My name is Kev and I am a native and citizen of the United States. I am married to Francis, a citizen of the Philippines. We achieved our dream by overcoming countless obstacles, starting over after a few set-backs, perseverance, and encouragement from friends, hope, and never losing sight of our goal.
I had the good fortune to meet Francis by chance in 2011. I assumed we would just casually exchange emails or messages on occasion upon discovering Francis is a resident of The Philippines. During the next few weeks when we would chat or visit each other via Skype, I became very intrigued by the vast difference in our backgrounds. These differences in perspectives also became the foundation of a close and personal friendship as I learned more about his family, his career goals, and his personal desire to be able to one day experience more of the world around him. Our interests in travel were a common topic that we both enjoyed talking about.
By the autumn of 2011, we had been visiting via Skype two times a day in addition to many text messages. I had the pleasure of “meeting” his parents and some of his siblings on line through Skype. These were very enjoyable times and I was now realizing that our friendship is developing into something both deeper and bigger than I had previously imagined. I came to find much compassion for Francis’s family and I could sense the sincerity in their faces when we visited on the internet. This is when I knew I wanted to visit Francis and his family. I had never dreamed of traveling half a world away to meet someone, much less their relatives, but I knew that this was an opportunity I had to see to the end.
Due to my job responsibilities at the time we initially decided that Francis would visit me in the United States since it would be a while before I could get the time off to visit him. Unfortunately, Francis was denied a visitor visa. As time passed, Francis also expressed interest in continuing his education in the U.S. so we started researching schools and programs. He applied and was accepted at a college in Dallas, but he was denied the student visa. I suppose, in retrospect, we were somewhat ignorant of the difficulty of getting a temporary visa to visit or study. After this second denial, I made plans to go to the Philippines for a visit. We were aware that a long distance friendship was developing into something deeper and it was a situation with many obstacles in the way. I knew that I wanted to be able to spend some quality time with Francis and meet his family and see his home, so I traveled to Francis’s home country. We were both excited about the opportunity to experience the connection in person and to know personally that what we already felt was strong enough to withstand the distance.
I first arrived in the Philippines on April 19th, 2012. I met Francis in Manila and also had the pleasure of meeting his younger brother John. We also traveled to a resort island, Boracay, and then on to his home city of Davao City. We were greeted by one of his older brothers, Jonathan, along with his spouse daughter. We traveled to the area Francis grew up near Midsayap, North Cotabato. One of Francis’s older sisters had pre-arranged accommodations at a local hotel for both us and the immediate family. There was a water park next door for the kids, picnic cabanas, outdoor grills, and plenty of room for whoever might show up. His parents, along with many other family members, had already checked into the hotel. We were soon receiving hugs and handshakes from people who, in an instant, were no longer strangers but a family I might have known my whole life. It was as if I was coming home to my own family.
I had already asked Francis if he would be willing to spend his life with me prior to my traveling to the Philippines. Francis and I formerly advanced our relationship to that of a true engagement in Manila where we were finally able to exchange rings. It was the news of our engagement, I would learn later, that was the actual reason his sister arranged for the family to be with us in Midsayap. Our second night the family wanted to walk to a roadside restaurant near the hotel. It turns out this was a pre-planned event. Upon our arrival to what should be a plain, ordinary open-air restaurant, we discovered it decorated with balloons inscribed with “Welcome to Our Family”, crepe paper, ribbons, and floral table settings. Many of Francis’s cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews were already gathered to greet us for what was actually our engagement celebration. I honestly have no idea of the exact number of family and friends there that night, but I estimate there were at least 40 or more. I do remember it being hard to actually have dinner because everyone wanted their picture taken with us. Finally we just went from table to table posing for photos with people I had just met. Yet I was being treated by everyone as if I had been a part of this family my whole lifetime. That night was one that I will never forget for many reasons. Just recalling this night brings back feelings I had never, until then, experienced.
The highlight for me the following day was to be officially welcomed by my Francis’s Lola, his elderly grandmother, the matriarch of the family. I remember to this very moment, the feeling of her grasping my wrist and whispering, “I would like to welcome you to our family.” During our visit at her home, she had the strongest, yet loving grip on me the whole time. I was again experiencing moments that I wanted to live in and somehow make them last forever.
We returned to Davao City for two more nights and I was scheduled to depart on April 28th. Francis’s father, brother Jonathan and his family, along with a cousin, niece and nephew all came to the airport to see me off. It was a very emotional afternoon for all of us. It’s hard to say goodbye especially when I knew how far away I would be traveling from my fiancé and new family. It turned out that this was not the end of my trip though. Upon my arrival in Manila, the plane was late which resulted in missing my flight to the US. It was very late on a Saturday night and no assistance available from anyone I spoke with. I called Francis to tell him what happened. He immediately called his brother John who I had met upon my initial arrival. John made the journey across Manila to get to the airport to find me and see to my safety. I found an airport hotel and we spent the next 2 days trying to find a flight out. This would have been a complete nightmare had it not been for John staying by my side the entire time. We traveled terminal to terminal, him insisting on carrying most of my luggage. He was translator, bodyguard, personal assistant, and my savior during this experience. We finally were able to find a ticketing office and made arrangements to fly out on May 2nd. Since my new departure was two days away, Francis wanted to fly to Manila and relieve his brother of the task of looking after me. We picked Francis up at the airport and were able to spend another day and a half together.
Once I returned to the U.S., our conversations eventually were about him applying again for a student visa. He really wanted to advance his education at a U.S. college that specialized in nursing studies. In addition, our research found that some of the best nursing programs were in Texas. We even hired an agency to assist us with the process this time. Francis was again accepted by an American college, but after weeks of preparation he was again was denied visa in July 2012.
I returned to Davao City on September 22nd, 2012 to spend about two weeks with Francis, and to celebrate my birthday with him and his family. His sister also had a birthday the day after mine. We rented a lodge in Eden Park Resort near an inactive volcano, Mt. Apo, for a family gathering. We spent two days alongside Francis’ immediate family including his parents, older brothers Jonathan and Eugene, their children and spouses. I remember his mother saying a prayer before our birthday dinner where she asked that her children, Floradiz and Kevin, be blessed with long lives and good health. During this trip we also took our nieces and nephews to Crocodile Park for a day at the zoo. In addition, we made a few excursions to Ayala Mall in Davao to take the kids shopping. I liked the mall trips because of the air conditioning! Texas heat has nothing on the tropical heat of The Philippines. I had, once again, an unintended extended stay. On the evening of September 28th we took the family out to dinner at Jack’s Ridge, a group of open-air restaurants and clubs on top of a hillside overlooking Davao City. That evening France’s mother questioned me about how I would arrive in the U.S. on the 29th if I was leaving on the 29th Philippines time. I did not actually understand what she meant at the time. After thinking about her comment, I looked at my ticket to discover I was supposed to fly out that very evening! It took all night but I did find a flight. So after 2 hours sleep, I was able to depart the next day and returned to the U.S. on October 1st.
My next visit to Davao City was on February 16th to March 1st, 2013. My mother had just passed and I wanted the chance to spend more time with both my Filipino family and fiancé. Francis and I were able to spend more time during this visit with some of his siblings and their children when they accompanied us to Paradise Island Beach Resort located on Samal Island near Davao City. The next day, with all the kids in tow again, we all spent an afternoon at Forest Hills Resort. It’s a water park with private picnic areas, palm leaf roofed cabanas, and grills for outdoor cooking. On at least two days that I can remember Francis and I took the children shopping, as on my previous trip, so they could pick out school clothes, supplies, and toys. The mall trips are some of my favorite times spent with the family because I know that Francis’s siblings do not have much spare money to spend on their children for clothes, backpacks, shoes, supplies or especially toys. A fact of life for majority of Filipino families.
During this particular visit I was not able to spend as much time with Francis’s parents. Francis’s brother, Eugene, had recently been in a motorcycle accident and was at a hospital facility in Midsayap where his parents were staying close to him at the time. They did eventually make the five hour van trip to Davao City and we were able to spend a couple of days together. After they arrived, Francis’s mother hugged me tight and thanked me for helping save her son, Eugene’s, life. During my previous visit I had bought a helmet when I was made aware they had purchased a motorcycle to travel back and forth between town and Francis’s parents’ house located up in the mountains nearby Midsayap. His mother said he was wearing the helmet at the time of the accident, which took the most impact, and if not for that he most likely would not have survived.
I reflect on things like the mall trips with the nieces and nephews, the family throwing us a party to honor our relationship, or Francis’ mother telling me that I played a role in Eugene’s ability to recover from that accident. I see that mine and Francis’s relationship as being bigger than just the two of us. Our paths having come together not only allowed me to now be part of a family who quickly embraced me unconditionally, but also enabled me to make a positive impact on some parts of their lives.
As we come to the conclusion of our journey I recount an experience that occurred prior to my visit to the Philippines in February of 2013. My mother has been fighting cancer for three years and confided to me about a week prior to Christmas 2012 that she knew her battle would soon come to an end. She had only been able to “visit” with Francis via Skype or by phone. We both deeply wanted him to meet my mother in person, and this was another element of our desire for his being able to travel to the US. Unfortunately, that opportunity did not happen.
When I was with my mother during her last couple of days at her home in Choctaw, Oklahoma, she was not lucid and slept round the clock. Sitting by her bedside, I was talking to Francis on Skype and he had asked to see her. I held up my iPad so he could say hi. She opened her eyes and said “Well, hi Francis” with her eyes wide open. Francis told my mother that he loved her, and reassured her to not worry because he would make sure I was ok. She then closed her eyes and a few hours later passed away. That evening Francis had somehow brought my mother back to me for a few seconds and I could see that she was at peace knowing I had someone to stand with me for the rest of my life.
Francis and I have worked very hard just to be together and our commitment to each other is a road with many obstacles. During our time together I have experienced many reasons why I could never imagine taking what we have been given for granted. We overcame many obstacles and have been blessed with a rare gift. A unity built on determination that has resulted in a foundation for a lifetime of happiness and love together as a married couple.
Kev Gelay-Yeager is a member of Marriage Equality USA. He and Franz married in April 2014 at San Francisco City Hall.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) may have met its demise last June but same-sex binational couples living abroad are still waiting for the federal government to recognize their marriages and allow them to return to America. Melanie Servetas and Claudia Amaral, a married, same-sex, binational couple living in exile in Amaral’s home country of Brazil, are one of the tens of thousands of couples who have found themselves caught in the backlog of cases waiting to be approved for an American green card.
Servetas and Amaral began their relationship in 2009 after meeting through an online dating service. Servetas held a high level position as a Senior Vice President with Wells Fargo in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Amaral was a successful IT business owner in Brazil. Within the next few months, the couple quickly found out about America’s unjust immigration laws and sought out options seeking a way they could be united. “After about six months, I decided to come here to Rio for a visit,” Servetas said. “After my trip here, I decided there was no way we could go on with our lives living apart.” Servetas gave up her American home and job and re-located to Brazil, intending to bring Amaral back to the U.S. with her should that ever become possible. In Rio de Janeiro, on June 26, 2013, the couple followed the news as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA, the federal law forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriages. As soon as the ruling was public, the couple rushed to marry. They rejoiced at the thought of returning together to the United States. “Unbelievable joy that we could finally come home, sadness that we were still in Brazil, disbelief that we still have such a long way to go for equality and proud to be even a small part of a fight like this for equality” explained Melanie Servetas regarding her initial emotions after the repeal of DOMA.
Due to DOMA restrictions, American citizens in same-sex binational relationships were previously denied the right to sponsor their foreign-born partners for the purpose of immigration. Once DOMA was repealed, immigration opportunities became available to all same-sex binational couples. However, even during this time of celebration, the process of applying for a green card as a same-sex couple caused Servetas and Amaral to feel nervous and unsure of the future.
Despite the DOMA ruling and the resulting change in U.S. immigration law, hardships remain for the couple. Shortly after marrying, the couple submitted Amaral’s green card application with the assistance of their attorney, Regina Jefferies. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) initial approval process can take up to seven months. Once approved, the application gets transferred to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC) for further review.
“We are still waiting for USCIS to notify the National Visa Center that their petition has been approved,” Jefferies said. “Once the petition gets transferred to the NVC, they request additional information. They do some pre-processing for the consulate. Once that information is there, it takes them another 30 business days to review. The NVC will complete their initial processing and forward the entire file out to the consulate in Rio.”
The procedure for applying for a green card for those couples who have been forced to live abroad in order to be together is an exhaustive and lengthy process. “We’ve been stuck, on hold in the process for almost 60 days now. USCIS has sent our approved petition to the NVC but the NVC has not officially confirmed they have received it for the next steps,” said Servetas.
After already enduring significant emotional and financial suffering, the waiting has made the situation almost unbearable. But Servetas and Amaral are committed to following through with the legal process so that they can return to America, despite the extreme burdens the system has placed on them. “The very long delays to process applications for people who have already suffered discrimination and hardships totally frustrate us,” said Servetas. “It seems wrong that our Consular processing is taking so much longer than that of people who were able to apply to the USCIS because they didn’t have to leave the US in order to stay together. I can’t believe we are still so many months away from even having our consular interview.”
Time is of the essence for the couple as critical family matters have arisen in America. The need for the couple to return to the United States in the near future has become even more pressing. “I am very worried because my family in the U.S. urgently needs our assistance to care for an ill family member and we haven’t been able to get a response on our request to expedite,” said Servetas.
Couples like Servetas and Amaral are running out of time and money as the United States continues infighting over immigration reform. The need for comprehensive immigration reform seems clearer than ever with so many couples finding themselves locked into a system bound by massive red tape and bureaucracy.
“The government has ‘safe traveler’ global entry programs -- certainly something similar could be applied in order to let us come into the U.S. We’d be able to begin to work at putting our lives back together while we wait out the approval process,” said Servetas. “Also, those cases being handled abroad through the consulates should be allowed to bypass the USCIS portion and apply directly to the consular post for approval. Handing these files back and forth, where they end up just sitting without review for months on end, seems punitive to a population like us who have already suffered discrimination. Just allow consular processing to be a direct procedure with the State Department.”
What couples like Servetas and Amaral have already endured in their attempts to be together should be considered astonishing. In America, we continue to fight for equality. But many injustices continue as the plight of those who have had to choose between love and country are forced to pay the penalty of previous discriminatory laws. By no means do Servetas and Amaral minimize the struggle that same-sex binational couples who reside in America face. They only want to let people know that for those who have been exiled by love, trying to come home is proving to be just as difficult as leaving was. Servetas and Amaral are still waiting to move forward with their application process and are committed to continue the fight against America’s broken immigration system.
By Gina Caprio