Under current law–the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA–the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage regardless of whether a couple is married under state law. That a same-sex couple married in Iowa, for example, is not married in the eyes of the federal government has serious consequences for couples facing immigration issues–if one of them is not a U.S. citizen, marriage is not a means to remain in the country as it is for straight couples. Later this spring, the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. In the meantime, Katherine Thompson and her wife Jodi are living in Australia after years of trying to remain legally in the United States. Here, she writes to the President about their experience.
February 18, 2013
Dear President Obama:
I’m writing to you from beautiful Sydney, Australia, a city as diverse as New York, as beach-happy as Los Angeles, and as historical as Washington, D.C. But when I hear a dozen languages spoken in a single block, it makes me miss the waiting room in the Marriage Bureau of the New York City Hall. When I watch the surfers coolly riding their perfect waves, it makes me long for the beach grass of North Carolina’s outer banks. When the Opera House swoops skyward around me, I think of the Washington Monument soaring beside me as I listened, freezing and invigorated, to your 2009 Inaugural address. I love this city, but it is not my home.
I’m a Charlotte, North Carolina native, but I had to miss your visit there during September’s Democratic National Convention because my partner, Jodi, an Australian without permanent residency in the U.S., had to leave the country lest she overstay her visa. I’m a certified high school teacher with a Master’s degree, but I’m not teaching in America because Jodi cannot live and work there.
Today I’m celebrating 9½ years of being with Jodi. Though we’ve “felt married” for a long time, we finally made it official last October in New York City Hall. I voted for you on November 6th (Jodi wanted to, but can’t as a non-citizen), and we listened with tears streaming down as you said, “it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” We were so proud of you for including us in your speech, but also so sad—we have done nothing but try for nearly a decade, and we have not been able to make it in America.
Two weeks after that, we left for Australia, because despite being married in our own eyes and in those of the state of New York, I cannot sponsor Jodi to immigrate because the federal government doesn’t recognize our partnership. Other than the minuscule odds of winning the Green Card Lottery, there is simply no legal method for Jodi to obtain permanent residence in America.
We’ve learned the hard way, over 9½ years, that “feeling married” is not enough, and, sadly, neither is actually being married. Over the course of our partnership, I estimate that we’ve spent at least $75,000 to stay on the legal side of the immigration system:
- approximately $7,000 on U.S. visas for Jodi
- approximately $40,000 on travel for both of us between our two countries, and to other countries when her time has run out on U.S. visas
- $25,000 in tuition at international student rates for her to stay on a student visa
- and, finally, $3,000 on my application for permanent residence in Australia when we ran out of options for staying in the U.S.
This is $75,000 that we didn’t save, didn’t spend to boost the flailing American economy, didn’t put toward buying a home or investing in retirement, and didn’t donate to worthy causes. Being shackled by the constraints of America’s outdated immigration system has further meant that we have not advanced as much as we otherwise might have in our studies or our careers, and that we have almost always been a single-earner household, a financial loss I can’t even begin to calculate. It has meant that we haven’t been able to start a family—not wanting to bring a child into a household (much less a world) where one of her parents was not legally able to live or work in her country full-time. It has meant that I have forgone career choices that might otherwise have appealed to me—for example, participating in the Peace Corps, applying for the U.S. Foreign Service, or teaching in Department of Defense schools—because not only would my partner not receive the benefits that other spouses do, but she could not accompany me on these postings—the Peace Corps is not open to non-American citizens, and all three include only legally recognized spouses in their relocation packages.
Ironically, Australia, which doesn’t allow same-sex marriages at all, still offers all the benefits of marriage to same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples. This makes it the only country in the world in which Jodi and I can live together and both legally work. And yet, in many parts of Australia, it is still perfectly acceptable to refer to indigenous people by the N-word and other slurs, to declare one’s hatred of non-white immigrants, and to freely voice one’s misogyny and homophobia. If I contribute positively to Australian society for two years, I can apply for citizenship. I am grateful to my adoptive country, but in truth, even after it has turned its back on me and sent me into exile, I love America more.
Calling myself an exile may sound melodramatic. I know that I don’t have it as hard as some. I am educated, middle class, and healthy. I will always be able to find work, and I have a supportive network of family and friends. But this is my life—the only one I get—and I don’t want to have to spend it far from home.
President Obama, I know you are on our side. Your recent speeches have shown me that; they have been glimmers of hope that America is still the great country I grew up thinking it was. I have faith that you will do what you can in your next term to end the legalized discrimination in America that we both abhor so much, and allow me, and Jodi, and so many others, to come home.
Please don’t let us down.
Katherine Thompson lives in Australia with her wife Jodi. She will be contributing an ongoing series of posts on her experience navigating U.S. immigration law.