Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Emilio gets final word from immigration court

Let's say that attending one of the annual Gay Expo's at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center is not my idea of fun and I usually avoid it like the plague. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that some people want to pay for a ticket to spend even more money on all sorts of ultra-gay stuff such as a rainbow-colored raincoat for kitty or a pink wiener-ring. As I say, nothing wrong with that but it just ain't me (and if I had a kitty, I'd probably buy a regular yellow poncho.... then again, maybe I'd let kitty get wet).

But there I was a month ago trudging my way from Queens to Manhattan's West Side hinterlands on a weekend to catch a private screening of documentary maker Sebastian Cordoba's "Through Thick and Thin" during this year's Expo (I've mentioned it here before but had yet to see it).

Through Thick and Thin: The documentary, which is still being edited as it makes the festival rounds, follows the hardships faced by seven same-sex couples whose relationships are in the balance due to the fact that one partner cannot sponsor the other for residency or citizenship as heterosexual couples can in this country. David Kennerly of Gay City News was also at the screening and wrote this review.

Even as a work in process, the film is tremendously moving, as couples are forced to make sacrifices for their love of each other that a number of heterosexual marriages would never survive: Two men raising children live with the fear of being torn apart at any moment; a woman decides to move to the UK with her partner even though she has to leave a well-paying job, an extended family and two supporting daughters back in the United States; two young girls dream of moving in together and escaping being rejected by their families but run into the immigration barrier instead; a man whose health is deteriorating cannot find a way to get his Brazilian partner to be by his side; each year, two men's hearts brim with joy during the two weeks that they are able to visit each other and are crushed each time they have to say good-bye; two immigrant partners of United States citizens are seeking political asylum based on persecution in their home countries but face deportation if the asylum court says no.

I was able to catch the screening at the invitation of one of the couples, Tom and Emilio (above, right). We have known Emilio, who was born in Venezuela, just about forever, and Tom? Just a sweet, great guy despite being so damn tall! Both have lived together for over five years and to see them together is to see two men deeply in love.

Tom and Emilio: In the documentary, it is clear just how much Emilio is part of Tom's extended family and how much they love him. Tom doesn't shy away from talking to his parents and brothers about the challenges and frustrations of not being able to plan a future together out of the fear that Emilio might get sent home by an immigration judge. The camera follows them to asylum court where a decision has been in the balance for years and their fear, stress and disappointment is palpable when they are told that a decision has been postponed once again.

Now, in my line of work, I have probably helped hundreds of people who have applied for political asylum based on sexual orientation be it through helping them to assess whether they have a good case, translating documents that prove that there is persecution against gays and lesbians in Latin America or actually acting as translator during the nerve-wracking asylum court interviews.

Recently, knowing just how involved I am on these issues and expressing the frustration he has felt over the last few years, Tom asked me: "Why aren't you angrier?"

It's a question that has stuck in my mind and one that I don't think I have answered. But it's different to represent a client seeking asylum than to watch friends go through the process. Truth be told, if you see hundreds of these cases, you become somewhat desensitized to the process and detached from the outcome. Not that you stop caring but you would die of sadness or anger if you invested yourself emotionally each time a decision was made (thankfully, of the cases in which I have been involved only two people have been deported, pretty good batting average, no?).

At the screening I sat behind Emilio and Tom. In the dark, watching their story as well as that of others, I could not help but cry. In front of me, Emilio was also overcome while Tom held his hand tightly. I managed to wipe away my tears before the lights came on but Emilio knew: "Lagrimitas?" he asked, and he just smiled and said "Me too."

Immigration rights activists: As Tom also reminds me from time to time, I have turned them into immigration rights activists. It was back in 2004 that I reached out to them to speak to HOY for a cover page article they were doing on the decision by Massachusetts to allow same-sex marriage rights in the state. Last week, I also asked them to talk to HOY again in the wake of the recent New Jersey ruling that seems to be paving the way for civil unions instead of marriage rights. I felt that their situation, as New Jersey residents, perfectly illustrated why civil unions do not match full marriage rights for same-sex partners. Truth is that whether New Jersey approves civil unions or actual marriage (civil marriage or religious marriage), immigration rights for same-sex bi-national couples won't be recognized unless the federal government recognizes that same-sex couples are also creating families.

Stay or leave: On Friday night I got a call from Emilio. We'll be meeting Tom and Emilio for dinner and drinks on the 30th so I thought he wanted to make final plans for the evening. Instead he was calling to say that he'd just found out he'd been finally granted political asylum in the United States! My partner and I, who were having dinner at a Colombian restaurant, were just overjoyed and told Emilio we would make a toast for him. Talk about an amazing holidat present.

So Tom and Emilio are finally able to plan ahead and conceivably spend their lives together in the United States now that Emilio has been granted asylum, right? Well, not so fast! Tom admits that "It's the first time in 5 years we feel completely safe," but plans they have made to move to Canada next year are still moving full-speed ahead and the fact that the United States Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of immigration, made it almost impossible for Tom and Emilio to remain together is behind their resolution to abandon this country.

We hope that it won't come to that but, if it does, we will understand completely and fully support Tom and Emilio in their decision. For now we rejoice in the fact that Emilio can stay.

The Annual Gay Expo: And, as long as we are being open, the Gay Expo did not turn out to be as bad as I thought. Maybe (gulp!) I should go back next year and check it out? If I do, I'll let you know.
Tom's blog: Canadian Hope
Emilio's blog: Esperanza Canadiense
The United States vs. Emilio (December 21, 2006)


Tom said...

Thank you Andres. You write so beautifully.

Don't worry, we weren't all that impressed with the expo either.

Sorry I asked you that question and it's stuck with you. I think it's time we all demand equal rights.

We look forward to seeing you guys on the 30th.

dan said...

Sounds like a great documentary. Can't wait to see it. Might be a good interview subject for White Crane.