This is a love story, but not a typical one – at least not one you read about in novels and see on the screen at the cinema. Unfortunately, our story IS typical in that it is a reality for thousands of couples whose love does not see borders or miles and their sexual orientation does not give them an option for an easy fix. This is the predicament Maria and I have found ourselves in, though compared to many others, our solution IS rather easy. I am from America and Maria is from the UK; thankfully one of us is from a country that recognizes same sex unions for the sake of immigration. However, I haven’t made the process as seamless as it could have been with my past mistakes and criminal history. Because America does not recognize same sex marriage federally, Maria is not eligible to immigrate to the States as my wife; however, the UK is far more progressive and allows immigration for same sex partners. If we want to be together that means leaving everything and everyone I have known to move to England, which is something I would gladly do, except for the bind my criminal history has put us in.
Maria and I first met on a silly internet site in October of 2009, when I was 26 and she was 33. We became instant friends, and while I had a romantic interest in her, Maria made it clear that friendship was all she was looking for. By week two of talking I insisted that Maria would become my wife (I even took to calling her My Future Wife). Maria, however, was having none of it. She did not entertain my romantic notions, and what grew in place of obsession and lust was meaningful conversation and genuine interest in the other. For a year, she was the girl I called my best friend. We emailed each other every day, and spent a lot of time on MSN messenger. We occasionally chatted on the webcam and wrote little notes to each other that we would scan to the other. She told me about her life and I told her about mine – our journeys were very different on the surface, but internally we were both going through major tectonic shifts.
She flew to Denver, CO, USA in September of 2010, and we spent three and a half wonderful weeks together. I pulled out all of the charm I could summon – I knew because of the distance I would never get another chance and it was now or never. I loved the girl, and I needed to show her why she should love me, too. Over a holiday in the mountains and a trip to the west coast our love began to develop and by the time she got back on her plane to return to London we were equally balanced. We were unsure what was to happen next, or how we would proceed, but both of us were prepared to give this a chance to grow. We did not let fear stop us or slow us down. We knew we had found love in each other, and that love was too special to the both of us to allow it to be stunted.
In December 2010 I boarded a plane to go to England. I originally thought my tourist visa would only be for three months, so when I was questioned by an entry clearance officer, I stated my length of stay to be three months. Here is where I ran into my first snag: I didn’t have the funds to support myself in London for three months and, unfamiliar with English phone numbers, I wrote down Maria’s mobile number incorrectly. I was detained by the entry clearance officer for several hours until Maria was able to contact the person handling my case. After both of us were interviewed several times, I was released into the country with a six month tourist visa!
The months that followed can only be described as the best months of my life. Both Maria and I knew we were merely in a trial period to see if we would work out. We didn’t have the luxury of merely dating and carrying on with our own lives like a typical couple – I left my own country and moved into her flat to see if we were compatible. She supported me and I became her housewife, and we found that not only was living with each other a complete joy, but that we couldn’t imagine living without the other. I decided to stay the full six months my visa allowed, and we let our relationship develop into something bigger than the both of us imagined. We realized pretty early on that we had something extraordinary, and we were both aware that the time was ticking on my visa, so we did what a lot of couples do when they feel their backs against the wall – we decided to tie the knot.
Luckily, England is not only a country that allows civil partnerships, but it allows same sex immigration. We filled out an application to the Home Office for a Certificate of Approval, which basically gave us permission to enter into our partnership, as I was technically not allowed to get married under a tourist visa. We in no way actually qualified for the Certificate of Approval according to the guidelines, and after reading that the scheme was to be abolished, we wrote to the Home Office to obtain our passports so that we could go on a holiday abroad before I had to return to the States. It took quite a few emails, phone calls, and faxed requests before our passports were sent back to us, but by April of 2011 we received them in the mail…and, along with it, our Certificate of Approval!
We set our wedding date for May 26th, 2011, at the Southwark Registry Office in London, UK. We had a wedding to plan and not a lot of time. However, typical of Maria and me, we prioritized – we went on our honeymoon before our wedding. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be allowed back in the country on my tourist visa, but it wasn’t something that we had thought through. My visa was due to expire in June of 2011, and the plan was to go on honeymoon in Portugal, fly back into London and get married, and then fly back to the US to apply for a settlement visa. It was going to be a stressful few months, but we were prepared for it. What we weren’t prepared for was the threat of not being able to get married – I was detained once more at the airport by an entry clearance officer, who was prepared to put me on the next flight back to America, this time because I did not hold the correct visa to enter into marriage in the UK. We had surrendered the actual Certificate of Approval to the registry office when we had given our notice, but we had all of the documentation from the Home Office that came with it, and after what seemed like hours of questioning and explaining, I was given a new six month tourist visa, and Maria was allowed to take me back to our home.
May 26th, 2011. It was simply the best day of my life. None of my family could make it, nor could any of my friends. Our wedding was so last minute that no one was prepared for it when I called with the news. It didn’t matter to me, though. I was setting out to do what I had said I would do two years before: I was marrying my best friend. The joining of our paths were blessed with love from my own family, and the attendance of hers. Our day couldn’t have been any sweeter.
Our lives as a married couple were wonderful, but they weren’t without more immigration drama. In July of 2011 I was served with papers informing me that I was to check in weekly in person with the Home Office, as an investigation had been launched and the process had been started to deport me. The charge on the documentation was ‘deception,’ which is something neither of us could figure out. Maria came with me to my first appointment, but she was made to sit in the front lobby while I was taken into a back room. The entry clearance officer explained to me that when I entered the country in December of 2010 I stated that I would be visiting for three months. He went on to say that I did not state that I planned on getting married. Therefore, he concluded, I had entered the country via deception. I was stunned. Those things were true. I DID state I was only going to be in the country for three months and I DIDN’T say Maria and I were going to get married because marriage wasn’t a word on either of our lips. I was in a state of shock and fear and requested Maria to be brought into the back room so that the charge could be explained to her. Her eyes were as big as mine as the entry clearance officer went through the explanation again. It was clear both of us felt like we’d been kicked in the stomach. I was made to surrender my passport and after looking through it, the officer was clearly troubled that I had another visa that he hadn’t known about. It took months for him to find my landing card and the notes that came with it – luckily the entry clearance officer at the airport wrote down absolutely every detail about my stay, why I was entering the country, our Certificate of Approval, and our intention to get married. After checking in with the Home Office every week for several months, never knowing if I was going to be deported, the charges of deception were dropped and once again, I was allowed to live out the remainder of my time in the UK with Maria peacefully…or as peaceful as you can get knowing that soon it would come to distances…
My second tourist visa expired in November 2011. I returned to the States on the 12th of November with a thick packet of prepared documents for my settlement visa application, as I was not allowed to apply for the visa to live with Maria from within the UK (this was because I entered into our civil partnership on a tourist visa). I sent my documents, along with my application, in to the British Embassy in New York. I was scared that my application would be rejected due to prior criminal convictions for offences that had occurred years before, but everything had gone our way despite the odds, so I was strangely optimistic that I would be returning home to my wife in a month. I commenced to visit family in three different states to catch up on what I had missed during the year I was away, and to say my goodbyes. Maria joined me for three and a half weeks during the Christmas holiday, and it was at this time that she finally got to meet all of my family. They instantly loved her and could see the love we had for each other, so their fears and sadness over seeing me leave the country turned into well wishes for us, and prayers for my speedy return.
The day before Maria was set to head back to London I was notified by my immigration solicitor that my application had been denied. The feeling that accompanied my rejection is indescribable – we were filled with fear and uncertainty, as well as a gut wrenching sadness. We had no idea what lay in the path ahead of us; there was no way to properly set our expectations for what would happen next, when we would be able to see each other again, and when I would be coming home. For me, there was fear over practical matters like where I was going to live – I had no housing established for myself, nor a job to supply an income. I was in an uproar over what I was going to do, and putting Maria on a plane the next day was one of the worst experiences I had ever had. Before, we had dealt with every immigration stress together, but as she went through the security gates of the airport we both knew that we were going to have to learn to rely on each other in very different ways.
It is now August 22nd, 2012. I have now been living in America without my wife, Maria, for more than nine months. That seems like a long time when I say it to myself, and it certainly feels like a long time – she and I have both grown and changed in small ways, and in big ways, too – but compared to many others, nine months is nothing. Maria and I were prepared to fight our refusal for as long and as hard as we needed to. We appealed the decision made by the embassy and my case was heard by a tribunal judge in the UK a month ago – on July 16th, to be exact. Maria was my voice – I could not attend my own hearing so not only did Maria do all of the legal work required to make a sound argument in my defense, but she argued it in front of the judge. I cannot imagine the bravery and confidence this would have taken, and my admiration of her, and my love for her fierce determination, has given me a new respect for my wife. She is always willing to fight for me, and she is always ready to do whatever is needed to bring me home. If not for her, I do not think we would have made it through this time. She is my determination and my hope when I have none for myself, she is my reminder of a life better than I can dream up on my own, she is my heart, my voice, and my smile when I feel empty.
We received our response from the tribunal judge on the 27th of July. In the response, the judge addressed my side of the argument, and the entry clearance officer’s side. I was surprised and overwhelmed to read how the judge tore the Embassy’s argument to shreds, saying that our case should never have gone to court because compassionate circumstances should have been taken into account on my behalf. Not only that, but the judge supported our argument of why I must move to the UK as opposed to Maria moving to the US (in my rejection letter the entry clearance officer stated ‘I am…aware that there is nothing in UK law or US law which prohibits your spouse from traveling to the USA and enjoying family life with you in that country.’ Our rebuttal to that statement was to quote DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage to be between a man and a woman], and to provide proof that immigration for same sex marriages isn’t federally recognized). The judge not only ruled in our favour and has granted me my visa, she also ruled that Maria and I get a refund on the costs for our appeal. That doesn’t give us the last eight months of our lives back, but it does give us validation that we have fought the good fight.
The Home Office have 28 days to appeal the decision made by the judge, but it is highly unlikely that they will. We are still in limbo, but the uncertainty is not nearly as bad now that we know it is only a matter of time before I come home. We are now waiting for the embassy to contact me requesting my passport – once my visa is in there and it is sent back to me I’ll be on a plane home, and we can resume our lives and try to build our future together.
We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and about each other during this time of stress and strain. We’ve fought more apart more than we’ve ever argued together, but we’ve also learned how to love in different ways, and how to appreciate the other for who she is rather than who we want her to be. Our love grows stronger with the days, and though I am still stuck in America for an indefinite amount of time, and we are still unsure of when we will see each other again, we know that it is only a matter of time before I come home and our paths merge together again, this time, we hope, for forever. If there is anything worth fighting for it is a love like this – it is the kind of love one only finds once in a lifetime, and for many it never comes at all. For all of the fear, pain, and uncertainty we’ve had in our lives, we’ve had an equal amount of love, support, and hope. We do not know what the future holds for us, but one thing is for sure – together the future is incredibly brighter.
Written by Jess and Maria
This story is also located at: http://mattcarey.co.uk/maria_jess/