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“From the first day I knew she was perfect in my life,” said 32-year-old Demi. “I was not scared coming here because I wanted to see her again so bad.”
Demi grew up in Greece, a country where LGBT people do not have the right to marry or even to create legal documents to protect their families or their assets. There are no domestic partner benefits, and though she says there is momentum behind the push for equality, she says it “will take longer to happen there” than it has in the US.
It was in a Grecian coffee shop on July 4, 2012 where she met her future wife Athena, now 27. “I was traveling through Europe in Athens,” she said. “I had an app on my IPad called Okcupid Local and we met up for coffee. And now here we are.”
Demi and Athena are among the first LGBT couples in Michigan to take advantage of a new immigration policy that requires the government to treat them the same as heterosexual couples. They were married in Windsor on July 11, 2013 and they then started on their journey towards citizenship for Demi.
Attorney Francyne Stacey of Butzel Long in Ann Arbor guided the couple through the five-month process. This only became possible after the US Supreme Court issued their decision in the Windsor case last June.
“The Windsor decision was issued which invalidated a portion of DOMA, and marriages between same-sex bi-national couples were recognized as constituting a legal marriage for purposes of immigration benefits. Prior to Windsor, only opposite sex couples could benefit from the immigration laws allowing the non U.S. citizen spouse to become a permanent resident due solely to their bona fide marriage to a U.S. citizen.
“The effect of excluding same sex couples was often separation for long periods of time unless the foreign born spouse had a legal basis for residing in the U.S. (a job, sponsorship by another family member), he or she could not be with their partner or they could risk having the foreign national spouse placed in removal proceedings and deported.
“After Windsor, bi-national same sex couples are able to petition the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) for the foreign born national to become a permanent resident just the same as an opposite sex couple can. The process requires the submission of a number of different forms, documentation of the bona fide nature of the relationship and, of course, a marriage certificate, to the USCIS. Eventually, the couple is interviewed by the immigration office in Detroit, which has the authority to grant or deny permanent residency to the foreign national spouse,” Stacey said.
Stacey has filed paperwork for several couples, but Demi and Athena happened to be the couple whose case progressed the fastest. On Jan. 9, 2014 Demi’s green card/permanent resident application was approved.
“It is a conditional green card,” Athena said. “She can stay here for two years and then it will be reviewed again.” She said she hopes to one day move to Greece with Athena, but only once their marriage is recognized there. In the meantime she is studying political science so she might know more about how to fight for equal rights in marriage and in other issues.
Athena said that the process was “daunting,” but that “the law is now treating people equally. There wasn’t anything to be afraid of.”
Susan Reed, supervising attorney at Michigan Immigrant Rights Center helps couples of all kinds with their immigration process. “Something everyone, not just LGBT couples should know, is that the immigration law is extremely complicated and harshly punishes even very small mistakes and problems. If you’ll indulge some sports analogy, I’d say that even though the playing field is now basically level, it’s still a tough game. I urge everyone to have competent representation in any application for immigration benefits.”
Reed said she does not know of any LGBT-specific immigration assistance organizations, but that there are attorneys, like Stacey, who are eager to help same sex couples. Michigan Immigrant Rights Center also has a history of working for LGBT equality, having done workshops and provided advice to LGBT couples for several years.
“One thing for low income folks to consider is that, unfortunately, it is my understanding that some of the nonprofit organizations providing immigration legal services that are affiliated with the Catholic Church in Michigan will not assist same-sex married couples pursuing immigration benefits based on marriage,” Reed said.
Stacey is also representing Raymond Shepherd and his partner Raymart Misera. Misera lives in the Philippines, and will have his immigration interview in February. Shepherd organized a Light the Way to Justice Vigil in front of Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit in March 2013 to show support for the same sex couples cases that were before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It is exciting, and we are having a slightly hard time waiting for Feb. 21 when Raymart is going to having his interview. It’s like the old saying about a boiling teapot,” Shepherd said. The couple is hoping to have a June wedding in Chicago since it is the closest state that allows same sex marriage. “We are planning to stay in Michigan. There is some temptation to move to a state with marriage equality, but think that is all it is.
LGBT Immigration Issues
While some progress is being made for international couples whose U.S. marriages are being acknowledged in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings last June, individual LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S. have seen no progress. As the nation debates immigration reform it is essential to advocate for the rights of LGBT people in detention and seeking asylum due to oppressive conditions in their country of origin.
Sharita Gruberg is a Policy Analyst for the LGBT Immigration Project at the Center for American Progress. She has extensive experience working in immigration advocacy, law, and policy, as well as experience providing direct service to immigration detainees, refugees, and asylum seekers. She authored a report for CAP, Dignity Denied, in November 2013. The 29-page report’s conclusion, “From sexual assault to lack of access to proper medical care, LGBT immigrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment in immigration detention facilities on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While we support DHS’s efforts to better care for the LGBT immigrants in its custody, its efforts have not succeeded in adequately meeting the particular needs of this demographic. As Congress debates reforms to our broken immigration system, it is critical that these reforms protect LGBT immigrants in DHS custody, promote due process, and preserve human dignity.”
Visit http://www.americanprogress.org to download the report.