Rafal and J.P. are living the American dream. Rafal, originally from Poland, came to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree. Following his studies, he set up a successful small business and is now a permanent resident of the U.S.
J.P., originally from Nicaragua, came to the U.S. on a scholarship. In 2007 J.P. met Rafal. In 2009 Rafal and J.P. married in Iowa.
“It was not an easy decision after gay marriage was legalized in Iowa,” Rafal said. “We were conscious of the consequences our marriage could have on J.P.’s immigration status. We concluded that our love was unconditional and should not be traded for fear. We drove from Minneapolis to Des Moines and filed for a marriage license.”
But the two — who didn’t want to use their full names for privacy considerations — have encountered issues concerning their marriage and J.P.’s immigration status. By marrying a U.S. permanent resident of the same sex, J.P. cannot be sponsored for immigration by his spouse, Rafal. Whereas if they were a heterosexual couple, sponsorship would be possible.
The Uniting American Families Act, with a version stalled in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, seeks to remove the immigration obstacles Rafal and J.P. face in light of their marriage. Under the act, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents would be able to sponsor their foreign-born same-sex partners for immigration benefits.
The Senate version of the bill, introduced in February 2009 by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is stalled in Congress. Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken is a co-sponsor.
There are approximately 36,000 other binational same-sex couples in the U.S. facing the same situation. Their circumstances illustrate the larger GLBT fight for equal rights.
J.P. faced discrimination due to his sexual orientation from an early age in Nicaragua, where homosexuality is viewed as shameful and a disease. He knew he was gay but never told anyone. His family, however, had their suspicions. “My brothers would always tell me they didn’t want a ‘little sister’ in the family and that they were ashamed of me,” J.P. said.
J.P.’s father was an alcoholic who beat him regularly because he believed he was gay. “One night he came home very drunk and tried to suffocate me by putting a pillow over my face. He said he had the right to kill me since he was my father and no one would do anything about it,” J.P said. “My mother was in the same room, but she did nothing. I was 7 years old.”
Despite the difficult circumstances, J.P. excelled in school. In 2006 he was awarded a scholarship to study at a college in Iowa.
Rafal faced similar conditions growing up in Poland. “The gay lifestyle is ridiculed in Poland. Gays are perceived to be sick and abnormal,” he said.
Rafal was bullied throughout his school years for spending more time with girls than boys. At age 15, Rafal had his first boyfriend. “Our relationship was largely inconspicuous but was derided by our friends. We were bullied for sitting too close to each other, or because I was unusually kind to him,” said Rafal. “Unfortunately he was not as strong as I was. He committed suicide at age 16.”
When Rafal first came to the U.S., he was in a relationship with a woman. He believed by hiding his true self and being in a heterosexual relationship, Rafal would appease his parents. Rafal and his girlfriend soon came to the realization that it would not work and ended the relationship. With the support of his friends in Minnesota, Rafal came out publicly. A year later Rafal met J.P.
“The U.S. has offered me a way out. I never will worry again about the possibility of being exposed, bullied or persecuted for the way I am,” Rafal said. “It is not a blessing, but a chance to live a life that every human being deserves.”
Following the conclusion of his studies, J.P. had to return to Nicaragua to fulfill requirements of the scholarship. For a year and a half, Rafal and J.P. were separated. They maintained two households: one in Minneapolis and one in Managua, Nicaragua. Once a month, Rafal visited J.P.
Rafal and J.P. faced an oppressive environment as a couple in Managua. Renting an apartment was near impossible. When they did find an apartment, their landlord harassed them. They were refused service at restaurants and when Rafal fell ill and was hospitalized, J.P. was not allowed to visit him.
“The uncertainty of not knowing if we would ever be able to live together again was devastating and kept us awake at night,” said Rafal.
During his time back in Nicaragua, J.P. applied for a visa to go back to the U.S. At the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua, a yellow slip is given to approved visa applicants and a blue slip to rejected applicants. J.P. had his visa application rejected twice before.
“I remember waiting outside the embassy gates for J.P. after his third interview,” Rafal said. “When the interview ended, he walked out of the front door. I could see him through the gate. He was holding up a yellow slip. I started to jump and yell and cry I was so happy.”
Although they are married, J.P. is not allowed access to any of the federal benefits heterosexual couples have. “The only way J.P. and I could stay together in the U.S. was if he applied for asylum, since we could not live a fulfilling life in Poland or Nicaragua,” Rafal said. J.P. was granted asylum in September. Without asylum, J.P. would have had to return to Nicaragua in December.
It is a testament to the U.S. that Rafal and J.P. — both persecuted for their sexual orientation in their home countries — can unite here to live happy, fulfilling lives together.
“The act allows people to be united without forcing them to choose between the country they love and the person they love,” Rafal said. “The passage of the Uniting American Families Act, it’s a chance for the U.S. to again prove to the world the freedoms that exist here.”
Ian J Byrne welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.