Our story also has to do with heartless immigration policy
Taos, NM | Steve Orner
I am ashamed of my country for many of it's heartless immigration policies and I am a strong supporter of "The Dream Act" and immigration reform on many levels. My/our story is also has to do with heartless immigration policy I'm a gay man. Have been all my life. I have learned the hard way that when you are a US citizen and you fall in love with someone of the same gender from another country, my government actively treats me with less value than my straight friends. My government makes it almost impossible for me to be together with the person I love the most in my own country. "With liberty and justice for all" are just empty words if you are a same sex bi-national couple like me and Joe, trying to stay together in my country, The United States of America. Here is our story. It is taken from a book called Torn Apart; United By Love Divided By Law. It includes many stories from same sex bi-national couples dealing with discrimination--and resources for changing immigration policies and support for couples like us. Steve Ormana, 59, and Joey Ormana, 49, (not their real names, by request) shared their employment concerns as the economy was dipping and it was not a fun thing to hear. If Joey lost his job, he might not be able to stay in America. We met them June 3, 2009 and Joey was out of the U.S. four months later. He still is. He can't come back because he lost his work visa when he lost his job. At the time he lost his job he was 2/3 of the way to getting his green card and permanent residence in the U.S. The litany that is so familiar to me included this for them: Steve is an American citizen but Joey is not. They met in the U.S. in 2001 - online - when Steve was living and working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Joey was working on his Ph.D. there after getting his master's degree at a university in another state. "After chatting several times, we agreed to meet in a coffee shop in Shadyside in Pittsburgh," Joey shared. Steve was very out, "about as out as you can be in Pittsburgh," he laughed, because he was the first paid employee for GLSEN Pittsburgh, a chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, where he worked until he relocated to be with Joey and Joey's new job in Washington, DC. As a trainer/program coordinator for GLSEN Pittsburgh, Steve had talked to more than 10,000 people about LGBT issues and made 70 presentations a year - more than 300 total while he was there. He talked to teachers and teachers-in-training and college and university sociology and education classes in western Pennsylvania trying to make schools safe educational environments for all students. Meanwhile Joey, who had a first same-sex relationship while getting his master's degree, had never even been to a gay bar before he met Steve. After getting to know each other and realizing that they were meant to be together, Joey moved in with Steve after six months of dating. Steve is very out about being a gay man, but Joey, a Muslim from a southeast Asian country, is not out to his family, who would disown him. That has made his situation moving back to his home country less than comfortable for him. Steve continued to work at the GLSEN position he loved for 2 1/2 years after Joey went to Washington, DC for his new job with a very prestigious engineering firm. Each weekend one of them would make the drive between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, hard as that was. After Joey got approval for his green card the couple thought they were home free so Steve left the work he loved so much in Pittsburgh and relocated to be with Joey. In America, Joey came out to a few people after he met Steve and they were together. But he never came out to his family and cannot. "I left America and had to be separated from the most important person in my life," said Joey. "I am back into the closet because I am not out to my family. They are really religious. It's harder for me to be me after going home to my country." Steve and Joey had to sell their home in Washington, DC one month after they bought it. They had checked with Joey's employer before buying a place because they needed to be sure his job was certain as the American economy was sliding. Assured that there were no issues to his job safety, they bought a place together and settled in - but just a few weeks later they were faced with selling their place and being separated from each other and then having to both leave the country in order to stay together. What a hit they took! When I interviewed Steve, he was trying to be optimistic about moving to Canada - which wasn't confirmed at that time - while he had been separated from Joey for nearly a year. "I dropped Joey off at the Denver airport on October 21, 2009," he said. "It just feels like everything is on hold. You can't make any plans. We're apprehensive if Canada doesn't come through. We don't know what we'll do if that doesn't work." That interview date was September 4, 2010. The worst day of their lives was October 21, 2009, when they had to separate at the Denver airport. "Watching Joey walk through those doors was like watching the person you love most drowning and not being able to do anything about it," Steve said. "It was so painful watching him go through those airport gates - not knowing if we were ever going to be able to get together again. That was just pointless! It was senseless! There was absolutely no reason that this had to happen." But it did… "We aren't going to live with Joey being non-compliant, going illegal," Steve said. He knows how hard Joey has worked on his career and "we weren't going to jeopardize that," he stressed. This couple could only stay in the U.S. together if Joey got his green card. They can't afford to not work and "Joey's country is not an option for us," Steve stressed. "I wouldn't be able to work there and being gay there is not a great idea. Neither of us would feel comfortable with that." Unfortunately for them, asylum is not an option because in order to request asylum, Joey would have to be out in his home country and then be threatened or worse. They don't want to go into harm's way for a chance at asylum so they will move to a third country to be together. The plan, which had progressed by the time I interviewed Joey, is to move to Canada together. The couple hired a lawyer and is going through the required processes to move to Canada so they can be together again. With mixed emotions, Steve told me in late September, 2010 he was excited to get the news that the next step for them was to have physicals required by the Canadian immigration rules. Sadly, it meant one more step away from being in America together, but happily, it meant one less obstacle to being together again finally in Canada. What an emotional roller coaster for them! Joey's skills as a structural engineer are desired there - Joey is a professional skilled worker in the eyes of the Canadian government. Steve can join him there since Canada recognizes Joey and Steve as a family, something they can't get in America even though they were legally married in Connecticut July 12, 2009. Joey was sad as he shared a recap of his story. It made me sad too. "My partner and I were together for almost 10 years before I had to leave the United States because I was laid off due to the economic situation. I am not a U.S. citizen. Although we got married, my partner cannot sponsor me to stay in the country because our relationship is not recognized by the federal government." Sounds like other stories, doesn't it?! "When I got laid off, my work visa automatically was not valid anymore," Joey said. "My company sponsored my work visa. I was in the middle of obtaining a green card. I had passed two stages out of three to get it - in fact, I was waiting for an immigration number to be a permanent resident in the U.S. when I lost my job." Joey is another victim of the backlog of immigration cases the U.S. government works on. Without the 1 to 3 to 7 year delay people fac, he would have his green card and this story would have ended very differently. He regretfully shared this: "I graduated with a Ph.D. in structural engineering from a U.S. university with a full academic scholarship. But I can't stay to pay back America by working and contributing my knowledge and paying taxes because we don't have the same rights as heterosexual couples do," he said. What Joey and Steve want is to live in America together. They have not given up on that option - and won't. They want to be near Steve's aging parents and extended family. Joey said "what my family doesn't know won't hurt them" describing why it would be okay to not live in his country where his mother and siblings live. They have advocated for this issue by sharing their story at events. Joey told his story at a fundraising event for Immigration Equality in Washington, DC., the group they contacted for help when they had their crisis. They were interviewed for a story in their home town before they had to leave. Steve testified at a meeting for Congressional staff members where his father also shared his thoughts on the issue and his wife's thought too in the letters included in this chapter. While the details are unique to this couple, the basic story resonates with so many others. Joey sums it up with this comment: "My partner cannot sponsor me to be a permanent resident. If we were a heterosexual couple, my American partner would have the right, according to the law, and could sponsor me to be a permanent resident, no questions asked." Sadly, as active and open as Steve and his family are, Joey cannot get support or help from his family because he cannot talk about his immigration problem with them - because he is not able to be open about who he is. So Joey is self-employed in his home country waiting for his move to Canada. Steve is living and working with family in New Mexico waiting for his move to Canada. There they will be together and employed and recognized as family. As hard as it is to hear Steve and Joey's story, what made me cry harder was the touching testimony Steve's father gave in Washington, DC on October 23, 2009. Here, with Steve's permission, are the letters from his father and step-mother that were entered into the proceedings. This is family love and support of the highest order! "My name is Allen (I cannot use his last name, by Steve and Joey's request). I am Steve's father and the father-in-law of Joey. My wife, Doris was unable to make this trip but requested that, in addition to my statement, I read a message she wrote. Doris and I have been married 38 years and have a blended family of nine children and 14 grandchildren. Joey and Steve became a couple about nine years ago. Recently they were married at a small ceremony at our oldest daughter's home in Connecticut." "Approximately eight months ago, Joey, a structural engineer with a Ph.D., was let go along with several others. Inasmuch as he had not yet received his green card, he was told he had to leave his adopted country by October 31 if he did not find another position in his field by then. However, no one would hire him because he did not have the green card." "This has been devastating for Steve and Joey and very sad for the entire family. We all love Joey very much. The two of them bring such happiness to every gathering, cheerfulness to every event, as well as concern for anyone who is having problems. They are favorite uncles for the young people in our family. A loving, devoted couple, they bring much joy into our lives." "We can't help feeling that their current situation is so unfair. If they were heterosexual, Steve could sponsor Joey for citizenship. I understand there are approximately 36,000 bi-national, same-sex couples who face the same dilemma each year." "Thank you. And now I'd like to read Doris' message." "Our son-in-law, Joey, has endeared himself to our family and to many others. He came to this country alone, went to college and eventually achieved a doctorate in structural engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, mostly through full scholarships. Isn't it ironic that the same country which made it possible, now insists that he leave?" "He has been an exemplary citizen without the benefits of citizenship. He loves America and has done all the right things to become a legal citizen, but this has been denied him simply because he is gay." "The fact that, just two days ago, he had to leave this country is a tragedy for him and our son, Steve, as well as the rest of our large family. But it also is America's loss. Joey would be a great asset to our country. It is especially poignant at this time of year because the last thing Joey said to me as he was kissing me goodbye, was, 'Save my place for me at the Thanksgiving table'." "But this is not just Steve and Joey's story. It's the story of tens of thousands of others caught in the same situation. Those with children have it much worse. If the spouses were not gay, many of these obstacles wouldn't exist at all. The fact is, that discriminatory laws are tearing these families apart. I hope that when Congress realizes this discrimination is bringing such pain to families like ours, they will act to remedy the situation." "Our family needs our missing spouse/son/brother/uncle back at the Thanksgiving table where he belongs." Interviewing Steve brought back all the pain of late October, 2009. The day after Steve took Joey to the airport and said goodbye he flew to Washington, DC. The day after that, he testified about the issues of same-sex binational couples at the meeting where he invited his father to participate as well. "I was raw," Steve said, choking up. More than a year later they were still in separate countries, waiting to be together in a third country. (update before book prints) That's where the story ended in the book. The good news is that Canada took Joe and I after being appart for a year and a half. We are so glad to be together again and we are looking for work. Canada was not our first choice but at least we had a good second choice. Thank you Canada! Now we have to find work.
It's time for a new conversation about immigration in America, and it starts with us.