Cristina & Monica Featured in Video Highlighting DOMA’s Harm on Married Binational Couple Fighting Deportation

Today Freedom to Marry released a video produced in partnership with In The Life Media telling the moving story of Cristina Alcota and Monica Ojeda, who, though legally married, face deportation or separation because the so-called Defense of Marriage Act denies married same-sex couples immigration protections. (Scroll down to view the video in Spanish, or to view in Spanish with English subtitles, click here.)

“Cristina and Monica fell in love, made a lifetime commitment to one another, and got married. Now they spend every day worrying about whether they will be ripped apart or forced into exile in order to stay together because the so-called Defense of Marriage Act keeps the U.S. government from honoring their marriage,” said Evan Wolfson, Founder and President of Freedom to Marry. “If not for DOMA, Cristina would be able to petition for Monica as her spouse without any difficulty. It is time to overturn DOMA and ensure that all Americans are treated fairly and equally under the law.”

Married lesbian and gay binational couples have moved to the forefront of the fight against DOMA since the launch of The DOMA Project’s Stop The Deportations Campaign last summer.

“We recognized that support for Marriage Equality in the United States had shifted dramatically in our favor, said Lavi Soloway, attorney for Cristina and Monica and co-founder of the Stop The Deportations campaign.  ”Increasingly, binational couples were marrying in the five states and the District of Colombia where marriage equality had been achieved. We decided to take on DOMA with a group of married binational couples leading the charge, something that had not been done before. We focused specifically on married couples facing deportation to illustrate DOMA’s cruelest impact: tearing apart our families and destroying marriages.  As a result of our work, the plight of binational couples is now more accurately understood as harm caused by DOMA. It is a simple matter of equality. Without DOMA, gay and lesbian Americans would be able to petition for their spouses under the existing provisions of U.S. immigration law. It is, therefore, imperative that DOMA be repealed and that a moratorium on deportations of spouses of lesbian and gay American be implemented by the administration immediately so that all families are protected.”

Cristina and Monica were among the founding couples of the Stop The Deportations campaign. For the past eight months they have shared their story and bravely fought against DOMA in immigration court and the media, winning a reprieve from deportation earlier this year on the basis of their marriage. Christina and Monica have been in the forefront of the campaign urging the Obama Administration to halt deportations of law-abiding spouses of lesbian and gay American citizens pending the outcome of legal challenges to DOMA.

Cristina and Monica met several years ago when Cristina was in school for social work. They married in a ceremony in Connecticut. An American citizen, Cristina petitioned for her wife Monica, an Argentinean national, to obtain a “green card.”  Because they are a same-sex couple, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act bars the federal government from honoring their marriage for the purposes of immigration, and Cristina’s petition for Monica cannot be approved. Still they continue their fight to build a future together in this country. In March, an immigration judge delayed their case in light of court challenges finding DOMA unconstitutional, and the Department of Justice’s determination that DOMA is indefensible under the Constitution.  They return to immigration court on December 6 to once again fight for the right to be together.

Of marriage, Cristina Alcota says in the video “You’re doing this to be with the person you love for the rest of your life… marriage is a bond that cannot be broken that easily.” She goes on to say “The government doesn’t recognize that our marriage is valid for purposes of immigration because of DOMA and we are facing being either torn apart or being removed from this country.”
Cristina is a social worker and Monica is an antique furniture restorer. The two women currently live in Queens, New York.

Cristina and Monica have appeared numerous times in the media as activists for the DOMA Project’s Stop The Deportations campaign, including:  CNN, New York Daily News (twice), Gay City News (twice) and NY1 Pura Politica.

IPS: Activists Fight Deportations of Gay Couples

See full article here.

“After Erwin de Leon successfully defended his dissertation, he felt relief at being closer to earning his doctorate in public and urban policy. But the achievement also meant that time was running out to find a way to stay in the United States.

Despite the fact that de Leon, a Philippine international student, is married to a U.S. citizen, John Beddingfield, both live in uncertainty about the future of their family.

The hopes of de Leon and other activists were raised earlier this year when President Barack Obama declared that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. This section defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman”.

On Apr. 6, a coalition of member organizations of the American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security emphasizing family unity, for straight and gay couples, as a guiding principle of U.S. immigration law.

The co-founder of the campaign Stop the Deportations-The DOMA Project, Lavi Soloway, told IPS that “more than 65 members of Congress requested the White House to hold green card applications in abeyance and suspend the deportations.”

Soloway cited the hold placed on deportation proceedings for Argentine immigrant Monica Alcota, who is married to Cristina Ojeda, a U.S. citizen, by a New York immigration judge in March as a turning point in the debate.

Although de Leon and Beddingfield have been in a committed relationship for close to 13 years, they have yet to fully settle down and buy a house. “We really don’t know what is going to happen, we might have to move to Canada or another country in the following years,” de Leon told IPS.

To guarantee residency rights for gay couples, Democrats in both the House and Senate re-introduced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) on Apr.14. But Soloway said that with the House dominated by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, the “Congress is frozen.”

He said that the UAFA has gained more supporters during the 11 years it has been debated in Congress, but is still far from having a majority of votes. Thus, one possible solution for the project to move forward is its inclusion in a comprehensive immigration reform package.”

Princeton University Hosts Marriage Equality Event Featuring Josh & Henry’s Fight Against Deportation

Excerpted from the Daily Princetonian, April 14, 2011:

The Frist Campus Center Multipurpose Room, decorated with floral confetti, white drapery and event schedules decorated with silver borders, looked fit for a wedding on Thursday afternoon at the “Speak Now for Marriage Equality” panel and discussion session organized by the Princeton Equality Project.

Deans of Religious Life Alison Boden and Paul Raushenbush joined Joshua Vandiver GS, his Venezuelan husband Henry Velandia and the couple’s attorney Lavi Soloway in a five-member panel that shared different perspectives on marriage equality and discussed the impact of U.S. marriage laws on the LGBT community.

PEP, a student-run organization at the University working to realize full LGBT equality, dedicated the event to Vandiver and Velandia’s fight against the Defense of Marriage Act. This February, the Obama administration recommended that DOMA no longer be defended in federal courts because it prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

Velandia and thousands of others are threatened with deportation because DOMA bars Americans such as Vandiver from sponsoring same-sex spouses for green cards.

Boden opened the panel with an invocation in honor of the event’s wedding theme. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness and celebrate the equality of all people and of their civil liberties,” she said. “We are grateful most for those we cherish, those who fill our hearts with love and for whom our hearts pour out such love in return that we cannot begin to measure.”

Vandiver shared how he and Velandia met at the University and married last August on “one of those late summer days, green and gorgeous in eastern Connecticut.” Two days after the marriage, he filed a petition for his husband’s residency and green card.

However, Vandiver’s application was rejected this February. Velandia is scheduled for a deportation hearing on May 6. If the hearing goes against him, he could be required to leave the United States and be barred from returning for a minimum of 10 years.

Vandiver talked about the couple’s petition to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to stop the deportation of people in Velandia’s situation until the DOMA dilemma is officially resolved. “She has the power to do that immediately,” Vandiver said. “She’s done it for other groups, and she could do it in our case as well, but the broader struggle is to repeal DOMA.”

“We can’t trust in our presidents or our Congress; we have to work very hard to encourage them to bring about the change,” Vandiver added. “They may have promised that they want to do it, but they need us behind them to do it … That’s what Henry and I are trying to do, both to save our own marriage and the marriages of dozens and dozens of couples.”

As an immigrant from Venezuela, Velandia talked about his journey of self-discovery as he came to terms with his “identity as a gay man” while trying to “live the American Dream.” He talked about his happiness upon finding Vandiver and referred to him as his “life.”

“I fell in love with him the first day,” he said. “It’s like a horror movie to imagine that we could be separated.”

Soloway, a lawyer who has represented binational same-sex couples for 18 years, recently won a case to stop the deportation of Monica Alcota, the wife of American-born Cristina Ojeda. The judge allowed Ojeda to petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to have Alcota recognized as her spouse and provide residency.

Soloway urged the audience to reach out to Senator Lautenberg and Senator Menendez of New Jersey to join the fight against DOMA.

After the panel concluded, the audience was encouraged to sign the online petition “Save Our Marriage — Stop the Deportation of Henry Velandia,” which already has nearly 3,000 signatures, attend a reception and enjoy wedding cake on the South Frist Lawn.

According to PEP president Andrew Blumenfeld ’13, the program was a success, with over 80 people writing letters to their congressmen asking them to recognize the difficulties of couples like Vandiver and Velandia.

In an interview after the panel, Vandiver and Velandia expressed their frustration at the DHS’ lack of response to last week’s letter from 12 senators. The movement, led by John Kerry, urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Napolitano to stop defending DOMA in federal courts.

With Velandia’s hearing less than four weeks away, “they need to make a decision very soon,” Vandiver explained.

Velandia noted that leaving the United States was not an option for the couple, explaining that moving to his native Venezuela would be very dangerous for them as a same-sex couple and that the move could have a destructive effect on Vandiver’s career.

“Josh is aiming to be a professor in the States. That’s where he was born, and that’s where he deserves to stay,” Velandia said.

Metro Weekly: DOMA’s Immigration Imbroglio

See full story here.

Josh & Henry Meet With Congressman Rush Holt, Gay City News Reports on Progress and Setbacks

Excerpt from “Progress–and Fits and Starts–on Immigration,” Gay City News, March 31, 2011.

“In a dizzying — and not fully transparent — series of developments this past week, the prospects for married same-sex bi-national couples hoping to stay in the US showed improvement, though how far-reaching the gains are remains uncertain as of press time.

In what appears to be the first such action of its type, an Immigration Judge in Manhattan, who works under the Justice Department, on March 22 adjourned deportation proceedings for the Argentine lesbian spouse of an American citizen to allow the couple to proceed with their application to have their marriage recognized for purposes of federal immigration law.

Also last week, Newsweek reported that the heads of two district offices, in Baltimore and Washington, DC, of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — which is part of the Department of Homeland Security — had separately stated publicly they have put on hold the processing of any applications for spousal recognition or green cards from married same-sex couples. Such applications have routinely been denied in the past, so by putting them instead “in abeyance,” USCIS would be strengthening the arguments a married same-sex couple would have in deportation proceedings before an Immigration Judge.

In comments made to Metro Weekly on March 28, a USCIS spokesman in Washington said the abeyance policies adopted by the DC and Baltimore offices were now in place nationwide, a development that would represent a huge victory. After Metro Weekly published that news, however, another Homeland Security official told the newspaper that the abeyance was temporary — perhaps as short as a week — designed only to allow the department’s general counsel to examine the impact of the Justice Department’s February announcement that it now views the denial of federal recognition of same-sex marriages mandated by the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. DOMA is the basis on which USCIS has to date denied applications for spousal recognition or green cards from same-sex married couples. Precisely where that Homeland Security clarification leaves the issue remains unclear.

[Update: On the morning of March 30, after the publication and posting of this story, Metro Weekly reported that USCIS stated that the temporary policy of abeyance has ended as a result of a new guidance from internal counsel. A spokesman told that newspaper that applications from married same-sex couples would once again be processed as they have been previously, in compliance with DOMA. That spokesman, Christopher Bentley, later told Gay City News that the end of the abeyance period applies in Washington and Baltimore as well as in the rest of the nation. He also said, however, that none of the discretion USCIS or Homeland Security had under the law previously has been curtailed as the result of the Justice Department's February statement that DOMA would continue to be enforced.]

The victory last week in Manhattan was less ambiguous, though the specific steps forward for the couple are not yet known. Monica Alcota, 35, who came to the US a decade ago, married her partner of nearly three years, 25-year-old Cristina Ojeda, last August in Connecticut. The couple’s attorneys, Lavi Soloway and Noemi Masliah, argue that their clients’ marital status should qualify Alcota for permanent residency, as would be the case with any different-sex couple.

A 2010 US court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s denial of federal recognition for legal same-sex marriages, they say — coupled with the Justice Department’s recent announcement regarding DOMA’s constitutionality — opens up the real possibility that Alcota and Ojeda may win recognition from the US government. At the US courthouse in Lower Manhattan, Immigration Judge Terry A. Bain gave the couple the go-ahead to press their claim with the USCIS through what is known as Form I-130, a petition to have Alcota recognized as “the spouse of USC.”

For now, the couple’s case has been adjourned until December, a decision supported by the government’s attorney.

“It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of what happened in there,” Soloway said immediately after the hearing. “An adjournment based on an I-130. It would never have happened a year ago. I don’t think I even would have filed it.” Describing the development as “huge,” Soloway also credited Bain with being “very kind, very generous” in her handling of the case. Masliah echoed her law partner’s assessment, terming Bain’s action “benevolent”; she added, however, that it is also “realistic in light of recent developments.”

Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Immigration Equality, which advocates on behalf of bi-national gay and lesbian couples whose right to stay together in the US is threatened, agreed with the assessments by Soloway and Masliah that Bain’s action was both significant and appropriate in the current context. “It sounds like what happened in this case is what should have happened,” Ralls said. “We have other families planning to file I-130s, and this should be good news for them.” To the best of his group’s knowledge, he said, Bain’s move was unprecedented.

Last week, Immigration Equality wrote to Holder asking that proceedings against immigrant same-sex spouses facing deportation be placed on hold while the DOMA issue remains in the courts.

For Alcota and Ojeda, the legal developments of the last eight months represent some respite from what has been “hanging over our heads,” Ojeda explained — “that I would lose her.” That’s exactly what happened to Ojeda — for three months, at least — in 2009. As the Queens couple was traveling by bus through upstate New York, a spot border control check resulted in Alcota being detained by immigration officials. She ended up in a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, from which she could have been deported at any time.

Finally, an Immigration Judge — a woman, the couple noted — saw Alcota and determined she had “a reasonable fear” of persecution should she be returned to Argentina. She had fled her home country, where she lived in a region near the Chilean border, with her then-partner because the two believed their lives were at risk. Soloway said if court challenges to DOMA ultimately prove unsuccessful, he would argue Alcota deserves asylum based on her provable fear of persecution back home.

After the ten-minute hearing, Alcota remained nervous, the adrenalin apparently not yet having worked its way through her system. Still, she expressed relief that she will have the chance to fight for the validity of her marriage. “Now I feel relieved,” Alcota’s spouse Ojeda said. “That they are going to give us a chance to argue our case.” Ojeda said Bain’s action “acknowledged our marriage.”

With DOMA litigation and the status of Ojeda’s I-130 likely to still be open questions in December, Alcota’s next appearance before Judge Bain could amount to nothing more than a perfunctory status update and further adjournment.

Josh Vandiver, 29, and his Venezuelan-born husband, Henry Velandia, 27, who live in Princeton and are also clients of Soloway’s, find themselves in a somewhat different position than Ojeda and Alcota. With Velandia facing a deportation hearing on May 6, the couple endured a setback when, in early February, Vandiver’s I-130 application was rejected — in lightning speed, according to Soloway. Just days before their motion to the Board of Immigration Appeals challenging that denial was due, however, the Justice Department issued its new position on DOMA’s constitutionality, giving added strength to Vandiver’s claim that his spouse ought in fact be recognized as his spouse for immigration purposes.

Soloway drew on the Justice Department’s February DOMA statement in finalizing the appeal motion, but on his advice, the couple has now decided to drop the appeal route in favor of resubmitting an I-130, along with a green card application. News of the abeyance policy acknowledged by the USCIS’ Washington and Baltimore district offices certainly lent comfort to that decision — and the suggestion on Monday from the agency’s national spokesman that all applications might now be on hold seemed the best news of all.

For Vandiver and Velandia, who attended a March 28 immigration forum in Princeton where their congressman, Democrat Rush Holt, committed to pressing Homeland Security to handle I-130 applications like theirs in a way that will not lead to deportations, the situation nevertheless remains unsettling.

“We are still worried that until the Defense of Marriage Act is defeated, Henry can’t get his green card, which will protect him,” Vandiver said. “Henry’s deportation is still looming. We have a hearing on May 6.”

Noting that matters are still very much in the hands of the Immigration Judge they happen to face, Vandiver acknowledged that the Obama administration’s changed tune on DOMA was the most positive development he and Velandia had seen. “If not hope,” he said, “at least it provided relief that the most powerful officeholder is aware of the pain caused by DOMA. A sense of relief and an appreciation on our part.”

CNN: Argentine Lesbian Escapes Deportation Until Status of Same Sex Marriage Made Clearer

“An Argentine woman living illegally in the United States after overstaying her tourist visa will not be deported until the legality of her same-sex marriage is made more clear.
Judge Terry A. Bain and government attorneys agreed Tuesday to halt deportation hearings in Manhattan’s immigration court for Monica Alcota, 35, who came to the United States from Argentina more than 10 years ago.
Alcota and Cristina Ojeda, 25, a U.S. citizen, were married in Connecticut in 2010 and are arguing that their marital status should allow Alcota permanent residency, their attorney, Lavi Soloway, said. The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that gay and lesbian couples have the right to get married.
Soloway said no specific reason was given for the judge’s decision to delay the hearing, but added that Bain and the government attorneys were in agreement with several general reasons, including President Obama’s direction to the Department of Justice to enforce, but not defend, Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The act defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman.”

QUEERTY: Possible DOMA Repeal Stops Deportation of Monica Alcota

From the website Queerty.

NY Daily News: Gay Woman Won’t Be Deported, Couple Can Pursue Their Marriage Based Case

Read full article here.

Judge Terry Bain put a hold on her deportation order while the couple waits to see if the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned and their green card application goes through. “She could have said no,” [Cristina] Ojeda said. “But instead she gave us time. Little by little, we’re building up hope and more courage.” The couple will be back in court in December to give the judge an update on their case.
“I was very pleased that both the judge and the government attorney treated the issue with seriousness and respect,” said their lawyer, Lavi Soloway.
“I think it was a demonstration of respect for Monica and Cristina and their marriage. They were kind and generous about it.”

Gay City News: Monica & Cristina Win in Court

The DOMA Project thanks Paul Schindler from Gay City News for coming to court with us this morning and reporting on this historic day. Full article here.

“It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of what happened in there,” Soloway said immediately after the hearing. “An adjournment based on an I-130. It would never have happened a year ago. I don’t think I even would have filed it.”
Describing the development as “huge,” Soloway also credited Bain with being “very kind, very generous” in her handling of the case.
Masliah echoed her law partner’s assessment, terming Bain’s action “benevolent”; she added, however, that it is also “realistic in light of recent developments.”

Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley: Obama Administration Should Halt DOMA Deportations

From the Advocate:

Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat whose district includes a section of northern Queens, praised the government’s decision to suspend deportation proceedings against Alcota.

“In any case involving a married gay couple where one person is [a citizen] and the other person does not have legal residence, the government should suspend deportations,” Crowley told The Advocate in a brief telephone interview. “Ultimately the DOMA law needs to be repealed. But what’s paramount is that families need to be able to stay together.”

Crowley joins two congressional colleagues — Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California and Jerrold Nadler of New York — who have called on executive agencies to stop deportations involving married, binational gay couples who are denied permanent resident sponsorship rights as a result of DOMA.

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This is a pro-bono project of the law firm of Masliah & Soloway, PC. Posts on this website are offered for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. The law firm of Masliah & Soloway, PC has offices in New York and Los Angeles. Our practice is limited to U.S. Immigration & Nationality Law.