On Thursday, a Portland couple will be among the first same-sex couples in Oregon to have a green card interview.
When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, the government issued a memo to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: The agency should immediately review petitions filed on behalf of same-sex spouses in the same way it reviews those of opposite-sex spouses.
For years, immigration attorney Stephen Manning had no good news for gay bi-national couples seeking legal advice.
“It was a huge conundrum because these were individuals that clearly had family ties in their hearts, but because of the way the law was written, we had to look for other categories,” Manning said.
Straight people could easily petition on behalf of their spouses, but Manning would search for ways to keep same-sex couples together.
“These folks who would have normally been in family-based channels, we had to push into asylum law, employment-based immigration,” he said. “We had to look to non-traditional ways to make non-traditional families a reality.”
Jensi Albright has been waiting for an opportunity to help her wife obtain a green card for almost ten years, ever since Carmen Gutiérrez came to the U.S. from El Salvador as a tourist in 2004 and decided to stay.
While visiting Portland, Gutiérrez had fallen in love with Albright. But also, she says, as a teacher in El Salvador, she was targeted by thugs who forced her to hand over her salary. And as a lesbian woman, she felt she had to hide her sexuality or face persecution.
“When you live in a situation like that, and you come here where you don’t feel that way, obviously you say, ‘Wow, I think I’ll stay,’ right?” Gutiérrez said.
But staying was complicated, and it was illegal.
Albright and Gutiérrez had several legal consultations to try to fix Gutiérrez’s immigration status. But as a gay couple, they had no options. Asylum for Gutiérrez seemed like a long shot, and a petition filed by Gutiérrez’s elderly mother, who was a permanent resident, would take years.
“I mean, there just seemed like no possibility,” Albright said. “So we just made things work as much as we could and went along praying that the worst wouldn’t happen to us.”
Gutiérrez and Albright married in Washington in February. When DOMA was struck down a few months later, they finally saw an end to years of uncertainty. Within days, they arrived at their attorney’s office with a box of documents, and Albright filed a petition for her wife’s permanent residency.
“Everything in our life has been waiting for this moment,” Albright said.
On Thursday, Albright and Gutiérrez are scheduled to appear before an immigration official in Portland to have their long-awaited interview. If all goes as they hope it will, Gutiérrez will go home a legal permanent resident of the United States.
“I want this moment to happen the way it needs to so that then we can go on, breathe deep, be able to exhale and live the rest of our lives the way we should be able to live it,” Albright said.
Albright and Gutiérrez may get their fairy-tale ending in Portland, but another couple says that, for them, changes in the law offer too little too late.
Kevin Smith and Collin Koo met at a tennis tournament in Portland in 2010. Smith lived in Portland at the time and Koo, who is originally from Malaysia, was living in Vancouver, B.C.
They used Skype to stay in touch during their courtship when they lived apart. They’d sit in front of their computers and eat dinner together or fold laundry.
“It was kind of a way to keep our worlds real to each other,” Smith said.
“Thank god we were in the same time zone,” Koo added. “And luckily Skype is free.”
In 2012, Smith proposed to Koo while on a trip to Palm Springs, but they saw no possibility for living together in the U.S.
Koo did not have a visa, and Smith could not petition for him.
“Collin’s immigration, to us, wasn’t an option, and we just knew that, accepted it, and moved on,” Smith said.
Smith is a geriatric psychiatrist. He spent 14 years running a clinic at OHSU.
He says he had no choice but to leave the country if he wanted to be with his partner. In August 2012, Smith moved to Canada to be with his partner, and the clinic where he saw hundreds of patients a year, from as far away as Alaska, shut down.
“He was extraordinarily valuable,” said Dr. George Keepers, chair of psychiatry at OHSU. Keepers said geriatric psychiatrists are in short supply, and he’s had difficulty finding someone to take over the clinic since Smith left. He’s even tried to recruit Smith back.
“I just tried recently, but I was unsuccessful,” Keepers said with a laugh.
Although Smith can now petition for his partner’s green card, he says he has no plans to return to the U.S. Smith has a thriving geriatric psychiatry practice in Vancouver.
Smith and Koo say they have a good life as a gay couple in British Columbia. And his domestic partnership is legally recognized there.
“But my rights as an Oregonian are no better off now than they were prior to DOMA going away,” Smith said. “So there’s still lots of work that needs to be done for any kind of equality.”
A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency does not keep track of how many petitions are filed on behalf of same-sex spouses.
Another Oregon couple, César Higgins and Valerium Pereira, share their story:
Audio slideshow produced by Dan Sadowsky and Jordana Gustafson/OPB