen, and his American husband, Brian Andersen, face the terrifying prospect of a deportation that will destroy their marriage. After losing a nine-year legal battle for asylum, Anton was given a “final order of removal” that may be executed on October 7.

Although this administration recently announced a “kinder, gentler” deportation policy with “prosecutorial discretion” guidelines that include same-sex binational couples, Brian & Anton will still wait anxiously for another month to learn whether this policy will be properly applied in Anton’s case.

Brian and Anton's case will be the first real test of the administration's commitment to stop deportations involving same-sex binational couples since the August 18 announcement by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, promising to set-aside low-priority deportation cases. It will also give us a first opportunity to confirm whether individual ICE Deportation Officers implement the LGBT-inclusive prosecutorial discretion guidelines for an individual with a final order of removal.

Unlike the two history-making cases (Henry & Josh, Doug & Alex) in which Stop The Deportations has won “administrative closure” this year, Anton’s case is significantly further along in the legal process. Anton has exhausted all his appeals and recently received a final denial of his last appeal. Because Anton has a “final order of removal” ICE has the power to put him on a plane and deport him at any time.

Will ICE Deportations and Removals Officers apply the prosecutorial discretion guidelines to protect this married gay couple from being torn apart?  As part of the Stop The Deportations campaign, Brian and Anton will use every day that remains to ensure that Anton is granted "deferred action" and to ensure that the Obama administration's commitment to same-sex binational couples facing deportation has tangible results.

Earlier this year, Brian and Anton faced the cruel coincidence of a deportation scheduled for Valentine’s Day. Anton, with his bags packed and his one-way plane ticket in hand, was prepared to follow ICE's instructions: board a plane voluntarily on February 14 or be taken into custody and forcibly deported, even though he knew that by boarding that plane he would be separated from Brian for at least ten years. Stop The Deportations, GLAAD and other LGBT groups mounted an emergency advocacy with the support of U.S. Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) and Philadelphia Congressman Robert Brady (D-PA) to raise the profile of the case and persuade ICE to reconsider the case.

Just three hours before Anton’s flight to Jakarta was scheduled to take off, ICE finally agreed to postpone the deportation. Anton was put under an order of supervision and was not held in ICE custody. At regular intervals he was required to check in with his Deportation Officer at the local Deportations and Removals Operations office of ICE.  Officially, ICE allowed Anton to stay until a final decision was made by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) on a Motion to Reopen that had been filed in 2010. In fact, deportations are routinely carried out even in cases where there such motions are pending, so it seemed likely that ICE was, at least in part, responding to the specific humanitarian circumstances faced by Brian and Anton. This gave them hope that they would have a future together.

Photo by Jeff Fusco/Philadelphia Weekly
Unfortunately, in early June, Anton learned that the BIA had denied his final appeal. The couple was devastated, but they decided to go forward with their planned wedding. On June 12, Brian and Anton were married in the company of friends in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. Brian immediately filed a marriage-based I-130 petition for Anton, joining our DOMA challenge.

On August 25, Anton went to see his Deportation Officer for his first supervised check-in since the BIA denial prepared to submit a request for "deferred action." It had only been a few days since Secretary Napolitano announced that the administration would review all pending deportation cases, including those with final orders of removal.  Still, Brian & Anton could not sleep the night before; they worried that ICE in Philadelphia would not know how to apply the prosecutorial discretion rules to gay couples.  Their fears turned out to be well-founded. The officer was kind and co-operative, but he was not sure how to proceed given that these guidelines were new.

After conferring with his supervisor for 45 minutes, the officer returned to tell them that no decision could be made on that day. He instructed Anton to return on October 7 and advised him that there was a strong chance that on that day he would informing him that he deportation would proceed.

Once again, the clock is ticking on Brian and Anton's marriage. It does not have to be this way.

Anton & Brian on their wedding day
Anton is a prime candidate for "deferred action." He has never committed a crime, he has strong ties to Philadelphia, he has close family ties to his husband, Brian, and Brian's family. He has been here for nine years and has worked hard and paid taxes.  Finally, conditions in Indonesia would make return to that country not only dangerous for Anton as a gay man who is also a member of the Chinese Christian minority, but would make it impossible for Brian to join him. Not only does Indonesia not provide for the immigration of same-sex spouses or partners of its citizens, but a conspicuous, openly gay couple like Brian and Anton would be vulnerable to abuse and harm.

Brian and Anton should not have to wait until October 7 to learn whether their lives will be torn apart.  We urge the administration to make good on their promise to exercise discretion and stop deportations that tear apart LGBT families.  The Department of Homeland Security can do this today by directing the Philadelphia ICE office to make a decision on Anton's request for deferred action now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Victory for Doug and Alex! Government Drops Deportation Proceedings Against Married Gay California Couple

San Francisco Immigration Judge Grants Government Motion to Close Deportation Case Against Alex Benshimol

We learned today that deportation proceedings that threatened to tear apart Alex Benshimol and Douglas Gentry, a married gay binational couple in California, have been dropped by the government. This marks the second time in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has agreed to close a deportation case involving a married same-sex couple, and the first such case to occur pursuant to the June 17 prosecutorial discretion guidelines issued by ICE Director John Morton.

Statement from Lavi Soloway:

Alex & Doug protest outside
San Francisco Immigration Court on July 13
"For the second time this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dropped deportation proceedings against a married gay binational couple who courageously fought a high profile campaign as part of the Stop The Deportations - The DOMA Project.

This demonstrates that an interim solution can be achieved for married lesbian and gay binational couples facing deportation when ICE fairly applies its own guidelines and decides not to pursue deportation. By halting this deportation, ICE prevents a marriage from being torn part by DOMA, a statute that the President and the Attorney General have determined to be unconstitutional.

On July 13, Alex Benshimol and Doug Gentry of Cathedral City, California, appeared before San Francisco Immigration Judge Marilyn Teeter for their deportation hearing. Judge Teeter instructed the government to respond within 60 days to our lengthy and detailed request for administrative closure. Judge Teeter scheduled the next hearing for September 2013, postponing deportation proceedings for more than two years in the event that the government did not agree to close the case. On August 11, the Judge received and granted the government's Motion to Administratively Close deportation proceedings against Venezuelan Alex Benshimol. We received the decision today. This effectively ends the nightmare faced by Alex and his American husband, Doug Gentry.

On August 18, Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a case-by-case review of all current and future deportation cases.

Another DOMA deportation has been stopped, following a year-long campaign by the Stop The Deportations - The DOMA Project. While we have been successful at preventing DOMA from destroying marriages, one victory at a time, we still call on the Obama administration to institute a uniform policy in the form of a moratorium on all DOMA deportations that will make these case by case determinations unnecessary.

We are cautiously optimistic after the announcement this week by Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, that all 300,000 pending deportation cases will be reviewed for possible closure, including those impacting LGBT families. However, we do not yet know the mechanics of that process, nor how long it will take for the government working group to carry out its mission. In the meantime, we must continue to fight for each couple and for an end to DOMA deportations across the board."

Statement from Doug Gentry and Alex Benshimol:

“Alex and I are tremendously happy with Judge Teeter’s ruling. It’s like waking up from a bad dream. We’ve spent so many sleepless nights and lived with fear and anxiety. For ICE to exercise discretion and agree to close the case is extremely encouraging. This should bring hope to so many couples in our situation. As happy as Alex is, he’s still uncertain. We will still have to fight for full equality because DOMA prevents me from petitioning for his green card. But the constant fear of exile or separation is over, and for that we’re very grateful. “


On July 13th 2011, Venezuelan native Alex Benshimol and U.S. citizen Doug Gentry stood hand-in-hand outside the federal building on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. The couple was surrounded by friends, family, advocates and supporters who came together in protest against a DOMA deportation that would destroy their marriage. Journalists and press took videos and pictures documenting the dedication of the chanting crowd, the face of 17,000 petition signers who urged the administration to take immediate action to ensure that married binational same-sex couples enjoy full equality and access to all the rights and priveleges afforded to opposite-sex binational couples under our immigration laws. The rally and petition in support of Doug & Alex was organized through the combined efforts of Stop the Deportations and Out4Immigation, GetEqual, Marriage Equality USA and many other organizations (see complete list at the bottom of this post).

Appearing before Immigration Marilyn Teeter, Soloway requested that the government exercise “prosecutorial discretion” to drop its case again Alex Benshimol. Specifically, Soloway asked that the government agree to “administrative closure,” which, if granted, would effectively end the deportation case against Alex. Soloway pointed to the June 17, 2011 memorandum from John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to ICE officers, agents, and attorneys, which specifies the guidelines for exercising prosecutorial discretion in cases that are not enforcement priorities. Soloway asked the Judge not to proceed with the deportation case until the government responded to the request.

Soloway argued that multiple guidelines in the memo applied in Alex’s case (original memo text italicized):
Particular attention should be paid to plaintiffs in non-frivolous lawsuits involving civil rights.
Soloway argued that Alex and Doug were part of an advocacy campaign, namely, Stop the Deportations, that had filed I-130 marriage-based “green card” petitions in order to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act in pursuit of (equal) civil rights.
Whether the person has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, child, or parent.
Soloway argued that Alex has a U.S. citizen spouse, Doug, who lawfully married Alex in Connecticut in 2010. They have been together ever since. Alex is also the stepfather to Doug’s two children who are both U.S. citizens.
The person's ties and contributions to the community, including family relationships.
Soloway argued that Alex has strong community ties: he has a successful dog grooming business, is a well-respected member of his community, and many organizations have publicly supported his pursuit to stay in the country with his husband, Doug.
The person's criminal history, including arrests, prior convictions, or outstanding arrest
Soloway noted that Alex has no criminal history, no arrests, convictions, outstanding arrests or charges.
The person's ties to the home country and conditions in the country.
Soloway argued that Alex has no ties to his home country of Venezuela and has not lived there for 12 years. Venezuelan law makes not provision for the immigration of a same-sex spouse of a Venezuelan citizen, so if Alex were deported Doug would have no way of living in Venezuela with him. Furthermore, Soloway noted, Venezuela is not safe for LGBT people or Americans.

In response to Soloway’s request to administratively close the case, Judge Teeter laid out two options. Either the government could move to close the case within 60 days, or, Judge Teeter would revisit the case again in 27 months to settle the matter until the political landscape surrounding the Defense of Marriage Act had settled. On July 13 Doug and Alex left the courtroom relieved that the judge had given them a 26 month reprieve and optimistic that the government would drop the case altogether before September 12.

Only 16 days later, ICE notified the Immigration Judge that they would agree to close the case. The Judge received the goverment’s motion on August 11 and ruled on the Motion immediately ordering the proceedings administratively closed. Soloway received notice of the decision today.

For Doug and Alex this long ordeal is over. While they still fight for full equality, and a green card for Alex, they are safe in the knowledge that the government will not longer seek to deport Alex and destroy their marriage and the life they have built together for past six years.

Just two days ago, Janet Napolitano released a letter to Senator Harry Reid (NV-D), explaining that “the June 17th, 2011 prosecutorial discretion memorandum is being implemented to ensure that resources are uniformly focused on our highest priorities.” Secretary Napolitano specified by noting that these high priority cases are “those involving convicted felons.”

Secretary Napolitano’s letter explained that an inter-agency group had been established between the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in order to do a case-by-case review of “all individuals currently in removal proceedings, to ensure that they constitute our highest priorities.” She notes that all future cases will be viewed in the same fashion, in order to be consistent with the priorities of the two departments. Perhaps most importantly, DHS clarified that the family unification considerations outlined in the June 17 memo did include LGBT families.

What does this mean?

Secretary Napolitano's historic announcement takes us one step closer to a uniform policy that will end deportations of all spouses of lesbian and gay Americans. It puts the full power of the administration behind the enforcement of prosecutorial discretion rather than simply allowing each ICE attorney or deportation officer to decide whether and how that discretion should be exercised. By undertaking a review of all pending deportation cases at the highest level and clarifying that existing prosecutorial discretion guidelines include LGBT families, Secretary Napolitano will now have the opportunity to stop every deportation involving a lesbian or gay binational couple.

There is no question that DOMA is the sole obstacle to a green card for Alex and Doug. Alex came into the U.S. 12 years ago from Venezuela and overstayed a tourist visa, an immigration violation that straight binational couples can remedy once married. As a same-sex married couple, Doug and Alex do not have that option. Thousands of married binational couples, like Doug and Alex, are treated as legal strangers in the eyes of the federal government. Doug and Alex faced deportation proceedings for one reason only: the Defense of Marriage Act, a law President Obama has determined to be indefensible and unconstitutional and has called on the public to help repeal.

Tens of thousands of binational same-sex couples will celebrate this historic second victory following on that of Josh Vandiver & Henry Velandia in June. Again the administration has demonstrated it can prevent a married same-sex couple from being torn apart by a “DOMA deportation.” Secretary Napolitano’s announcement opens the path to further exercise of prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases, enabling same-sex married couples to stay together. However, we must continue to fight for each and every couple to ensure that no couple is separated by DOMA.

STOP THE DEPORTATIONS – THE DOMA PROJECT,  a campaign co-founded by attorney, Lavi Soloway in July 2010 along with his law partner, Noemi Masliah, has contributed to the trend of recent victories. For nearly two decades, Soloway has been the most prominent attorney and advocate on LGBT immigration law and policy in the United States. He has worked exclusively in this field since co-founding the non-profit organization, Immigration Equality, in 1993.

Our July 13, 2010 rally to stop the deportation of Alex Benshimol was also supported by Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Asian Pacific Islander Equality, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Asian Law Caucus, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Chinese for Affirmative Action, Equality California, Immigration Equality, Love Honor Cherish, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), and San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network (SFILEN).

Sujey and Violeta's Victory, Beating Back DOMA Deportation Makes Big News in Denver

From left, Sujey and Violeta Pando and the Denver couple's attorney, Lavi Soloway, walk into court Friday before a federal immigration judge postponed a decision on deportation of Sujey Pando.  The decision came a day after the Obama administration announced a policy change that makes cases like Sujey Pando's a low priority. The Pandos were married in Iowa in 2010.  
(Karl Gehring, The Denver Post)

Complete article from Denver Post:

Shift in national immigration policy just in time for Denver woman facing deportation

By Felisa Cardona
The Denver Post
August 20, 2011

The Obama administration's sudden shift in immigration policy had a tangible impact in a Denver courtroom Friday when a federal immigration judge delayed a deportation hearing for a lesbian fighting to stay in the country with her wife.

"I feel relief, and I thank the judge because she is a human being," said Sujey Pando, who is trying to stay in the U.S. following a 2008 traffic stop that revealed her undocumented status.

Sujey Pando is one of 300,000 undocumented immigrants across the country who Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday should begin to be considered "low priority" for deportation. Pando was facing the possibility of removal from the country, but the the immigration judge, Mimi Tsankov, postponed the hearing until January, citing Napolitano's shift.

"The judge was not comfortable moving forward with so much at stake," said Pando's attorney, Lavi Soloway.

The status of undocumented immigrants who pose no security risk and came to the country as children should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in compelling circumstances, Napolitano said in a letter to the Senate released Thursday.

The policy change includes consideration for immigrants who have familial ties to the U.S., including lesbian and gay families.

Critics of the plan say the White House is providing back-door amnesty to undocumented immigrants and overriding Congress' authority on the issue.

Napolitano thinks easing up on those cases will let courts focus on security threats and undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

Over the next five months, prosecutors may be offered more guidance by the government as to how to proceed with Pando's case.

Prosecutors could decide to allow Pando to live in the U.S. under certain conditions and drop the case against her, Soloway said.

Pando's mother and stepfather brought her from Chihuahua, Mexico, into the U.S. when she was 16 and promptly kicked her out when she revealed she is a lesbian.

Her mother, who has permanent residency status, obtained citizenship for her three sons, but not her daughter, because she is gay.

In 2010, Pando, 34, traveled to Iowa so she could legally marry her longtime girlfriend Violeta Pando, a 27-year-old U.S. citizen. They live in Denver.

Sujey Pando works as a restaurant service manager, and Violeta Pando is a correctional case manager for felony offenders.

In November 2008, Sujey Pando forgot to use her turn signal while driving in Adams County, and police pulled her over. She didn't have a valid driver's license, and she didn't lie to the officer about her status.

The police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pick her up, and she was jailed for 3 1/2 months.

"I was scared to go into that kind of facility because I am not used to that kind of life," she said.

Violeta Pando says her government should be protecting her marriage instead of trying to destroy it.

"If I was straight they would be helping me keep her here," she said. "I do feel relief today, and I am happy our marriage was being recognized a little bit at least."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Victory for Sujey and Violeta Pando! Judge Halts Deportation, Sets January Date to Consider Application Based on Their Marriage

Lavi Soloway: "Today Denver Immigration Judge Mimi Tsankov halted the deportation of Sujey Pando and scheduled a new hearing to consider an application based on her marriage to her U.S. citizen wife, Violeta Pando. Because today's hearing was intended to be a final decision day on Sujey's deportation, the judge's action was unusual; she spent 45 minutes methodically considering the procedural posture of the case.  In the end, the Judge set aside the intended purpose of the hearing, citing developments including the Attorney General's intervention in a similar case in May (Matter of Dorman) and noted that the issues involved in this case existed in a context that was "fluid" and "in a state of flux." The Judge referred to events that occurred as recent as yesterday as having an impact on how to proceed. Yesterday, the DHS Secretary Napolitano ordered a review of all pending deportation cases for possible closure, including those involving LGBT families."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sign Our Petition To Stop The Deportation of Sujey Pando

On August 19th in Denver, Violeta and Sujey Pando will face the worst nightmare for any lesbian or gay binational couple: a final deportation hearing in an Immigration Court. They are legally married, but Violeta, a U.S. citizen, cannot sponsor her spouse, Sujey, who is from Mexico, because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In fact, because of DOMA, this loving, committed couple of five years, who married last year in Iowa, may be torn apart by a judge’s order next Friday if action is not taken to prevent it from happening.

The President has said that DOMA is unconstitutional and has endorsed its repeal. The President must immediately direct the Department of Homeland Security to halt all deportation of spouses of lesbian and gay American citizens to prevent DOMA from destroying marriages. If Sujey Pando is deported she will be barred from returning to the U.S. for ten years.

None of this would be happening to an opposite-sex couple in the same situation.

Urge President Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Attorney General Eric Holder to take action: exercise prosecutorial discretion, respect Violeta and Sujey's marriage, and prevent this married lesbian couple from being torn apart.

Sign our petition to the President and send a message that we need immediate executive branch action to protect all lesbian and gay binational couples.

To help Sujey and Violeta further:

  • Follow STOP THE DEPORTATIONS: The DOMA Project for further updates

  • Call your elected officials to urge them to help couples like Violeta & Sujey Pando before Sujey's final hearing on August 19th
    U.S. Representative Diana DeGette: 202.225.4431, Denver 303.844.4988
    U.S. Senator Michael Bennet: 202.224.5852, Denver 303.455.7600
    U.S. Senator Mark Udall: 202.224.5941, Denver 303.650.7820

  • Share our petition urging the officials to halt DOMA deportations. To share this petition via email, facebook, or twitter, use the buttons below.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Violeta & Sujey's Fight Against DOMA Deportation Featured in Out Front Colorado

Read the complete article here. Read the Violeta and Sujey's story in their own words here.

Sign this petition to President Obama asking him to halt the deportation of Sujey Pando and all spouses of lesbian and gay Americans.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Violeta and Sujey: Married, Lesbian Couple Fights DOMA Deportation in Denver, Final Hearing on August 19

My name is Violeta. I am a 27 year old American citizen. I live in Denver, Colorado where I was born. I hold a degree in Criminal Justice and work as a Correctional Case Manager. My wife, Sujey, and I, are one of the many same-sex couples who are threatened with being torn apart because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Because of DOMA, I cannot pursue the most obvious solution which would be to petition for her as my spouse; instead we are fighting for asylum due to her past experiences of extreme harm that she suffered in Mexico and her fear of returning there. All our hopes are on this asylum application--a long, difficult and painful struggle for Sujey, who has had to re-live traumatic incidents of physical and sexual assaults--but there is no guarantee that it will be granted. What is so obvious, is that we should never have had to fight in this way at all. We have been together for almost 5 years as a couple and we are married. No American citizen should have to beg for protection for her spouse; the right to sponsor my spouse for a "green card" should be automatic for me as it is for all other American citizens.

On August 19th, an Immigration Judge in Denver will decide whether Sujey will be deported from the United States. This fact puts our life, our marriage, and our family into a state of complete chaos. Sujey has lived in the United States since she was brought here as a teenager, and she is fully a part of my family as any spouse can be. Why does my government insist on enforcing this unconstitutional law against me? If Sujey is deported she will be barred from the United States for ten years. TEN YEARS. There are no words to describe the anguish we feel as the days countdown to August 19th. We hope and pray for a miracle.

I met Sujey on November 2, 2006 at a gay club named El Protrero and from that day on we have never been apart. We had our first date the next day. Sujey was very supportive of me while I attended school and put in long hours studying. She would stay up late with me as I tried to get my homework done and would help me study and read my term papers. I loved her immediately. Two months later, Sujey and I moved in with each other; we were spending so much time with each other, our relationship was getting serious, and it made no sense to be paying two monthly rents. Our pets got along great, too. We quickly became one big a happy family. Together we now have 4 dogs, Honey, Briza, Akira and Rocko and 2 cats, Kissie and Soulen. We also have a red tail Boa, her name is Destiny.

I love Sujey with all my heart. I knew when we started dating that I had found true love for the first time in my life. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were engaged for two years, our plans for our wedding were still taking place at the time Sujey was picked up by immigration. Even though we knew that the federal government doesn't recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, we knew just as strongly that we wanted to marry and move forward with our lives together as a family. As an engagement promise, we got tattoos with each other's names. We planned for two years to get married in one of the states where marriage was legal for a same-sex couples. Finally the day came. Sujey and I married November 15, 2010 in Iowa. It was the happiest day of our lives.

Sujey and Violeta on their wedding day in Iowa, November 15, 2010

I learned of Sujey’s abusive childhood early in our relationship. Sujey has many personal issues due to all of her trauma, so there were times when we had to sit down and talk about things. I learned that Sujey was given away by her mother a few months after her birth and that Sujey was raised by her grandmother. And in her grandmother's care, Sujey was the victim of extreme cruelty and abuse because she was a "tom boy." One family member in particular was determined to show her "how to be a girl" and raped her repeatedly. No one could protect Sujey. Even the Mexican authorities refused to intervene.

As a little girl, Sujey loved sports. At school, however, she was often in too much pain from her abuse to play sports which would result in dismissal from class. At home, Sujey would get in trouble for being dismissed and would get beaten up by her uncle. Sujey has lasting physical injuries resulting from the physical and sexual abuse she suffered growing up in Mexico. Her history makes me want to cry when she talks about it, but I can’t cry in order to support her, I have to be strong and be as optimistic as possible. Some days it is very difficult to keep a positive attitude. I can see the fear in her eyes, sometimes she thinks that her tormentor will come to the United States to look for her. I have to calm her down and reassure that I am here for her and that she is safe.

Once, when she was 16, Sujey was thrown out of her house in Mexico and was forced to hide at a neighbor's house for a few days. Desparate, she decided to call her mother, who by then resided in the United States. Her mother was married, but had never told her husband that she had left a daughter behind in Mexico. On the phone, Sujey's mother refused to help her, but her mother's husband intervened, to his credit, and forced Sujey's mother to go to Mexico to get her. And that is how Sujey was brought to the United States, where for the first time she met her three American-born brothers. Her feeling of safety lasted only a short time. A few months after Sujey was brought to the U.S., her mother discovered that Sujey was gay and threw her out into the street. Even though her mother was a green card holder she refused to sponsor Sujey.  Sujey was left to fend for herself and find a way to survive in the United States without any support.

In November of 2008 Sujey got pulled over for a routine traffic violation and was taken to jail. There, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was notified and she was placed into deportation proceedings. We have been fighting to stay here ever since. I went with her to her mother's home to beg for her help but she refused to help Sujey because she was gay. We are scared for our lives and our future if Sujey is deported.

It is a shameful and sad reality that this country officially discriminates against lesbian and gay Americans by denying recognition of our marriages. We are second-class citizens at best. Denying that our love and our families are of the same value, denying us the same respect and the same legal protection simply because we are gay is unAmerican. We cannot be a country that cherishes equality, as long as our laws enforce this cruel discrimination against me. My government is so powerful that it can come into my home and drag my wife off to be deported, treating me like nothing more than a legal stranger.

I have been placed in a position where I have to choose between my country and my wife. If my wife gets deported and I choose my country, I would be left without my wife. If I leave to Mexico with her, I am left without my country. To keep my marriage intact I am being forced out of my own country. If Sujey is deported then I will be deported too, because I will not leave her side. She is my wife and I will be there for her to protect her and make sure she is safe with my last breath. The reality is that we have no way of surviving in Mexico. I don’t know what we will do. I should not have to be exiled from my own country because I am a gay woman. I am an American citizen. This should not be happening.

We have joined the Stop The Deportations campaign to help make others aware of the humanitarian crisis that binational gay couples face, even when we are married. We need your help to stop this deportation from happening. We are reaching out to our two U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and our Representative Diana DeGette to ask them to call on the administration to stop this deportation. We ask everyone who is reading this to help us by calling those elected officials and urging them to take action to save our marriage and stop this deportation.


U.S. Representative Diana DeGette: (202) 225-4431    Denver (303) 844-4988
U.S. Senator Michael Bennet: (202) 224-5852    Denver (303) 455-7600
U.S. Senator Mark Udall: 202-224-5941    Denver (303) 650-7820

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Raúl gets his Wings: U.S. Embassy Grants Tourist Visa to Travel with Brad from Ecuador to the US in August

Raúl and Brad
A happy update from Brad, from Cuenca, Ecuador.  

For many gay Americans with a partner abroad, obtaining a visitor's visa can be an elusive and frustrating process. Just spending a few weeks together in the United States can start to seem like one of life's most daunting challenges. Most applicants for visitor visas in developing world countries have virtually no chance of approval unless they are from the most affluent echelon of society. LGBT applicants, who may have fewer "country ties" than most (no spouse and children to anchor them to their own country, for example), often have even lower chance of success. If the Consular Officials know that the purpose of the trip is to visit a same-sex partner, that could be enough reason to deny the application since that may suggest a strong likelihood that the applicant will stay in the U.S.  These were the enormous odds that Brad and Raúl were up against as the fate of their visitor visa application was in the hands of the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil, Ecuador. 

We’ve all heard the story about that Peace Corps volunteer who goes off and spends two years working alongside community members in a developing country. Before he returns home, he meets the love of his life and before you know it, they’re on a plane to start a life of opportunities together in the U.S.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how the narrative works for a good number of same-sex couples who fall in love abroad, be it in Peace Corps or otherwise.

I met my partner, Raúl, in August 2009, half way through my Peace Corps service in Ecuador. Not much longer after that we started dating. We were an unlikely couple to start, being of different nationalities, languages, education levels, and socio-economic status, among other differences. However, what we lacked in a common background, we made up for in patience, caring, and clear communication. Throughout the ups and downs of my final year of service, Raúl and I grew as a loving couple. July 29, 2010, my close of service, came much too soon. My plan was to leave the country to seek employment and apply to graduate programs in psychology in the U.S.

Brad's grandparents who will soon
celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary
with Brad and Raúl present
Still, we had hope that Raúl could at least visit my family and me for Christmas, further strengthening our relationship and allowing us to make plans for the future. A month and a half after my departure from Ecuador, Raúl applied for a visitor visa and his interview with the US Consulate in Guayaquil. Unfortunately, we were rather naïve about the application, thinking that our relationship would be a helpful factor in his application when in reality it was a hindrance. Once it was known Raúl’s partner was an American living in the U.S. that constituted an important factor for the Consular Officer who assesses each applicant's presumed immigration intent.   Raúl had other deficiencies that would doom most Ecuadoreans from obtaining visitor visas to the U.S., such as his relative lack of savings and lack of strong connections (like a wife and children, or property ownership) in his native Ecuador. As a result, Raúl’s application was rejected without much consideration from the consular official.

It was a heartbreaking moment for both of us and we shared it with The DOMA Project on this site earlier this year. I still remember being in Chicago’s Union Station hearing Raúl cry over the phone after his unsuccessful interview. Never had I felt so powerless. That day, I decided that if Raúl could not visit me and my family in the US, I would return to Ecuador.

So, I did return—much to the disappointment of my family and friends back home. Together, we bought a café/bar aptly named “Black and White.” Starting a business was far from easy given that neither of us had any experience in opening one, much less while holding a 40+ hour/week day job. Fourteen hour days were not uncommon. In spite of the stress of working our day jobs and running Black and White, we were eventually able to make our small business profitable.

After a couple of months together, we decided we would try again for a visitor’s visa. I knew that my grandparents would be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in August and while I was still in the US, my grandmother invited both me and Raúl to join the family for this momentous occasion. After consulting extensively with Lavi Soloway at The DOMA Project, we began working on Raúl’s new application. This time around we took a much more comprehensive approach and did our homework with Lavi Soloway's guidance. Between my day and night jobs, I did my best to motivate myself to work on writing and collecting affidavits from family members back home; documenting an offer to post a bond to guarantee Raúl’s return if a visa was granted; completing the DS-160 form; compiling financial records and business records from our business, Black and White; purchasing round-trip plane tickets; acquiring an invitation to present on Ecuadorian crafts;  and collecting any other information that might convince a consular officer that the purpose of Raúl’s visit was specific, discrete and temporary.

Thankfully, in addition to collecting all the evidence that would overcome the Consular Officials presumption of immigrant intent, we were able to secure a Class B Referral from a member of the US Peace Corps Mission in Ecuador. Also, following Lavi Soloway's suggestion that we reach out to our elected officials, we were able to get a letter sent from Congressman Bruce Braley’s office to the US Consulate, requesting that the Consulate give a thorough consideration of Raúl’s application.

After months of hard work, anxiety, exhaustion and tears, and several pro bono Skype consultations with Lavi Soloway, the application was ready. On the day of Raúl’s interview, June 27th, 2011, we were both extremely nervous, knowing that since he had been denied the year before, the outcome of this application was extremely uncertain. It was hard to permit ourselves to get too optimistic.  Even with all the evidence we were able to compile, we both knew it was more likely than not that his application would once again be rejected.

Much to our surprise, Raúl beat the odds. The friendly consular officer in Raúl’s interview took the time to understand the unique circumstances surrounding his application to visit the United States.  She noted that Raúl’s purpose in visiting the U.S. was to attend my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary.  She had statements from my grandparents and my parents in the file, with all the other evidence.  Upon the conclusion of Raúl’s interview, the consular officer informed him that he would be granted a visa to accompany me on a visit to my family in the U.S. When Raúl told me over the phone of the outcome, I was overwhelmed by feelings of joy, disbelief, anxiety, and vindication from the past year; I can’t well describe just how I felt. All I could do in that moment was cry. Even now, I get teary-eyed writing about this.  Most importantly, I felt that for the first time my government had validated my effort to be treated equally and with respect by knowingly permitting a gay man from Ecuador to travel to the U.S. to spend time with the family of his American boyfriend.  I was grateful that the Consular Officer believed Raúl when he said his intention was only to make a short visit and that he would return to Ecuador as promised.  The Consular Officer required Raúl to physically return to the consulate after the trip to prove that he had come back. This suprised us, but it also reminded us how incredibly difficult it is for an unmarried man, with limited financial means and few ties to his own country to obtain such a visa at all.

Raúl once told me that he was born without wings to fly—that is, the ability to accompany me to the U.S. Today, thanks to many people including my parents, grandparents, Lavi Soloway, Representative Braley, the Director of Peace Corps/Ecuador, the US Consulate in Guayaquil and many others who offered either advice or a listening ear, Raúl now has his wings. He now will have the privilege to meet my family as I have had the privilege to meet his. We are most grateful to all for this opportunity.

Because Raúl’s visa is a visitor’s visa, it is temporary. He must and will return to Ecuador. All the same, visa renewal requires another application and further uncertainty. As with bi-national same-sex couples residing in the US, we exiled couples must also learn to overcome uncertainty, separation, and expiration dates. This unfair burden for same-sex couples must be resolved so that future couples like Raúl and me have a fighting chance.

Regardless of what may happen after Raúl’s visit, we will keep fighting for our relationship. We hope that Raúl’s wings won’t be clipped once he returns to Ecuador.

See also, "From Iowa to Ecuador: Peace Corps Volunteer Falls in Love, U.S. Denies His Partner a Visa," and "Exiled in Ecuador, Brad & Raúl Try to Plan for a Future Together." The Iowa Independent ran this article about their plight.

Last fall Brad wrote a moving essay for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender U.S. Peace Corps Alumni, titled, "Back Home: How Peace Corps/Ecuador Changed Me," in which he describes his experiences in that country and his coming out to his grandmother back home in the rural midwest.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Johnny & Sebastian: Binational Couple Among First to Marry in New York, DOMA Means They Are Still Unequal

Sebastian and Johnny after marrying in Manhattan on June 24, 2011

There's no doubt that Sunday June 24, 2011 will go down in history as a triumphant day for LGBT Americans. As the media descended on New York to report the first marriages of lesbian and gay couples taking place by the hundreds from Niagara Falls to Manhattan, it was hard not to have an emotional reaction, no matter how far we were from the action. What began courageously at Stonewall 44 years ago has once again brought us closer to reality in one of the most populous states in the country. 

However, as important as this milestone is for New Yorkers and for the cause of equality nationally, the goal of Marriage Equality cannot be achieved until all marriages are recognized by the federal government. As long as couples like Johnny and Sebastian are viewed as nothing more than strangers under federal law, they will be deprived of more than 1,100 benefits, obligations and protections that are available for all other married couples. And until the Defense of Marriage Act has been repealed or struck down, Johnny will be prevented from petitioning for a "green card" for his husband.
As we celebrate the joyous occasion of the marriages of loving, committed lesbian and gay couples we will redouble our resolve to stop the deportations, separations and exile of all lesbian and gay binational couples.

Below, native New Yorker, Johnny Lee, shares with us the experience of marrying his German-born, fiancé, Sebastian Barleben, on the momentous first day of marriage equality.

Sebastian and I had already spoken at length before deciding to get married that morning. Although he tends to be private and even a bit standoffish by nature, the opportunity to participate in this watershed moment outweighed his usual reluctance to be in the spotlight. And besides, we were already engaged. We were in the midst of planning the wedding of our dreams (and we still are) when history just happened. We decided we wanted to be a part of it.

For me, that Sunday morning at the City Clerk's office in downtown Manhattan can best be summed up as a blur of intense emotions.  From the moment we arrived outside the heavily fenced in government building at 6:30 a.m., we could feel the excitement in the air.  Not even the extreme heat could dampen the significance of what was about to happen. A few early arriving couples milled about and television crews began setting up their cameras; but the protesters and police who would soon show up where still nowhere to be seen.  We started to meet other couples, including two men who had been together for 30+ years.  It was both humbling and inspiring to stand with couples who had made such lasting commitments to each other but who had been denied the opportunity to marry until this day.  We knew we were benefiting from decades of hard work by brave visionaries who probably had more faith than we did that this day would happen.  What made it so special was the sense that we were a part of a collective celebration that everyone in attendance seemed to acknowledge had not come easily.  We felt privileged and overwhelmed.  We bonded with perfect strangers because we all had one thing in common, the one thing that brought us downtown on that sweltering day: love.

The crowd on Worth Street swelled very quickly with couples, family, friends & supporters, along with press and police.  A handful of protesters were chanting something hateful from across the street, but they were drowned out by cheers coming from hoards of volunteers and random well-wishers who shielded and embraced us with rainbow colored umbrellas.  It was amazing to see how many people showed up simply to support us and to congratulate hundreds of couples they didn't even know.  Sebastian and I were moved by their genuine joy.

 Sebastian and I were among the first couples brought inside the City Clerk's office at 8:30 a.m.  We were quickly processed by one of the clerks who carefully went over the details of our license application and then ushered us into a small room where we were greeted by more press and by the Honorable Judge George Silver. 

As Judge Silver spoke, everything suddenly became still. Despite all the commotion that was brewing outside, all I could hear was the sound of the Judge's voice.  He took a moment to recognize the importance of the occasion and shared that he too was in awe of what was happening in the state of New York that day.  His words hit a nerve, and I couldn't help but tear up from all the anticipation that had been welling up inside me that morning.  

Judge Silver concluded his remarks and pronounced us legally married, Sebastian and I kissed and walked outside the Clerk's office hand in hand.  As we waited for our license to be printed, I suddenly couldn't help but feel a little bittersweet about our moment.  Yes, being legally married in the State of New York was momentous for both of us; and yes, I was overwhelmed with joy; but, having lived in Manhattan for most of my life, I had to remind myself that the wondrous spirit of my own city on this day did not mirror the state of affairs for gay couples in most of the rest of the country.  In so many places, gay couples like Sebastian and me, have struggled for years in the fight for marriage equality and are still far from reaching their goal.  New York took a big leap forward on July 24, but 44 states still discriminate against lesbian and gay couples in marriage. We must keep up the fight so that everyone can experience the joy we felt that day.

Johnny and Sebastian in
New York Magazine
And that, of course, brings me to the most difficult part of celebrating our marriage that day. As we stepped out of the building to the cheering crowds, we knew that the offensively-named "Defense of Marriage Act" still prevented us from feeling truly equal.  Our marriage is denied recognition by the federal government, a fact that seems so obviously unconstitutional and unAmerican, but also has a direct impact on us because it prevents me sponsoring Sebastian for a green card as my spouse. Although we are fortunate for now that Sebastian is able to remain in the United States because of his employment-based visa, we also know there are tens of thousands of other gay and lesbian binational couples who do not have this luxury.  It saddened me to think that despite having reached this amazing milestone, there was still a long road ahead to finish the job. Nevertheless, the events of last Sunday were surreal and unforgettable. The sense of love and community that emanated from that place left us speechless and feeling more than blessed. We set forth as a married couple to play whatever part we can to make sure that all couples can stay together, have full legal recognition of their marriages and to make a better world in which the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer.

Sebastian and Johnny share the video made of their experience marrying on the first day of Marriage Equality in New York.